I've been out've the U.S. for awhile now. It's the longest I have ever been out of the United States since moving down to La Paz. Usually, I run back and forth a bit for business, but this year, the opportunity just never presented itself. We were, thankfully, very busy all season.
So, I just happened to make it back for Thanksgiving for a few days to visit family in Southern California. I found myself standing in line at the U.S. border crossing at Tijuana.
It was a long line. Really long. Out-the-building-long.
But only for Mexicans.
If you were in the line like me ostensibly holding a U.S. passport, we waited only a few minutes, although we were heavily searched. The numerous other lines were barely moving.
"Sorry 'bout the smelly fishing clothes and socks on the top...I didn't have time to do laundry before getting on the bus," I apologized to the stern crew-cut-square-jawed border officer rummaging through my duffle who gave me the stinkeye. I'm sure he didn't like going through my underwear anymore than I liked him digging around in there either.
"Senor, how come they get to go through and we have to wait so long?" I heard one older Mexican woman plead to a group of officers.
She wore a cotton dress and a heavy mis-matched jacket but bare-legged in the November chill. I bet it took her hours to get near the front of the line. She could have been anyone's mom or grandma.
"Why are we ignored? Does anyone care? I just want to buy some Christmas presents and go home," she implored meekly in English.
A group of officers nearby looking more like special forces, decked in black fatigues, high laced black combat boots and holstering enough firepower to put down a herd of charging elephants barely looked up from their computer screens. Others simply held their sentry positions and continued to scan the crowds.
I'm sure they heard her. I'm sure it wasn't the first time someone had spoken up.
It was late in the day. One officer looked towards her and others in her line and gave an apologetic and sympathetic shrug. I looked back at the other anxious folks in line too.
They were looking back at me. Envying that I was now on the other side of the line.
Long faces. Tired weary eyes. Working folks. Working clothes. Cheap jeans. Tennis shoes and scruffy faces or in-some-cases, dressed up in their best travelling clothes they had...Dollar-store-quality. But the best they had.
Lots of baseball hats. Some cowboy hats. Lined faces brown from the sun or cheap eye-make up or none at all. Small crying children. Some seemed to be carrying pretty much all their possessions in their backpacks or shoulder bags. They had waited for hours. Get out-of-line, lose your place. The "huddled masses." Catatonic shuffling from too many hours waiting...and waiting.
All hoping for a little movement. Forward. Hoping they'll get let "across".
What was the border officer going to say? Overworked. Understaffed. Under-appreciated. Like all government workers these days facing a problem that had no solution.
"Por favor?" I heard the senora say again. "Please?"
Our eyes caught as I snatched up my bag from the inspection table. I felt guilty. I wanted to say, "C'mon man, let her across. She's no more a terrorist or criminal than I am except for my smelly socks!"
I couldn't say that either.
What I wanted to say was I'm sorry it's like this now. I'm sorry that two countries and two people that share so much in common can't just be neighbors anymore. I'm sorry. We have to inspect you now, neighbor. We can't lend you that cup of sugar. You can't just come over and hang-out and watch TV with the kids or play in the yard.
Nope. And grandma can't go shopping. And families and friends can't just go visit other families and friends separated by an invisible line marked by barbed wire and steel fences guarded by broad-shouldered men-at-arms.
I'm sorry there's other people in the world with so much hate that we now must suspect everyone and trust no one. I'm sorry that the economics in one country are so bad that people will leave loved ones to work illegally in the other country. I'm sorry that my country feels it must be a citadel now and the barbarians are at the gates.
Wearing cowboy hats and scuffed-shoes and cotton dresses. Don't wanna take our jobs. Or bomb our buildings or traffic drugs. And just wanting to buy some Christmas presents and go home.
Lo siento mucho, Senora...I'm very sorry...for all of us. I wished the inspector a better day. For all of us. All he said was, "Next."
I lowered my eyes; shouldered my backpack and hurried out into the chilly dusk to catch my bus.