A Day at the Border

This blog could be entitled two days at the border, but one day was more traumatic than the other: hence the title.

My two trips to the Montana Dental Clinic in Juarez, Mexico started with a broken tooth.  When I broke a tooth in March and learned from by Albuquerque dentist that replacement of the tooth would cost just under $1,200, I immediately thought of the Montana Dental Clinic, where I had five crowns and a bridge inserted in 2008. The procedures cost from 25 to 30 percent of what I would have paid my Albuquerque dentist.

I had decided to drive across the bridge between El Paso and Juarez. I had some trouble finding the entrance to the bridge, in part because I dd not see a single sign in El Paso giving directions to the bridge and in part because the street lieading directly to the bridge is one-way north. So I took the street one block west: Santa Fe, and circled under the bridge, finding the first four or five streets marked with DO NOT ENTER signs. I finally was able to turn north, turned west at the first opportunity and blundered into the entrance. It cost $2.50 US to cross.

Upon crossing I encountered several large, curved concrete barriers but no signage to  indicate the exit to Juarez. Seeing a tunnel to the west, I turned in that jdirection, which prompted a man to wave wildly, alertly me to a sign above the tunnel, indicating the tunnel was for buses only. Fortunately, I then saw a car leaving the barricaded area, followed my savior and exited onto the very busy Juarez street, paralleling the Rio Grande River.

The clinic staff directed me to drive west and look for a narrow street leading me back over the bridge. Juarez has the same lack of bridge signage as does El Paso and I missed the street leading to the bridge entrance. I made a big circle to the east and re-entered the same street I had traveled before. Again I missed the entrance and repeated the circle. I then drove straight south, stopping when I saw two men working on the street. One man who apparently didn’t speak English motioned me to the other, who responded to my question  by saying: “Look! The bridge is right over there.” When I asked what street I should take, he said: “Turn around right here and go back.” Not wanting to go the wrong way on a one-way street, I turned west, north and east again, finding the bridge entrance from a westerly direction.

Although I had paid $2.50 US to enter Mexico, the bridge sign on the way back said a car crossing would be $24. Since pesos are shown with $ signs, I paid $20 US to cross back, reflecting the peso-dollar exchange rate.

On my second trip last month, I decided to walk across. After parking my car on Santa Fe, I paid a half dollar and made what I remember as a quick, solitary walk across the bridge.

After leaving the clinic for the second time, I walked west; however, although I could see the bridge, it seemed to be farther west and more into the city than I remembered from the first time. After walking for a while and finding myself on the wrong side of a steep cut for railroad tracks. I crossed the tracks on a high, overhead walkway. Seeing a large municipal building, I entered to ask directions. A woman walked me to the east side of the building and said: “See that orange building over there? If you walk to it, you will see a narrow street leading away. That will take you to the bridge.”

Arriving at the orange building, I saw a group of people, all walking in the same direction, some on the sidewalk and some in the street. I intuitively thought that these were bridge walkers and my intuition proved to be correct.

I entered the right side of a two-sided line at 1:04 p.m. When I saw the long lines before me and seeing no movement in either line for a few minutes, I became curious if many people endured this bridge transit on a frequent basis. I asked the sixtyish, grey-haired man in front of me if he frequently walks the bridge. He responded: “I only speak Spanish.” This non-English speaker then asked: “You, a citizen?” I replied: “I’m a citizen. A U.S. citizen.” He then proceeded to advise me that I might want to switch lines, because the line across from us moves faster. Opposite us was a guy, probably in his late thirties, wearing a bright green shirt with blue stripes and a white hat on his head. Overhearing our conversation, he suggested we switch lines, since he was a  Mexican citizen.

After switching lines, I followed the progress of the two. They were sometimes behind me and sometimes ahead. The lines moved in surges, interspaced by what were usually fairly long waits. At one point the three of us were opposite one another.

I should mention that there was a third line moving at a normal walking pace between the two lines, without pauses in their journey. I don’t know how they qualified for a quick passage across the bridge and nobody seemed upset or even concerned about the situation.

I was about 100 feet from the end of the bridge when a massive surge carried my watched pair into the immigration building. Then, in the next surge of my line, the movement was cut off at the woman in front of me, where we remained for quite awhile.

There were two observations that troubled me in varying degrees while standing at the U.S. end of the bridge. The first involved the arrival of a bus, shunted off into a side lane, with the door a relatively short  distance from where I was standing. As the travelers came off the bus, a clipboard-equipped border agent, wearing black gloves, interrogated those getting off the bus, while the others stayed on the bus, waiting their turn.

My attention was particularly caught by a group of four — a woman, maybe in her sixties, and three young boys, with the oldest maybe five or six. While the agent with the clipboard leaned over to interrogate the boys, the woman struggled to get a sheaf of papers from a very large envelope. Being successful, she handed the papers to another glove-wearing agent standing nearby.

I noticed that as people got off the bus, the agent would riffle through papers on his clipboard, leading me to think he had a manifest of the passengers. I guess what troubled me was the perception that everyone might be a drug carrier, a terrorist or an enabler of either. We never can be completely safe and the effort to do so carries a very high cost.

The second observation disturbed me more: a woman in front of the line opposite me was being interrogated about medications carried in a modest-sized purse. She had handed over a sheaf of maybe eight to ten pages and the female border agent was proceeding to read them page-by-page. While the agent was reading, the woman with the medications was pulling out pill bottles, apparently trying to make the point that the medications were the kind one could get in any U.S. drugstore.

The interrogation stopped only when another woman came up to the front and told the agent that someone had gotten sick well back in the line. The agent then left to deal with that problem.

I was on the bridge for 134 minutes and it was another ten minutes before I passed through the immigration building. Passage through immigration proved to be an adventure itself, providing further indications that this cross-border procedure probably alienates very many people. The woman who had been in front of me went through one door and I went through the door to her right. She plowed straight ahead to the lane in front of her and I did the same. I saw a sign saying: “Place the document on the reader.”  I wasn’t sure if this meant the circle on the table or the machine in front of it. Seeing my confusion, a nearby agent said: “Go to the wall.” When I hesitated, he said: “Your have a passport. You need to go to the wall.” It was then I realized that a sign well above my head over the lane against the wall to my left said it was for those with a passport.

Right after I got in line, I saw a woman ducking under lane tapes to get into position behind  me. Almost simultaneously, a broadly-built young man was telling an agent about three lanes over that: “I was over there,” pointing to a position well to the other side of the large room. When the agent asked him for his passport, he said he had none. When asked for his birth certificate, he immediately reached into his left-front pocket and produced a half-sheet. The agent said: “That is not what we need.” I don’t know what happened to the young man, as I had become involved with my own agent.

I had gone through the “Place your document on the reader” procedure but when I reached the agent, he told me: “Your document did not register”; however, he did not ask me to redo the reader procedure nor ask to help me if I had done something wrong. If the reader procedure was designed to detect a problem, he didn’t feel it was important enough to repeat it. Then, after a few questions about what I was doing in Mexico, I was released to the outer world.

I understand that the border agents are doing a job that may be distasteful to them at times but deemed to be important to their government; however, I think this lengthy procedure and the implication implanted in people that they might be engaged in seriously destructive behavior, is just another reason that we need to end our failed War on Drugs.



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