The Time I Bribed A U.S. Border Officer And Brought Someone Into The Country Legally

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. When I first saw the headline, I was thinking: “is Gary out of his mind for even sharing this story online given today’s political climate? Isn’t he jeopardizing his global entry?!!!”. After reading the entire post is when I realized while you can technically be considered “bribing”, the officer was extorting.

  2. I miss those days. I mean really the days when teenagers were allowed to be teenagers. I grew up in a state where the legal age was 21 but was surrounded by states that were 18. We vacationed in one of those states almost every summer and it sucked returning home – and I married at age 19 but couldn’t have a glass of wine, legally! When we are in Europe and see (mostly) responsible 17-20-year-olds having a beer in a beer garden, I just often think our kids can go to war, get married, have kids, get in debt but can’t legally drink a beer. But if we say this out loud – we are promoting being drunk. Nope, promoting responsibility.

  3. @Gavin this story took place 30 years ago when I was a minor, and of course my memory that far back could sure be faulty !

  4. @Gary @Gavin also, I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has lapsed by now 🙂

  5. Gary and Angela,

    I MISS those days too. I was with a bunch of frat guys and we drove from Toronto to Michigan and back. The immigration officer took one look at all of us, asked if we were US citizens and only the driver replied for all of us and she just waived us right through.

  6. Gary, I’m impressed that a 16 year old kid came up with that so quickly. You were wise beyond your years

  7. When I tell my kids that growing up our family used to go across the border to Nuevo Laredo an just for fun and didn’t worry much about anything except getting an intestinal bug (don’t eat the street food!), they look at me like like I am crazy.

    Truly, the past is another country.

  8. Besides the “cultural” aspects of going to “T-Town” (i.e. all the strip bars and what might follow), in high school a lot of times the purpose was to get one of those every so popular (and dirt cheap down there) “tuck and roll” upholstery jobs. In college it seemed it has escalated to getting pills to keep one awake for the dreaded finals exams was one of the main reasons… least that’s what I was told.

  9. I had a hard time 30+ years ago crossing back from Algodones, MX into Yuma, AZ when all you needed was a driver’s license for ID. First, I showed my driver’s license and the US Boarder guard gave me a hard time saying that just proves I’m allowed to drive, not that I’m a U.S. citizen. Then he found 5 50ml mezcal bottles with the worm in them and told me I had to pay $5 tax on each bottle which was likely more than I paid for all five total. I left the bottles and he let me pass.

    All in all a pretty easy border crossing compared to what many people are subjected to these days.

  10. My son, then-wife and I were driving back from Quebec into Vermont. We got to the US border. He asked where we had been. We told him. He waved the three of us through. I guess a youngish middle aged couple with their early-teen son, driving a car with Maryland plates, looked pretty benign. He didn’t even ask about the two cases of Labatt Bleue Superfort in the trunk, bought an hour ago at the Sherbrooke Costco. This was August 2001. Things would change soon after.

  11. Gary,
    I guess it was a “bribe”. You were not given a receipt for it!

  12. Great story! In the ’60s, when I was in high school, we regularly used to go to Windsor, Ontario from Detroit to the Windsor Raceway to drink & watch the ponies. I’m not sure we needed to show any kind of ID at the borders.

  13. Love the story. IMO this highlights the ridiculousness of some procedural requirements – in this case an honest permanent resident’s need to show ID whereas anyone claiming to be a citizen didn’t. I think it rings true for a lot of other border crossing / immigration scenarios where rules are super rigid for people who don’t look like they belong.

  14. Good thing you’re not a naturalized citizen or green card holder. Today’s ICE would look for any reason to bounce you.

    There was someone quoted in the NYT recently talking about how they might get a “paperwork marriage” to extend his visa. (They were intending to get married anyway.) There’s no way I’d ever tell that to a reporter for any outlet, much less the NYT.

  15. This story is BS. The kid got an I-193 waiver document and the cost was $90 in the 1990s. Stop telling crazy tales.

  16. We drove down to Kino Bahia on our honeymoon back in 1975. Hubby forget his drivers license only id necessary at that time. I produced MY Lucky grocery store (in Phoenix) card and they let us through.

  17. If the INS look-up fee at the time was formally $90 or reduced to $90 due to hardship and the money was deposited into the government till there, then the payment wasn’t a bribe and wasn’t extortion.

    At the northern US land border, INS would just often accept a current US driving license at the time even from US LPRs without charging the look-up fee.

  18. CBP officers can look up visa and green card information easily – but often they will just refuse and make your life difficult. You were just lucky that you happened upon people who were willing to help you.
    I don’t think there was a processing fee when I was in this situation once – but I had to wait for about 4 hours in a room until they found some free time to do the look-up of the info. I didn’t pay anything, but the officers sure went on a power trip about it. I can’t complain, it was my fault for forgetting the paper (it was a letter I was supposed to carry together with my exchange-student visa – I had the passport and the visa but not the letter)
    Bottom line: if you are a Green Card holder (especially nowadays) don’t go anywhere without at least a copy of it and never leave the country unless you have everything you need to get back in.
    It was a failure of your chaperones to let you go to Mexico in the first place and to not reinforce this point!

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