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Borderline Chaos

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Follow me.” That’s what the inspector from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) told me when I showed him my documents: a Spanish passport and a visa that allows me to work in the United States as a journalist. He jumped up from his chair —as if my visa had burned him—and began to walk briskly through a labyrinth of corridors. I had to hurry just to keep up. Without saying a word, he led me into a room, turned away, and then disappeared.

I had no idea where I was, but it occurred to me that I had seen rooms like this before—always as a reporter and always with the full cooperation of INS. It was in rooms like this that they detained people suspected of trying to enter the United States illegally. I stood perfectly still, observing everything around me. Suddenly an agent shouted at me from the next room and told me to sit down. “No, thank you,” I answered. “I’m fine.” But he insisted: “SIT DOWN!” That’s when I realized that this wouldn’t be like all those other visits, when they had offered me sodas and everyone was all smiles.

And so I sat there, with my computer, my camera, and my little suitcase at my side. I had gone to the border to report on the effect of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. I still had a full schedule of interviews pending in El Paso before I could catch the return flight to Austin, but it didn’t look like I would be going anywhere for a while. Right next to me was a glass-enclosed office, where I could see two agents looking at my passport and a computer. The older man seemed to be showing something to the younger agent. “She’s from Spain,” I heard him say as they walked out the door, “and her country is on the list of 40 countries with terrorists.”

Well, I am from Spain. What’s more, I’m Basque. I learned to say “Kaixo” (hi) in Euskera, or the Basque language, before I learned to say “hola” in Spanish. When I was a little girl, el Olentzero (a mythological Basque figure) brought me my Christmas presents, not the Three Kings, and not Santa Claus. But I had never been brought in for interrogation before, neither in Spain, where we have been dealing with ETA, the Basque terrorist group, for decades, nor across the border in France. Of course, over there, investigation is often so subtle that sometimes you’re not aware of it, even when it’s going on all around you.

I remained seated, waiting for my next order. Then I rose like a soldier when I heard: “Come here. We’re going to fingerprint you and take your picture.”

“Why?” I asked.

“We can’t tell you anything,” answered Agent G. López, the younger man, although he did offer one bit of information: They were questioning me because I was not Mexican.

They proceeded to take my fingerprints and photograph me. Afterwards I noticed that an enormous sign, written in an elegant, fastidiously correct Spanish, was posted on the wall above me: “WARNING: You have been registered in a system known as ‘ident.’ Your fingerprints and photograph have been recorded electronically. It is important that you are aware that the next time you may be subject to judicial proceedings by the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the United States.”

I had to ask Agent López what it all meant and he conceded that the message was a little harsh. “We’re on maximum alert,” he said. “I can’t answer any more questions.” Then my cell phone began to ring. Leticia Zamarripa, the INS spokeswoman in El Paso, wondered what had happened to me. I had scheduled an appointment to interview her that afternoon.

“You can’t answer phone calls!” the older INS inspector interrupted.

I tried to explain that I was a journalist and was supposed to be meeting his colleague at that very moment. They had never asked me anything before they took my prints and photos. But someone had opened a computer file, and as I peered over at the screen, I could see that my name appeared next to that of FBI Agent Jim Shook. And then they told me it was all over. That I could go.

“You’re not going to check my suitcase nor my backpack to see if there’s a bomb in there?” I asked.

“No,” replied Agent G. López. “The regulations say that we just check the person, not their belongings.”

In the best of times there is only one word to describe the border—surreal, a mix of colors, tastes, sensations, and sounds. But this was not the best of times. After the attacks on Washington and New York, surrealism reached new heights as the Border Patrol went on Level 1 Maximum Alert, and began searching every car and person that crossed the bridges from Ciudad Juárez into El Paso. Heightened inspection turned an average trip across the Rio Grande into a three-hour odyssey. There was one notable exception: Anyone willing to plunk down $400 for a one-year permit to drive in the Express Line, was assured of a waiting time of approximately two minutes. Officials from Mexico’s federal highway department indicated that the number of Express Line permits had increased considerably—from 5,400 to 7,500—since September 11. Nevertheless, officials from both sides of the border I talked to conceded that the price of the permit made it somewhat elitist, and were particularly worried about the 5,000 or so students who normally crossed into El Paso every weekday to attend college or high school. They told me that they were working on that and that they were also trying to improvise some sort of impromptu emergency mass transit system. Adding to the delays caused by increased security measures was the confusion caused by the introduction of a new laser visa for frequent border crossers. “Technology should make the process smoother,” Manuel Chacón told me, somewhat optimistically, when I ran into him waiting in line at the bridge. Chacón was a reporter with the ABC affiliate in El Paso. On his way back from covering a story in Juárez, he found himself stuck in a seemingly endless line of cars. As time went on and the cars ahead didn’t move, he began to realize that his story might never air. The technology to which he referred had been used to design what was supposed to be a counterfeit-proof visa that would make the inspection process more efficient. But too many people were still showing up with their old border crossing cards. Moreover, INS had never bothered to install the machines required to read the new high-tech laser visas. “Technology” had failed.

Meanwhile, the long lines of captive drivers (and pedestrians, who fared no better) attracted even more beggars and street vendors than usual; a group of money changers in orange suits had flocked to the bridge, happy to accommodate those who couldn’t wait to change pesos into dollars. A team of paramedics from the El Paso Fire Department set up shop and was busy bicycling back and forth from one end of the bridge to the other, armed with oxygen and bandages. They mostly treated fainting spells and exhaustion, but assured me that if the need were to arise, they were ready to deliver any baby who couldn’t wait to reach El Paso.

Unfortunately, the long delays had also taken a deadly toll. On October 21, Francisco and Laura Valenzuela were returning to their home in El Paso after a day in Juárez. The Valenzuelas are legal residents of the United States with family in Mexico. It was late—around 11 at night—and the children were tired. Daniel, 6, and Erika, 13, climbed in back of the pick-up to sleep in the camper, while their 7-year-old sister, who is disabled, sat up front with their parents. Normally it would take 15 minutes to cross the Zaragoza bridge; this time it took an hour and a half. By the time they stopped for inspection, Erika and Daniel were dead of carbon monoxide poisoning, the victims of a 1980 pick-up truck with a faulty exhaust pipe. To Antonio Meza Estrada, the Mexican Consul in El Paso, they were also two more victims of the terrorist attacks.

Compared to anthrax, which was dominating the headlines at the time, death from carbon monoxide received little national media attention. But the deaths of Erika and Daniel added to the clamor coming from businesses and local officials on both sides of the border. Something had to be done about the delays at the bridge.

From Washington, Silvestre Reyes, the Democratic congressman from El Paso and former chief of the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, called for increased manpower all along the U.S.-Mexico border. (He also called on President Bush to extend the deadline to apply for the new laser visas. After the terrorist attacks, Congress nixed an earlier initiative to extend the deadline.) On December 2, Governor Rick Perry doubled the number of National Guard troops sent to assist the Border Patrol and U.S. Customs. Meza thought Mexico should have been consulted first. Longtime border rights advocates were worried. “The use of the National Guard, the Army… significantly alters the democratic values of this country,” insists María Jiménez, a veteran immigrants’ rights activist with the American Friends Service Committee in Houston.

And it was not so long ago that efforts to combat drug trafficking along the border by sending in the Marines had ended in tragedy. In 1997, Ezequiel Hernández, an 18-year-old high school student in Redford, along the West Texas border with Mexico, was shot to death by a U.S. Marine. Hernandez had been herding goats at the time. The Marine was a member of a military drug-control task force operating under the authority of the U.S. Border Patrol. The Marine patrols had ended after Hernández’s shooting. Now the National Guard would be working alongside the Border Patrol at major points of entry. All talk of “legalization,” “amnesty,” or even a new “guest-worker” program—the subject of much of Fox’s U.S. policy initiatives during his first year in office and the buzzwords during his state visit to Washington in early September—had faded. They were replaced by talk of “intelligence sharing” and a “security perimeter” for North America. Mexico seemed to have slipped far from the radar screen in Washington, reappearing ever so briefly in reports about talks between the new U.S. Homeland Security chief, Tom Ridge, and Mexico’s National Security Adviser, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser.

“They have no idea how to fix what happened, and they’re trying to control people who have nothing to do with it,” complained José Magaña, the owner of Al Río, a downtown El Paso store that caters to Mexican shoppers. With an 80-percent decline in sales, Magaña has had to lay off several employees. Nevertheless, on the day that I visited, he was trying to be upbeat. “We have to do what the President says and get back to normal,” he told me. He and other store owners were aggressively courting customers with ads in Juárez newspapers. Meanwhile, the business chambers in Juárez, stung by the decline in tourism from the United States and a deepening slump in the maquiladora industry, initiated a “Do it for Juárez” campaign, encouraging their fellow juarenses to spend their pesos at home.

But for women like Socorro Armendáriz, who has spent 16 of her 31 years working in the maquiladoras of Ciudad Juárez, the idea of spending pesos on shopping expeditions on either side of the border is a moot issue. Until recently Armendáriz worked in a plant that produced fiber optics for the telecommunications industry, making $75 dollars a week, barely enough to pay for a makeshift home in Colonia Anapra on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez, where the air is full of dust and fetid smells, and the desert landscape consists of wooden outhouses, water tanks, and every 10 blocks or so, a Coca-Cola stand.

“The maquilas aren’t hiring,” she told me. “It’s discouraging.” It was also dangerous, as Armendáriz was determined to continue leaving the desolate Colonia Anapra at four in the morning to take a bus to the industrial parks and look for work.

Even before the terrorist attacks, Juárez’s maquiladora industry had already been hit hard by the slowdown in the U.S. economy. Since January, an estimated 100,000 maquiladora workers in the state of Chihuahua—65,000 in Juárez alone—have lost their jobs. And as the border economy goes in Mexico, so goes the nation: 2001 will go down in the books as a year of zero growth, a sharp contrast to the 4.5-percent growth in GDP that was optimistically projected by President Vicente Fox’s economic team when he took office a year ago. The signs that once inundated industrial parks, seeking young women factory workers, many of them recent immigrants from southern Mexico, have turned into signs that announce “NOT HIRING.” According to Juan Carlos Olivares, president of the city’s maquiladora business chamber, the only hiring in town was taking place at plants in the defense industry, which currently represented a mere 5 percent of the region’s 400 maquiladoras. Meanwhile, many workers are finding it all but impossible to obtain the severance pay to which they are entitled by Mexican law. While Washington was busy pushing through fast-track authority, to allow the President to move ahead with plans for Free Trade for the Americas from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, Armendáriz and other former maquila workers found themselves on the slow track. Guadalupe Montañés, a single mother from the Colonia Anapra is also struggling to make ends meet, now that she lost her job in a maquiladora. “It’s very sad what happened in New York and in Washington,” she told me, “but that’s no reason not to pay us.”

Just as I was getting ready to say goodbye to Agent G. Lopez and his partner, my cell phone rang again. This time it was the Mexican Consulate in El Paso. I was supposed to meet someone from the Consulate to talk about the problems of juveniles detained at the border.

“You can’t answer it,” the older agent insisted. “You could be communicating with terrorists. Those are the rules.”

I thought we had cleared that up—that I was not a terrorist. Hadn’t they just told me that I could go? My head was filled with questions, and I couldn’t help wondering: What were the real terrorists up to, while everyone was busy with me? I wanted Agent G. Lopez and his partner to explain that to me, just as I was hoping that they could explain that opaque warning written in ultra-correct Spanish and resolve my growing preoccupation with all those photos and fingerprints being zapped across the Internet along with my new file. Instead, they told me I could go.

I caught up with Leticia Zamarripa, the INS spokeswoman in El Paso, who was waiting nearby. She seemed equally perplexed. She told me that she had never heard about that strange warning posted in the room where I had been fingerprinted and photographed, nor could she explain what it meant. Back home in Austin I started making phone calls. The INS spokesman in Washington, D.C., passed me on to Tomás Pérez Zúñiga, the regional spokesman, who assured me that, “Our agents are very well trained and have a lot of experience. They can quickly tell if there’s something not right about a document or if there’s something suspicious about someone.”

I called Art Moreno, the INS spokesman in Harlingen whom I had interviewed many times, who said that my prints, my photos, and the information in that computer file linking me to someone named Jim Shook, would go to “different agencies, the FBI, the Department of Justice and the CIA. All that information stays with the government and also local agencies.”

When
I asked him why they had fingerprinted and photographed me before asking even the most rudimen
ary of questions, he answered: “We’re fighting terrorism in this country and that’s why we’re taking these measures. When we finish the process, we’re more humane. In the beginning, we’re more like cops.”

Then I asked him about that notice. What exactly did that mean?

“Well, they let you go,” he answered, not answering my question. “I’m really glad you called,” he told me, because he was more worried about “Judith the person, than Judith the reporter.” Be calm, he said; don’t worry. As to that ominous warning sign, I was later told that since most immigrants apprehended at the U.S-Mexico border were Spanish-speaking, no English version had been posted. But INS was thinking of doing an Arabic translation.

Judith Torrea Oiz is a Texas-based correspondent for Univision.com She has also written for El Mundo in Madrid and Le Monde Diplomatique.