I don’t think I’ve ever told this story online before, but it was one that wound up on the cutting room floor as I came up with ideas of what to offer at an online work social event where everyone had to share mischief they’d gotten into. I told a better story than this, also a travel story, that I’ll write up for the blog later too.
However when I was a junior in high school the state finals of debate were at San Diego State University. My team went down to San Diego the night before, and a group of us – mostly 16 years old at the time – decided we might as well go to Tijuana.
Back then you didn’t have to carry a passport to enter Mexico, or return to the U.S. For a land border crossing a drivers license was sufficient.
That afternoon a friend and I sat outside and had a beer. It wasn’t a problem that we were underage (the legal drinking age was 18), but we were warned we were breaking the law by drinking outdoors.
We walked around a bit and I spent $5 on a ‘Rolek’ watch. It was a pretty good replica, with hands that ‘swept’ rather than ticking. I thought it was a pretty good value.
That trip was the first time I ever witnessed the bribing of a border official.. and I’m the one that did it. A good friend on the team was a permanent resident, not a citizen. When it came time to head back into the U.S. and back to our hotel, all they were asking at the border was “are you a citizen?” One member of our group was born in Mexico, looked the part of someone who might be entering the U.S. illegally, but actually was a U.S. citizen. He simply answered yes, and he was let on right through.
My friend from India though answered honestly, “No, I’m not a citizen but I have a green card.” They wanted to see it.
We hadn’t planned to leave the country, so he didn’t bring his green card with him. He had his drivers license, but the green card was at home – a 7 hour drive away. The border officer said he’d need to call his parents to bring it down, so that he could be let back into the country.
This wasn’t something we had bargained for. We didn’t exactly tell anyone we were leaving the country – not the school, not our teachers, not our families. He didn’t want to call home from Mexico, and double down with the trouble by making his parents take a 7 hour drive to bail him out.
I chimed in, “since he has a green card there must be a record of it, maybe we could pay a processing fee to look it up?”
Lucky for us, and especially lucky for my buddy, on that day and at that land crossing, there was an option to look him up in the system. Rather than quoting a price we were asked, “how much do you have on you?”
Of course we were only high school kids, we’d spent our money on beer and fake designer goods. Between us all we had was $90. Lo and behold, that was the exact amount of the processing fee! All of us were welcomed back into the country. $90 was worth a lot more thirty years ago.
That wasn’t my last run-in with U.S. immigration authorities at the Tijuana land crossing, however, because two years later I’d be in school in Southern California where the legal drinking age was 21 but it was just 18 a short drive away… and the story of how I couldn’t answer “are you a citizen” is a topic I might share another day.