The Border

We saw the long reach of the border fence for the first time on our trip back from vacation. Not that we hadn’t noticed the wall between the U.S. and Mexico on our frequent trips back and forth between Tijuana and San Diego. But we hadn’Border Fencet yet seen the extent of the fence, a nondescript rusty brown strip of metal that ran along our right side as we drove west from Puerto Peñasco to TJ. And in fact, our life now revolves around that fence and what it symbolizes. The Tijuana/San Ysidro crossing between the U.S. and Mexico is the busiest in the world, and the biggest job of the Tijuana consulate of the U.S. embassy in Mexico, where Mark works, is to issue — or deny — tourist and other temporary visas for work or other purposes. Tourist visas allow Mexicans to make visits to the U.S. for shopping, travel, visits, but not permanent residency. (Immigration visas are issued at the consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.) Like the other new Foreign Service Officers here, Mark stands behind a window in a long row of windows starting at 7:30 a.m. every weekday, interviewing people and making immediate decisions about whether they get a visa or not. In a way, it’s a fascinating job. Mark gets to meet Mexicans from all walks of life every day and learn details of their lives and culture. But these visa decisions are also a front-line mechanism of U.S. immigration policy. Such visas are required for all foreigners who want to visit the U.S. In many other countries, from which there is less fear of illegal immigration, they aren’t as hard to get. So if citizens of a foreign country want to visit the U.S., they must provide enough details about their lives to overcome the legal presumption that their real intention is to immigrate. But that presumption can be harder to overcome in Mexico — because of its proximity and the long history of illegal immigration. As you can imagine, the federal government has a zillion rules about tourist visas, but there’s also a good bit of discretion. Within a few minutes, the diplomatic officers must synthesize all the information at their disposal, from database checks to the sense they get of whether an applicant is lying or not, and make a ruling. Officers can issue 100 or more visas in a day. Each time, they must balance the effect of their decision on a micro level – it may mean the difference between an applicant getting to see her dying brother in the U.S. for the last time or not – with American interests. And those are complicated too. The U.S. wants Mexicans to cross the border and spend money; it just doesn’t want those who come ostensibly as tourists or on short-term business to live there permanently. Of course Mark’s job is to support and implement U.S. foreign policy, and he does. He also has a window – literally – onto what it looks like from the other side. As do all resident of Tijuana, which absorbs 100 to 150 deportees from the U.S. every week, according to the New York Times. Deportees who are the most destitute, drug-addicted, or desperate may wind up camping in “El Bordo,” a drainage canal that runs along the border as well as beside the Via Rapida, the thruway we use for the commute between our home and the consulate. Occasionally a resident of the canal will dart out in front of cars on the Rapida to get to one side or the other, scaring the drivers to death. So this is what the border looks like – a long metal fence, an intensive legal process, a dirty drainage canal. None of it is pretty. At least that’s what I’m learning.

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