Border Story

I couldve smuggled in an illegal immigrant but didnt: A tale of regret

Children like me.

Children like Ezequiel.

* * *

I called Ezequiel with a plan. I would load up my Camry with a group of college friends, drive to Tijuana, pick up Ezequiel and cross the border by blending into the waves of hung-over college students returning from the Baja California Labor Day weekend bacchanals. I reasoned this crush of Americans would eventually wear on the border keepers, who would probably just wave through a carload of drunken gabachosand one Mexican who looked like he could play bass for the Mars Volta.

Because illegal immigration is so ingrained in my day-to-day life, I always assumed the execution was a cinch. Now that I was old enough, I could participate. Ezequiel had a legitimate student ID and was about as pocho–Americanized—as I. It would be simple.

* * *

It's really not that difficult to illegally cross the United States-Mexico border, provided you know your shit. You don't bother with the treacherous desert or unscrupulous smugglers. Fake documents are a plus but not necessary. All you need is patience and the nerves of a suicide bomber.

The easiest route leads through the 24 inspection gates that separate Tijuana from San Ysidro. It's the most frighteningly mundane experience a criminal can encounter. You stew in traffic for at least an hour, usually two or three. Many passengers leave their cars and amble around the lanes, talking to the carnival of 2,500 or so cripples, preachers, children and vendors who hawk doodads of every price and make—ceramic Mickeys, religious icons, snacks, tabloids with victims of the border's ruthless narco-wars on the cover.

But about 100 feet from the gates, the market stops. Time to face la linea—the line.

Sixty feet from each inspection gate, you enter a kind of narrow corral created by waist-high metal poles spaced two feet apart. I'm not sure of the purpose—you can probably kick the posts down with a little effort—but their effect is chilling: it's as if you're part of a herd trotting down the stockyard chutes toward the killing floor. Cars enter the corral, stop and wait for a green signal to let them advance to la linea.

Driving those last 60 feet is like trying to tell a lie. You can't go too fast or slow or be too deliberate or sudden or breezy lest you catch the immigration officer's attention. The more inconspicuous you are, the better—but be too inconspicuous, and they'll nail you.

I've crossed the United States-Mexico border hundreds of times. But every time, it's those last 60 feet that make me nervous and sweaty. And until Ezequiel, I never attempted anything illegal—never mind major felonies, I've never smuggled so much as a firecracker. And I still got stopped occasionally, and it was always humiliating. It provokes a feeling that exists under the surface of all Mexican-Americans: the idea that, at any moment, my fellow Americans will declare me a Mexican. A wetback. A wab.

So I put on hip-hop, punk—anything but Spanish music. I roll the windows down, wake everyone up, arrange all our identification—passports for my parents, driver's licenses for me and my siblings or friends—in a small stack and hand them to the officer.

The first two questions are always the same: "Where are you going?" and "Bringing anything back?" Answer too fast or slowly, and you'll usually have to open your trunk. Try to be too friendly with a hello, and you'll usually have to open your trunk. Answer too generally—say, "Orange County" or "Los Angeles"—open your trunk. One time I was so nervous I sputtered, "Nevada," then quickly corrected myself and said, "Anaheim." I got to visit the secondary inspection station for that gaffe.

But if you haven't done anything to draw attention, if you haven't stirred the gatekeepers from their boredom, they'll lazily wave you through. When you finally navigate the maze of concrete barriers that snake to the 5 freeway, you breathe a sigh of relief. Another deportation scare averted—until you reach San Clemente.

Like I said, I've crossed the border hundreds of times. It's never been a breeze, but I'm used to the stress. And Ezequiel had a legitimate student ID and was assimilated, I reminded myself.

It would be simple.

* * *

But I began to panic as Smuggling Day approached. Ezequiel no longer had his student ID—ICE officials confiscated it when they caught him. His backup plan—use his community college student ID from a couple of years ago—failed because Harvey couldn't find it in their trailer.

The situation was getting desperate. Ezequiel, Gabriel and Lorenzo tried sneaking across the desert near Tecate shortly after their deportation, only to get caught by American immigration officers. Now they were looking to hire a coyote, Mexican slang for an immigrant smuggler. Asking price: $6,000. Each.

Ezequiel's family agreed that I—a stranger—was his best hope. They wanted to cross together, but everyone figured Ezequiel had the most to lose if he stayed in Mexico. A cousin who looked like Ezequiel drove to Tijuana to let Ezequiel borrow his authentic driver's license. Ezequiel swore they looked the same.

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