A long night with border guards in San Ysidro

Where were you born? Where you going? Where you coming from?

"I work double shifts, I go home and sleep and come back to the job. On my days off I go to the gym and shop for food and that’s about it."
  • "I work double shifts, I go home and sleep and come back to the job. On my days off I go to the gym and shop for food and that’s about it."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

IN SECONDARY INSPECTION: Sonja — her real name — is breathing hard, straining, pulling, ready as she’ll ever be to get to the business at hand. George, her partner (not his real name), struggles a bit to keep her from running wildly across the parking lot.

In a typical month, the inspectors here will see over a million vehicles and more than half a million pedestrians.

In a typical month, the inspectors here will see over a million vehicles and more than half a million pedestrians.

Please! Please! Let me at it! Let me at it!

You can almost hear her voice in her surging, lunging movements, the whining, begging, straining noises on her red lips.

I want it! I want to play! I want to play so bad!

Okay, okay, okay, girl, George says, racing with her toward the automobile, a huge red Chevy Silverado that’s just pulled into the lot.

Two men in blue wait at the driver’s side as a short, lean dark-haired fellow in a windbreaker climbs down from behind the wheel. They immediately place him in handcuffs, take him by the arm, and lead him into the nearby doorway. A female inspector in blue helps from the car a Mexican woman holding as she might a bundle of kindling a stiff-limbed child, obviously mentally handicapped, about four years old, and behind them scramble two more children, tugging little suitcases after them. The handicapped girl shrieks, afraid, confused.

"There’s always one car that I didn’t get to."

"There’s always one car that I didn’t get to."

Go get it, girl, George urges Sonja on, and the obedient dog, a trim, brindled hunter with a Belgian pedigree, sniffs and snorts her way around the vehicle, nearly tearing the leash out of her master’s hand as she surges toward the right side of the rear bumper.

Oh, whoa! her master shouts. Get it girl get it girl get it get it get it!

That’s it, he says to the others in blue gathering around him, half a dozen Customs inspectors, all of them just as enthusiastic as the drug-sniffing dog.

The dog burrows its nose into a stash of neatly pressed bricks of marijuana.

The dog burrows its nose into a stash of neatly pressed bricks of marijuana.

It’s Saturday night at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, one of the busiest border crossings in the world! (In a typical month, the inspectors here will see over a million vehicles and more than half a million pedestrians, with the total number of people inspected coming to over three million.)

Searching for drugs in tire

Searching for drugs in tire

Eight o’clock, in the Secondary Inspection area, behind the main administration building. A melange of men and women in blue uniforms, some Customs, some Immigration and Naturalization inspectors, the majority of them former Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines, sheriff s deputies, and patrolmen. At the south end of the lot, the ground floor of the port of entry’s main offices, with holding cells, administrative offices, a lunchroom, and in the front the glassed-in command post known as “the fish bowl,” where computers and television cameras and radios allow the inspectors working there to watch just about every vehicle and individual moving from Mexico toward the American side of the border line. Near the back of the Secondary Inspection area, a small glassed-in office where resident aliens who need to travel beyond the 25-mile limit allowed in their regular permits must go to get new papers. A small line of petitioners standing at the booth. At the rear of the lot, an area where dozens of seized motor vehicles are parked, waiting to be towed to a government impoundment lot.

When someone detects a load of drugs, the inspectors gather around like kids at a fire.

When someone detects a load of drugs, the inspectors gather around like kids at a fire.

This pilgrim has arrived just as Sonja has begun her search for drugs. The pilgrim watches, while talking with G.S., a senior inspector. Medium height, graying mustache and graying fringe of hair, pistol at his hip, G.S. speaks in a warm, reassuring manner about the operation unfolding in front of us.

The dogs are usually right, he says. The car is loaded.


Probably marijuana. But let’s see.

If the dogs could hear him and understand, they would sniff twice as hard for contraband.

If the dogs could hear him and understand, they would sniff twice as hard for contraband.

G.S. and the pilgrim stroll over to the vehicle where, over the shoulders of the curious inspectors, they watch one man in blue work with a tire iron to separate the bumper from the body of the vehicle.

Whoa! the dog handler shouts. Good girl, good girl! He praises excitable Sonja as she dances around the bumper.

With a wrenching screech of steel, the bumper comes loose and man and dog dig about in the space it has left.

Yes! the handler cries. Yes! yes! Good girl! good girl!

Seized drugs

Seized drugs

The dog burrows its nose into a stash of neatly pressed bricks of marijuana wrapped in plastic and taped tightly closed.

They put the stuff in trash compactors, G.S. explains to the pilgrim.

A Customs agent in plainclothes arrives to take a picture of the car.

Can you believe that the guy put his family in the car like that? G.S. is disgusted. I can’t believe people do that to each other. With a handicapped child in the car, no less.

The pilgrim mulls this over, the possibility that drug smugglers have no shame.

Maybe they put pressure on him, the pilgrim says.

Driving a vehicle like that, he’s probably already up to his ears in corruption. G.S. looks around at the sound of the child. But it’s only Sonja, returning to her temporary quarters in a Customs vehicle on a distant section of the lot.

Lead or gold, another inspector says. That’s the choice they give them sometimes. A bullet in the head, or they go to work for them.

It’s lousy, the inspector says. (When someone detects a load of drugs, the inspectors gather around like kids at a fire.)

It can be funny too, another man says. One time I spotted this guy, a well-known drug smuggler, but someone we never could catch, driving through Primary, and I said. Gotcha!

He leaned out of his car and laughed.

No, hombre, he said, it’s my day off. I’m clean!

So I said to him, Well, you have to make it through every time, and I just have to catch you once. So I had the laugh on him.

A lot of funny things happen. We had this married couple in Secondary, and I asked the guy to open the glove compartment. He wouldn’t do it. So I had him and his wife step out of the vehicle and I opened the glove compartment myself. The law mandates this kind of inspection without a warrant. We can do these things that no other law enforcement people can do without a warrant. So I open it. And there’s a pair of women’s underpants. The wife saw them too, and from the way she looked you knew right away that they weren’t her underpants. Sorry about that. And I heard a story, but didn’t see it myself, about an inspector who opened the glove compartment and saw a face staring out at him — the kid was in a secret compartment built at the back of the engine.

A female inspector—S.G., in her early 30s, Mexican-American, severely carved face that shows her Indian blood — pushes a supermarket cart up to the car and the inspectors unload a dozen or so of the bricks into the cart. The inspector then pushes the cart up across the narrow traffic lanes that separate the main Customs lot from one across the way, and into the small building with an evidence room and holding cells.

They count the bricks and, under G.S.’s supervision, the woman takes a knife and cuts into one of them. She’s putting real muscle into it — the stuff Ls packed tight and hard.

Looks like someone cutting into Gouda cheese, the pilgrim says.

It’s marijuana Gouda, G.S. says.

The pilgrim allows himself the favor of a sniff test.

Not very strong odor, but enough to convince his old pothead’s nostril hairs.

A lot of sage, G.S. says, without moving his nose any closer to the brick than it was before.

Of course, the pilgrim says. Diluted quite a bit.

The woman weighs each brick, and then cuts in for a sample for laboratory testing. Another young inspector, a man about 25 or so, then packs the bricks into a cardboard evidence box and marks the box and seals it. The box goes into the evidence room for storage.

The policy here is zero tolerance, G.S. explains. If we find a small amount on you and it’s clearly for personal use, we cite you for a misdemeanor. Five thousand dollar fine, but it usually gets knocked down to five hundred for a first offense. But if you’re clearly smuggling, like this load, then you’re in more trouble. Of course, when you go before the judge around here, the kind of sentence you get isn’t really terribly discouraging.

The pilgrim ponders the policy of zero tolerance, thinks of the friends he has who smoke marijuana in a regular way, wonders what they would say if they witnessed this scene. Well, he knows. Make it legal, they would say.

The pilgrim asks the young inspector his name.

Don’t use my name, he says. I want to live.

Are you worried about —?

The smugglers have spies everywhere, the young inspector tells the pilgrim. Don’t use my name.

I won’t use anyone’s name in the story, the pilgrim says. That will make things equal.

What is your story? the inspector says.

A story about the port of entry, the pilgrim says. A day in the life of. Or a night.

It’s interesting here all the time, the inspector says. Day or night. Of course, Saturday nights are the wildest, usually. But anything can happen here any time of day, any day of the week. The pilgrim nods, takes this in. The inspector goes on: I love this work. I can’t wait to wake up and put on my uniform and come to work.

You have time to go home and sleep? the woman says.

I’m on overtime, the inspector says to the pilgrim. Like almost everybody. Two eight-hour shifts back-to-back. So you go home for a couple of hours and then you try to sleep and then you get up and get dressed and come back here.

Do you dream about the job?

I do, the man says.

I do, the woman says. There’s always one car that I didn’t get to. I worry about that one car, the one with all the drugs, and I let it go through.

I dream about opening suitcases another inspector says to the pilgrim as he walks out onto the Customs lot again.

Not me, G.S. says. I sleep soundly.

One suitcase after another, the other man says.

G.S. laughs. We walk up to the watch booth at the end of the lot. Gathered here are a half dozen inspectors men, women, young, old, some with gray hair, paunches others slender young men a year or two out of the Army or the Marines, several women, white and black and Latina, one a K-9 officer telling dog stories, another young woman, a recent hire from Florida with a blond ponytail, pretty narrow face talking about a load of marijuana she caught earlier in the evening. Every now and then someone checks the rotation list for the next hour.

There are three main rotations for each inspector, time on the lot helping with inspections of vehicles, time at the pedestrian border crossing in the next building over, and time at the inspection booth on the line.

I’m on my second shift today, a tall latino fellow in blue says to the pilgrim. It’s eight fifteen and I feel like I’m never going home again.

What’s to go home for? another inspector says. My wife left for Texas and I’m staying in an empty house.

That’s the job, the tall fellow says to the pilgrim. It doesn’t do good things to marriages.

Are you married? the pilgrim asks.

The inspector shakes his head.

The pilgrim edges over toward one of the women and asks, as delicately as he knows how, about whether or not she dates men on the job.

She shakes her head. My uncle works in Customs back home, she says. He warned me about stuff like that.

Another young woman — brown-skinned, hair pulled hack—standing nearby concurs.

But I don’t even have time, even if I wanted to. I work double shifts, I go home and sleep and come back to the job. On my days off I go to the gym and shop for food and that’s about it.

8:20 p.m. From somewhere in the back of the parking lot a young Mexican woman is led in handcuff; toward the main building.

An inspector wanders over.

Jerry Garcia? he says, staring at the pilgrim’s curly hair and salt-and-pepper beard. There’s talk about look-alikes. The pilgrim says he had a tour of the INS offices earlier in the week from a supervisor who was a dead ringer for Dan Aykroyd. The inspector says there’s a guy works here, don’t know what shift he’s on this week, looks just like the actor...Robert...? what’s his name?


Duvall! the inspector emphatically remembers the name.

The pilgrim nods. You live long enough, you see enough people, things begin to resemble one another, even as their differences become more pronounced. He ponders this philosophical consideration for a moment longer in the relative calm that has settled over the inspection area. In the distance, there is always the steady roar of tires, the winding up and winding down of engines, an occasional horn. But this seems to be the normal level of tranquillity here. He ponders this too, and then hears shouts coming from the direction of the inspection booths out in front of the main building.

Six inspectors in blue come running in alongside a Honda with a brown-faced man behind the wheel. They direct him into a parking space and then remove him from the car, taking his keys and tossing them onto the roof of the vehicle. Someone calls for a K-9, but before the dog and trainer arrive the inspectors pop the trunk and, as if in a magic act, a stocky fellow in a plaid shirt leaps up out of his hiding place and blinks against the light.

An agent in plainclothes, his gold Customs badge dangling on a loop over his stomach, comes over with a camera and asks the man to pose. The man smiles an embarrassed smile. Click — he’s on file. His smile quickly fades as the agent leads him into the building to be placed in a holding cell.

8:30. A lull in the action. The pilgrim can hardly believe that he has been out here only half an hour. Lives have flashed by. People, free when they drove up to the Primary Inspection booths, now sec prison in the near future. Children will lose their fathers, wives their husbands.

Some inspectors are talking about lunch, whether to go to McDonald’s or Burger King.

An inspector rolls past, pushing a shopping cart full of boxes of smuggled shoes.

8:35. A car pulls in to Secondary, the driver immediately asked to step out and place his hands on the vehicle. A stolen vehicle. Driver led away in handcuffs. He’s no sooner gone than another vehicle pulls up with a British fellow at the wheel and an American in the passenger seat.

Inspectors swarm over the car.

Can the driver please open the trunk?

The trunk pops open. And out pop a man and a boy, blinking against the light, illegal aliens who are immediately led away.

A lean, gray-haired inspector watches this and says to the pilgrim, They’ll claim they didn’t know it was a crime. But it is, whether they knew it or not. They thought they were being cool, smuggling people across.

8:40. Female inspector, from K-9, talks to pilgrim about her 18 years of service, loves her job, no complaints, except that she can’t take her dog home with her. (INS dog handlers can take their animals home.)

Would-be people smugglers led away.

8:50. Inspectors walk in a short brown-skinned man in handcuffs from the Primary Inspection area. The man tried to pass through the inspection booth by walking on the far side of a recreational vehicle. Inspector spotted him at once. He has no papers.

8:54 p.m. A family walks quietly along behind a burly gray-haired INS inspector from the INS booth in the rear of the Secondary Inspection area.

The inspector raises his voice, saying. You didn’t bring your documents along? I asked you to get them out of the car! You are a rocket scientist, aren’t you? At least you can make up a good story before you get caught!

The man holds up his hands in resignation as the inspector leads him and his family into the building for further investigation.

900 p.m. East County Fire Department ambulance arrives in Secondary, awaiting the arrival of a Tijuana ambulance so the crew can transfer an injured U.S. citizen to a local hospital.

902 p.m. Car pulls in to Secondary, inspectors ask the driver to step out, one inspector removes several sacks of potatoes from rear of vehicle while another calls for K-9.

Dog arrives, aggressively sniffs around the wheel bases, fenders, lights, grill, and then leaps inside the car, sniffs, sniffs.

Nothing here.

905 p.m. Driver and car released.

907 p.m. Tijuana ambulance arrives with woman on stretcher, ribs bruised in auto accident over the border. Child with her has bruised face. Drivers transfer patient to East County ambulance.

9:10 p.m. A lull. G.S. and pilgrim talk about prevalence of drugs in the U.S., the breakdown of the family, discipline, ethics, morality at home—and in the courts. Typical law enforcement lament. He arrests them and watches the courts set them free.

9:20 p.m. Ambulances depart.

9:29 p.m. Another lull. G.S. continues conversation with pilgrim about decline in American life, particularly in education. Tells of an applicant who on his application spelled “family” two different ways, both incorrect.

Customs averages about one drug seizure an hour. Here comes a car. The dog picked it out of the line of traffic stacked up at the Primary Inspection booths. Driver out. Inspectors pore over it, with Sonja in the lead. Someone pops the hood. Bricks of marijuana carelessly stuffed along the engine block. K-9 officer lets out whoops of joy, encouraging the dog.

Good girl, good girl, good girl, whacks her with a rolled-up towel, yields the towel to the dog, and leads her away to the back of the inspection area.

Good girl, good girl! His voice fades away into the noise of the traffic.

(Interlude with Document:

Position Description: Immigration Inspector

I. Introduction.

As an immigration inspector, the incumbent performs one or more of the following duties in support of certain federal laws. In addition, arrests and detains criminal aliens for other law enforcement agencies pursuant to warrants of arrest.

II. Major Duties and Responsibilities.

Conducts inspection of all classes of applicants for admission to the United States. Performs initial inspection with the aim of quickly determining, by questioning and observing the individual and by reviewing his or her identifying papers, whether an applicant may be admitted without further formality or whether there are questions or indications of problems that require more detailed examination and require referral to other inspectors who perform a more detailed inspection. As necessary, based on referral from a Primary inspector, makes a secondary 1 more detailed | inspection of applicants who require more intensive questioning concerning citizenship, admissibility, purpose of travel, entry documents, and other information. Carries the inspection process in questionable cases to conclusion. Requests and collects maintenance of status and departure bonds. Refers applicants for exclusion hearings. Initiates procedures to fine commercial carriers for transporting documentarily deficient aliens into the United States. Initiates administrative and criminal proceedings under appropriate sections of U.S. law, including section 274 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Adjudicates a wide variety of applications for various immigration privileges and benefits that are processed at the ports-of-entry. Works on applications involving novel and complex application of law and regulation; completes the more complex cases assigned before review by supervisory officers, senior inspectors, or immigration inspectors [special operations]. Interviews individuals as necessary for confirming information found in applications.

Interprets and/or furnishes guidance and advice regarding I&N laws, regulations, and other service policy to inspector trainees, seasonal and/or part-time inspectors, and officers of other federal inspection agencies who perform immigration inspection functions.

Gathers, makes use of, and disseminates intelligence information to other law enforcement officers or refers the information to the immigration inspector [intelligence] or the immigration inspector [special operations] if either officer is stationed at the port. Serves as the Service representative in a liaison capacity with local officials in seeking their cooperation, when necessary or desirable, to further the proper administration of the immigration laws. detains and refers to the appropriate agency any person who is the subject of a local, state, or federal arrest warrant or who, from the information gathered, may be subject to arrest by local, state, or federal authorities.Conducts, for the U.S. Customs Service, the inspection and examination of arriving persons, baggage, merchandise, and other items and, where there is vehicular traffic, the conveyances in which any or all of these are being transported to the United States. This includes determining the dutiabilitv of merchandise and verifying the merchandise in a carrier’s possession against invoices, bills of lading, or other documents. Conducts inspection for the Public Health Service and the Plant Quarantine Division of the Department of Agriculture. Admits eligible persons, merchandise, etc., not requiring additional processing, but refers cases which present unusual problems or require additional processing to an officer of the appropriate agency for disposition.

Performs other work as needed or assigned such as custodial duties concerning detained aliens, furnishes guidance, advice, and forms to the public, assists individuals in completing forms, administers oaths, collects fees, etc.

Responsible for the proper use of firearms and physical arrest techniques. Continues to meet the qualification standards for the use of firearms....)

9:30 p.m. The pilgrim goes out on the line, to a Primary Inspection booth with R.M., a Filipino-American, a compactly built man with a manner that goes from friendliness to absolute business in a matter of seconds. The pilgrim was once a man in a booth, when he worked for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, collecting tolls or handing out trip tickets. He asked no questions of drivers then. You come and go in New Jersey, as in the rest of our country, at your own will. You cross freely from state to state, of course, as well. It’s different for R.M; this job requires that he practice interrogation; interrogation, and a quick, incisive interrogation at that, is the keen edge of the performance of his duty.

The cars are backed up all the way to the “dip” in the roadway on the Tijuana side of the borderline. A dozen lanes at least, open. A mix of Customs inspectors and INS inspectors in the booths. (Rotation changes constantly, so that drug smugglers on the other side of the line can’t predict which inspector will be posted at what lane, and at what particular time.)

The night air is a bit chilly, but inside the booth a fan heats the small space and beneath the roadway a fan sucks in the exhaust fumes from the passing cars.

They monitor us in their own way, R.M. says, as he waves the first car up to his booth. And we monitor the incoming cars and people. And our supervisors over in the “fishbowl” — he means the main office, all windows facing on the rows of Primary Inspection lanes, on the ground floor of the main building behind us — monitor us. The idea is to move traffic along as quickly as possible, without compromising inspections too much. We have about 30 seconds a car. It’s a quick 30 seconds. For honest border crossers, and most of them are, waiting in line can become an ordeal, and 30 seconds multiplied by thousands can make for a long wait at rush hour. For smugglers of drugs or illegal immigrants, 30 seconds can become an eternity.

The pilgrim watches over his shoulder as he punches in to the computer inside the booth the license number of the next vehicle in line. The computer is hooked in to a vast network of information from here just a few miles from the Pacific to the heart of the data banks of Washington, D.C. It tells the inspector when the last time the car crossed the border, if it has crossed before, and kicks out information about known felons, aliases, missing persons, runaways, parole violators, etc. So where once the inspector in the booth was a lonely sentinel standing guard against unlawful Tossing of his country’s border, now-the inspector stands as the foremost figure on an electronic border monitored at a number of deep levels behind him.

The first car on R.M.’s watch rolls forward. The occupants appear to be Anglos.

Nationality, sir?

U.S., the driver says.

R.M. waves them on through. By this time the license of the next vehicle has come up on the screen, with no listing of previous border crossings, no flags concerning other violations.

The driver shows a resident alien card and R.M. takes a close look at it.

Where you going? he asks in Spanish. Some inspectors, like R.M., grew up in Spanish-speaking households, but all the inspectors are trained in the language before they go to work here.

Chula Vista, the driver responds.

R.M. waves him through.

(Most of the resident alien traffic that comes through the port of entry is local, people who reside on the Tijuana side and drive in each day to work on the U.S. side in San Diego County and then return home.

or U.S. residents who work in Tijuana and come back through at the end of the workday.)

Where to?

San Diego.

R.M. shines his flashlight into the interior of the van, checking the cards the driver has presented in relation to the people inside. Something piques his curiosity. He asks the driver to open the trunk and then walks around the car, bonging his flashlight against the tires and the fenders, listening for the music of a hollowed-out space or specially built secret compartment.

Thank you, sir, he says coming back to the driver’s side. He waves the car along.

Next car, full of young girls dressed for a party.


U.S., sir, says the driver, smiling hard. Some of the other girls bat their eyelashes at the inspector. Some giggling from the backseat.

No price on what they’re smuggling, the pilgrim says to the inspector in a joking way.

R.M. doesn’t crack a smile.

You see everything coming through here, he says, waving the car along. If it’s human, it comes this way. And animals too. Snakes, parrots, you name it, we’ve seen it.

Next car. Full of young German tourists. They’re lost, the driver says. They want to get to El Centro.

R.M. gives them directions.

Next car he stops and almost immediately asks the driver to open the trunk. It’s a make they’ve noticed as popular with drug smugglers, he explains. A car gets popular, because the mechanics perfect a particular technique of building compartments and so they use the same car for a while. He pokes around in the trunk, moves bags of food around, taps on the bottom, taps his light against the fenders. Then he moves the car along.

The lanes out there haven’t seemed to have gotten any shorter, despite R.M.’s skill at moving the cars along.

Five cars in a row driven by resident aliens.

Next car he directs to Secondary, because the passenger needs a special permit to travel beyond the San Diego area.

Next car looks odd to him. He closes his lane and walks this car into Secondary.

Next car — U.S.A.

Next car — resident alien.

Next car—resident alien. R.M. checks all around and taps his light underneath the vehicle.

Where you going?

Chula Vista.

Where you going?

San Diego.

Where you going?

Chula Vista.

Where you headed?

San Diego.

The rhythm of questions and answers must go through his mind at odd hours of the waking day and sleeping night.

San Diego.

Chula Vista.





iDonde va?

Chula Vista.

iDonde va?

Chula Vista.

iDonde va?

San Diego.

R.M.’s half-hour shift in the booth comes to an end.

Seventeen lanes open now! The port of entry is Saturday-night wide! Here in the center of the plaza stands R.T., a tall black Navy veteran, working the cars as quickly as they come with a manner as smooth as a jazz baritone singing quirky lyrics at a small club in some great American city. Next, he says to a carload of young girls crossing over from Tijuana. They flirt a little, he chuckles, checks out the tires, the trunk. Another carload of girls coming back from a party, and he laughs with them at some small joke as he flashes his light inside the back seat of their car.

Next to R.T.’s lane the booth is manned by J.P., angular, earnest, tapping his flashlight against the wheel base of a large white van with California license plates. He’s a relatively recent recruit and as self-conscious about the job as he is serious about it.

It’s such interesting work, he says. In fact, he tells the pilgrim, I was thinking about calling the Reader to see if they would send somebody over to write about this.

The pilgrim watches him do his good labor, inquiring, applying little psychological tests as the questions and answers go back and forth in the half minute they spend together, inspector and driver. I have some techniques that pay off, J.P. says. Some things I watch for in the eyes, in a face. I guess everybody develops these after a while.

The pilgrim nods, thinking of what great lay psychologists these inspectors do become, knowing after a while most of the telltale signs of good and many of the marks of evil. He’s reminded of what Ernest Hemingway once said was the basic equipment of a good writer: a built-in, automatic, shock-proof shit-detector. He watches J.P. work a little while longer, admiring his grace and his intensity, thinking now, in the mood of Hemingway, how this slender, dark-haired fellow could, in another life, have passed bulls before his cape instead of cars through his turnstile, and made a good if a bit shorter, life as a fine matador. Or he might have been a priest, sifting through statements about sin and good gestures. Or perhaps when he leaves this post take up a position as a counselor somewhere, so well-versed he’ll be in the difference between lies and truth.

The pilgrim eventually shifts to a booth where a young female Customs inspector has just taken over. Medium-length hair, freckles, the potential for a wonderful smile when she’s not working this line. Her weapon juts out at her hip. announcing to the pilgrim that these lanes are not part of the New Jersey Turnpike. The pilgrim tucks up his jacket collar against the chill. He’s working on a bit of a headache from the stray exhaust fumes, and his nose is stuffed, his eyes a little runny.

He mentions this to the inspector.

Welcome to the club, she says. You get a cold and it stays around for weeks on this job. The headache will go away pretty quick.

Where are you from? he inquires.

She answers, waving up her first car. All the way from the heart of the country to stand here at this borderline.

Nationality, senor? she asks of the first driver.

U.S.A.. the driver says.

And the next half hour begins. An INS inspector, .short-cropped hair, glasses, rather professorial in looks. Turns out he’s a graduate of a major California music school and he’s at work on his third symphony. Still working, on his time off from conducting the traffic in these lanes.

Senor? Your nationality, please?


And where are you going? Los Angeles.

The composer checks their papers.

Thank vou, senor.

He waves in the next car.

He checks the next.

He waves along the next.

He checks the next three for hidden contraband, drugs, people.

He waves along the next one.

Next one he leads into Secondary, having seen the telltale signs of nervousness on the face of a possible smuggler.

(Interlude with Document, continued:

III. Factor Level Descriptions.

Knowledge required by position.

—Thorough and full tech meal knowledge and under standing of current immigration and nationality laws, regulations, precedent decisions, policies, and procedures applicable to the inspection and examination functions, including procedures for referring applicant for exclusion hearings, as necessary.

— Knowledge and skill m interview techniques. Must use diplomacy, be tactful, resource fill, and discreet in dealing with and eliciting information from applicants and possess the ability to comprehend and correlate gathering facts.

— Thorough knowledge of rules of evidence and administrative procedures in taking sworn statements. Knowledge of areas of law concerning search and seizure, civil rights, arrest authority and constitution.

— Must possess keen insight into human behavior and make accurate discerning decisions based on examination of documents presented, responses to questions, appearance of applicants, their mannerisms, as well as their other actions and reactions.

— Broad knowledge of all Service functions in order to recognize, develop, and refer for appropriate action, information of value to other operational areas.

— Basic knowledge of current Customs and other federal inspection agency laws as they relate to assigned duties....)

10:30 p.m. The pilgrim hooks up with the K-9 team coming up toward the booths, to make inspections out in the lanes. This is what on this job they call “pre-Primary.” The lead K-9 officer races along with his dog, keeping his eyes fixed on the cars approaching in four or five lanes in front of him. Several other officers watch him, watch the traffic, ensure his safety and that of the animal.

This Is D.H., an officer tells the pilgrim, known as one of the top drug detectors on the job. Even before the dogs begin then nose work on a vehicle, they need to be pointed toward a car, and it’s D.H. who shows them the way.

Wow, wow, wow! it’s Salem, a golden retriever working this time, yeah, hey, go on, go on!

Salem tries to shove her muzzle up under the bumper of a new white Honda.

Some weeks they think we’re looking for muddy cars so they clean up every car they send through with a load, one of the Customs men says to me as we tag along behind the rambunctious dog. Next week it’s all mud and sloppy stuff in the trunk.

Hey, hey, hey!

The dog turns away from the Honda and heads toward an old black van with California plates.

That’s the one, D.H. mutters to the inspector coming up along behind him, as if he had been watching for this one vehicle.

Watch, someone says to the pilgrim.

All around, drivers watch from cars sitting in the numerous lanes. Some of them will be seeing it for the first time, the dog tearing with her paws at the metal, saying with every canine gesture. It’s here! it’s here! they’ve got some here!

D.H. goes around to the driver’s side of the car, asks the driver to step out. Within seconds, he and another inspector have slapped handcuffs on the man and they’re leading him alongside cars toward the booths, past the booths, toward Secondary.

That didn’t take long, did it?

The pilgrim shakes his head as they follow the car, with an inspector now behind the wheel, past the booths and into Secondary. The driver has already been taken inside. Dog and inspectors go over the car, this time with even greater concentration.

And a mood something like glee.

Yeah, yeah! go get it, go get it!

And the inspectors rush to the vehicle, watching the dog, and then tearing apart the rear bumper with a crowbar.

Where is it?

Do you see it?

I can smell it!

You can? the pilgrim wonders about that. He smells only car exhaust and sweat and dog.

You know, I got a feeling, the inspector says.

Suddenly a shout goes up.

There it is! there it is!

The inspector with the crowbar reaches in beneath the bent metal and yanks out a package wrapped in plastic.

Meth! someone’s voice goes up.


Oh, some biker gang out in Canoga Park is going to be pissed at us!

But they still have to test it. The inspector calls for a test kit. Someone trots into the office to fetch one. Meanwhile, they go over the rest of the car. The glove box. The area behind the steering wheel. Under the wipers.

Other K-9 handlers race over with their dogs, letting these animals get a whiff of the drug, and whooping and hollering when the)' point to it. Whoornp! a slap with a rolled-up towel, and then the dog gets to keep the towel in his jaws. Oh, happy day! a play day! another find!

(Interlude, New Generation: Ten years ago, raven-haired, glistening-eyed A.N. was a 16-year-old student from Montgomery High School, her father from Juarez, her mother from Mexico City, and one night, while she was a passenger in a car coming back through the San Ysidro Port of Entry after an evening of visiting with relatives in Tijuana, where her father had owned a dance hall for several decades, the driver was ordered by the inspector to pull into Secondary. A.N. got out of the car and watched while a search of the vehicle ensued, intrigued by the procedures. She asked the Customs inspector how he got his job, and he talked a bit with her and then called over a supervisor. That’s how she found out about the Explorer Program, the nonprofit support organization that introduces young students to the work at the port of entry. She joined the Explorers and after graduating from Montgomery took a job as a student aide at the downtown headquarters of the Customs Service. She took courses at Southwestern College and then completed her bachelor’s degree at San Diego State, working full time for Customs during the summers. In 1995 she applied for a job as a Customs inspector and was hired, training for the post at the Customs camp in Georgia, graduating on Valentine’s Day 1996, and, as a G-5, taking her post at the San Diego/Tijuana border. Three weeks of supervised training and she was on her own. “It was scary to work on my own, especially on the midnight shift,” she says. The older generation of (mostly] male inspectors helped her along.

“I was everybody’s little girl,” she says. “Men and women get along here. Everybody tries to help you and lends a hand if you need it. It’s so dangerous out here that we have to get along.” But don’t get in this little girl’s way, since she packs the standard issue 9-millimeter Smith & Wesson and scores between 147 and 149 out of 150 on the firing range, and she’s required to qualify several times a year. Now she usually works 56 hours a week, taking advantage of the frequent opportunities for overtime. In her late teens and early 20s, she used to party a lot in Tijuana, she says. But now, after participating in so many drug seizures, she has put her partying aside. In her spare time she reads, plays volleyball in the YMCA league, baseball in summer, then back to volleyball. She also enjoys deep-sea fishing. A.N. plans to stay with the Customs Service, in a few years perhaps transferring up to the Canadian border.)

11:00 p.m. Out in pre-Primary again. The cars have backed up. Nearly 14 lanes open now. The after-dinner crowd wants to get home to San Diego. But this is a good time, or so smugglers think, to blend their carriers in with the Saturday-night crowd, so things go a bit slowly.

That’s the thing, a Customs inspector says to me as we roam in the lanes behind the dog. The paradox.


That’s right. Paradox. Between facilitation and interdiction. We’re supposed to be catching the drugs and we’re also supposed to be moving people through at a reasonable rate. We can’t do both things and do them well.

Wow! hey! good! that’s a girl!

Another find by the K-9s!

Driver steps out of car, cuffed, hustled off to the building. Everybody follows car into Secondary.

1 Dogs, men, women swarm over the vehicle.

Hey! that’s it! get it, get it, get it!

It’s an INS dog this time, and it leaps into the car, digging, digging, digging at the rear seat.

The inspectors yank up the seat, revealing a shallow compartment where an old man and a young boy lie huddled, like fetuses, like corpses. Illegals! They look as though they’ve traveled here from another dimension, almost as though their very bodies are less substantial than those around them, blank looks on their faces. Confusion. Despair.

(The pilgrim imagines that it must have been this look on the faces of Jews trying to steal across the border out of Germany, or out of Vichy, France, into Spain. Or Tutsis moving across front Rwanda to Burundi. Cambodians. Vietnamese. This is not the look of the greenhorn, my father stepping off the boat in San Francisco or my grandparents passing through Ellis Island, blinking at the first light in America after long journeys over water. In their eyes, you could have seen hope and perhaps even amazement behind the fatigue. Look at these people and you see nothing but desperation.)

Busy Saturday night in Fortress America! leaning our shoulders to the door to keep out unwanted guests.

There’s an even greater paradox in that, the pilgrim thinks to himself, quietly, trying to keep his opinions from weighing his eyes shut.

(Interlude with Document, continued:


Incumbent performs inspection duties in compliance with certain federal statutes and in accordance with established policies and procedures. As necessary, incumbent conducts intensive and detailed interrogations which are prompted by applicants for false entry to the United States who are suspected of: 1) alien smuggling; 2) false claims to United States citizenship; 3) presenting fraudulently obtained documents of others; 4) presenting altered or counterfeit documents; 5) attempting to enter by scheme or devious means; 6) terrorist activity; 7) smuggling of illegal drugs and/or other contraband. Referrals for exclusion hearing must be accurate, concise, and firmly rooted in law. May be called upon to use proper and safe law enforcement techniques in the above cases, including arrest and detention of persons involved. Adjudicates a wide variety of applications and petitions for benefits under the Immigration and Nationality Act, including cases involving novel and complex application of law and regulation.

Scope and effect

The purpose of the position is to properly categorize and admit United States citizens and entitled aliens into the United States. Prompt and efficient performance of duties facilitates legal entry, while denying entry to those not authorized to enter the United States under the exclusion laws (terrorists, narcotic traffickers, etc.).

Personal contacts.

Contacts are with people seeking admittance into the United States (and at times, with their representatives), immediate coworkers, and as needed, with personnel from other agencies, foreign governments, and members of the general public.

Purpose of contacts

Purpose of contacts is to obtain information necessary to determine admissibility of people (or goods, where applicable) into the United States.

Physical demands

Position requires moderate to arduous physical exertion involving long periods of standing, walking, the climbing of scaffolds and ladders, including “Jacob’s” ladders, use of firearms, and exposure to inclement weather. Extended work hours (more than eight hours a day) are experienced. The lifting and carrying of materials (i.e., “boarding bag”) is required to perform the duties of the position. May be required

to use physical force to arrest and detain persons as deemed appropriate by Service regulations. Must be prepared to defend self and others against physical attack, resorting to the use of firearms if warranted by the circumstances (self-defease, defense of another officer, or an innocent third party).

Work environment.

Work may be performed at one or more of the following sites: border port-of-entry, seaport, air, or railway. Work is performed both indoors and outdoors. Incumbent may be exposed to inclement weather while working outdoors and shift work.

Other significant factors.

Incumbent is required to carry a firearm and be proficient in the use thereof.)

Midnight, on the line.

It can get dangerous out here, says the INS inspector. He’s tall, lanky, dark-haired, with the sharp sculptured high cheekbones that speak of Mexican Indian genes. He signals the next car to move forward. We get about one shooting a year out here. Mexican guy came through the line last year, pulled his car up, didn’t say a word, just started firing at the inspector. And the inspector fired back as the car pulled away, and everybody ran up and drew down on this car and started shooting and about a quarter of a mile up the road the guy gave it up, just died there behind the wheel, full of bullet holes. We’re good, you know. We got to qualify regularly. Me, last time on the pistol range I was 147 out of 150. Not bad. Oh, there was another time out here, a couple of years ago, I wasn’t here but I heard about it, a guy came through and tossed a bottle of acid, sulfuric acid or maybe lye? into the booth, trying to blow it up, like with a Molotov cocktail, or maybe it was a Molotov cocktail; anyway, just goes to show you that it can be a battlefield out here. And Saturday night, it gets even crazier than usual too. All the partyers coming back from T.j. The Americans are the most obnoxious. (Next car. Single driver. Old man.) You ask them their citizenship and they don’t even know what you’re talking about. Idaho, they say. Kentucky. They don’t think how their state has something to do with the country. U.S. That’s all they have to say. (Next car. Man and a woman on their way, they say, to Los Angeles. They have the proper papers. Walks around the car, tapping at the side of it with his flashlight.) Magic words. U.S. You wave them through. Of course, they have to say it just right. You can hear the way they say it. Say it to yourself. U.S. Hear the special American accent. A kind of voice. (Next car pulls up. Five girls. Partying in T.J. They flirt a little, giggle a little, travel on.) Something about Americans. Of course, I think American. Got family in Mexico, some in Tijuana, some over near Mexicali. I was born here. Gives me an edge with most of the people coming through this port of entry. (Van pulls up. Takes the driver’s identity card. He takes a full half minute walking around the vehicle, lowering himself beneath the rear bumper, shining his light up into the undercarriage. Full half minute, which to a driver who knows his car is loaded with bricks of marijuana or meth or packets of cocaine might seem a bit longer. He hands the card back, waves the driver on into the United States.)

I know the moves, the Mexican moves. They can’t fool me. Sometimes, they can run a game on the non-Mexican inspectors, but not on me. It’s a way of looking, it’s a way of moving, it’s a way of saying. Every country has it. I know the looking and the moving and the saying of both the U.S. and Mexico. Helps me on the job. (Car moves up, driver’s nervous, jugular twitching, won’t look the inspector in the eye. This one goes to Secondary.) I’m not one of them, but 1 know how they think. It’s like being from a different generation. I’m not my parents, but I know how they think. I’m not from Mexico, but I know how they think. (A car pulls up. Old woman, small child. Child’s papers look strange to the INS man. He sends them to Secondary.) Yes, and the pilgrim is thinking, how much like himself and the older generation, and how much like himself and the people he grew up with, to know someone but be not of them, often the source of existential estrangement, but in this case, with respect to nationality, a distinction that makes for a real difference, to be Irish-American and dealing with Irish immigrants, or Jewish and dealing with Jewish immigrants, Italian and so on, imagine if our country of immigrants shared borders with Ireland and Italy and Israel and Germany and England and Belgium and France and Spain and India and Pakistan and Serbia and Nigeria and Argentina and Kenya and South Africa and Sweden.... And tens of thousands of aliens from these nations came up to the line every day, and who would know them better than their cousins and nephews and nieces who were born in the U.S. of that particular lineage? Would you not be more strict with those you knew than with those you didn’t, versed in their canniness and guile as well as their charm and intelligence? Some hard-nosed interrogator might put the old divided-loyalty argument out on the table, to ask if a man like this might be moved beyond the usual sympathy for a special case and skirt the rules for someone of his old kin. It’s an argument that Japanese-Americans met during World War II and were interned for. No benefit of the doubt given to them. It’s an argument that American Jews have faced ever since the advent of the state of Israel. And while every now and then we’ve seen someone in a position of trust on our side cross over the line to give special attention to someone on the other side, they have been few in number. Think of all the Japanese-Americans who fought in World War II. Think of the German-American and Italian-American boys who died in the European theater. Think of all these Mexican-American inspectors on the line, giving this job their above and beyond.

I moved here from Calexico, where I was working at the port there, the inspector says. Couple years on the job. But things began to happen. I’d be in Mexicali on the other side and people would recognize me. Such a small place there, you know. And then some people said some things to my relatives in Calexico. Not to me directly, but to some family members. I figured it was time for me to leave. So I put in for a transfer. (Waves up a car, checks it over, passes it through.)

Exhaust boils up, mixing a strange brew in the cool of the night air, all the noise of the fans and the engines, loud music from car radios, the telephones that ring now and then in the booths, every now and then the tap of a horn drifts over from for back toward the “dip” where drivers wait for what they take to be an endless time, click of the keys on the computer keyboards in the booths. Everything but human speech. No noise of language out here in Primary, among the rows of cars leading to the inspection booths. All roads in western Mexico lead to this crossing, this great funneling of travelers and families and smugglers and heroes and gangsters and children and fathers and mothers and cousins and sisters and brothers, and all roads along the western edge of the United States funnel down to this great crossing—yes, yes, the pilgrim knows about the crossing at Otay Mesa, but here at San Ysidro is the great crossing point, nexus of countries, nexus of cultures, nexus of visions, nexus of borderlands between First World and Third, between Old World and New, ancient and modern, for some even the interface between life and death, past and future, the narrow point where all good and bad and old and young and healthy and sick and sighted and blind and stupid and genius and everything in between all come together.

Border time: all sorts of visions rise up out of the trembling line, the imaginary 3000-mile demarcation that Carlos Fuentes has called “the crystal frontier,” a place of transformations and hallucinations. Step right up to it and you have to answer to yourself on some important issues. Do you believe we should have an open border? Just let people come and go as they please? A writer in a local monthly has utopian dreams of blending the cities of San Diego and Tijuana. “American prosperity will slither south and fix some of Baja’s problems and Mexican joie de vivre will slither north and spice up white-bread San Diego. I don’t think anything very serious will happen if you just take the damned thing down...."

Slither is probably the right word. Open the gates and up from the South will travel a number of rough beasts, the pilgrim muses. Given the desperate drug addiction of millions of North Americans, the future with an open border could promise a national narcotic orgy beyond our imaginings, or at least something within the realm of the visions of William Burroughs. As for a border wide open to immigrants from around the world, only the radical free-mar-ket economists might make predictions about what that would do to the way we live and earn and spend now. Opening the border would be a Faustian gesture, to say that we accept everything and everyone that might come our way — the picture lends itself to science fiction as well as medieval tragedy. Boat upon boat of the hungry and the ambitious from all over the planet, trainloads, carloads, truckloads of dreamers without body fat, carrying within their loins and wombs the makings of an America no present residents, whether of four generations U.S. born or newly naturalized citizens, would welcome. Picture it then: the United States, already the greatest political experiment in modern history, lending itself to become whatever it might evolve to, its arms open wide to whomever and whatever seeks us out as home. That would be known as the boldest gesture any nation had ever made. Who knows what the archaeologists of the future would piece together from the remains of a nation that made such a policy?

(Interlude with Document: U.S. Immigration Service, San Ysidro Port of Entry, Incident Report/Seizure Report. From:— —. Title: Immigration. Day: Saturday. Date— Year 1998. Make Ford. Model: Sedan, Color: Blue. License------. State: Ca. Note: This form must be executed and turned in to the office of the Area Port Director no later than the end of your assigned shift on the date of the occurrence of the incident/seizure. Narrative (use additional sheet if necessary): On January 23,1998, subject ------------, a Mexican citizen, applied for entry into the U.S. from Mexico as the driver of above mentioned vehicle via the San Ysidro Port of Entry. I referred into vehicle Secondary office for a form I-94 in order for him to travel to Los Angeles. While he was in Secondary, I was later informed by the U.S. Customs Service, it was found that the vehicle contained 1.6 lbs. of field-tested positive marijuana.... [officer’s signature, shift supervisor’s signature])

At Pedestrian Inspection: 1:00 a.m. The pilgrim wanders across the exit lanes on the east side of the Secondary Inspection area toward the building that houses the Pedestrian Inspection lanes. But then he hears the now familiar sound of inspectors on the run.

Where are they going?

Over to the roadway, someone calls back over her shoulder. There’s an operation going on.

The pilgrim hurries along behind them, crossing back through Secondary and over the exit lanes on the west side of the port and over the median to where a half dozen police cars have blocked the southbound road, except for the farthest lane, checking cars just as they slow down for the approach to the Mexican entry booths.

There’s a light drizzle, the water forming coronas around the headlamps of the cars. Bright lamps overhead illuminating the entrance to the Mexican inspection lanes. Streams of people move from the parking lot on the far side of the road up onto the overhead crosswalk that will take them into Mexico. It’s like a stadium just before a game, or a stadium just after the final whistle is blown. Honking horns make a haphazard chorus as cars slow down for the impromptu pre-border checkpoint. Inspectors call to one another for assistance over the noise of the cars.

Walking back and forth on the side of the road is a tall blond man in a rain slicker with PAROLE OFFICER in large yellow letters on the back. Spying the pilgrim he comes over and asks for ID.

The pilgrim explains what he’s doing here. The parole officer outlines the purpose of the checkpoint, a joint operation of Customs/INS and various state and local law enforcement agencies, which culls underage drivers heading across to Mexico to drink, felons on the run (or felons heading across the border for a night on the town), money launderers, illegal weapons, drugs.

Not much doing during the next half hour, as the pilgrim feels the drizzle soak into his skull, except a bunch of gang kids sitting on the curb waiting for the inspectors to finish looking over their vehicles. The pilgrim casts his mind back up the long lines of traffic, imagining what the drivers a mile or two hack along the backup must be thinking, most of them just annoyed, a few of them wondering, a handful rather fearful. This is security and crime prevention in America on the verge of the new century, where the people the police are trying to protect must suffer a few delays.

Some kid goes drinking, the parole officer is saying, over in Tijuana, comes back driving drunk, rear-ends some innocent person on his way to work. The party ends in tragedy; We’re trying to prevent that.

Hey, officer, says one of the kids on the curb. He’s in a T-shirt, head shaved, looking like somebody who wants to do battle, probably hungering for an evening on the town in T.J.

Just a few minutes more, sir, the parole officer says to him.

We’re gonna be late to be early, the kid says. His friends laugh. The drizzle stops. The horns sound. The officers roam from car to car, making their inspections.

A car came out of Mexico one time, an inspector sidles up to me and begins to tell me a story, the guy was shooting as he came through, and he jogged left here into this lane and he’s racing north toward the city in these southbound lanes, and everybody’s running after the car, shooting at him.

The pilgrim recalls having heard this story earlier in the evening, one of the legends of the port of entry. The wrong-way driver. Everybody shooting.

He didn’t make it a hundred yards up the road, the pilgrim says.

Right, the inspector says. That’s exactly right.

(Interlude, with Lawman: Sixth floor of the Federal Building, downtown, a view west over the port, across Coronado, to Point Loma and the Pacific sky beyond. In striped shirt, plain tie, neat trousers, ankle-top leather boots, Alan Bersin [still in his incarnation as U.S. Attorney for Southern California] reminds the pilgrim of his lifelong friend Robert Pinsky, currently Poet laureate of the United States. There’s a clarity to the lawman’s speech that’s pushed along by certainty, like a sailboat on the edge of a steady blow. And a toughness to his stance born of early days of growing up in Brooklyn and playing football at Harvard that adds starch to the posture of the former Rhodes scholar, Yale I .aw graduate, old pal of the president and first lady. In other words, the pilgrim immediately gets the impression that as wily and as dangerous as are the drug families of Mexico they have met their match in this stand-up prosecutor and intellectual. Here is a man who is perhaps as close to becoming a poet of law enforcement as he is to making the picture of an old-fashioned western marshal.

As he makes clear in his essay, "El Tercer Pais: Reinventing the U.S./Mexico Border,” from the May 1996 Stanford Law Review, Bersin doesn’t just have policies, he has ideas. In the essay, lie writes of transforming regional trans-border policies as a way of bringing order to the traditionally chaotic territory where one country faces the other, sometimes in awe, sometimes in dismay, and he recommends binational congeries made up of regional businessmen, politicians, and law enforcement people to recommend policy for the transnational region San Diego and Tijuana have the potential to become.

“There’s a paradigm shift that’s happened at the border,” Bersin says, offering impressive statistics to point up the decline in crime, particularly car theft and burglaries in the southern San Diego side of the borderline since the inception of Gatekeeper. (Forty-eight percent decline in auto theft, 30 percent decline in burglaries....) His guide in this is the so-called “broken-window” theory of law enforcement, enforcement that practices zero tolerance. Park a car on the street and it may sit for weeks untouched. Break one window, and the vehicle becomes a target for all sorts of rascals and scavengers and thieves. Within a few days you’ll see more damage, and then major theft of various parts. The notion is — and we have seen this work in New York City and other large urban areas — that if you do not enforce the legal code down to its dotted i’s and crossed f’s, you induce a lack of respect for all the laws.

But Bersin, about to leave this office for a career in education, is a man with a vision, a type ordinarily considered quite dangerous among the courthouse crowd. With the help of the San Diego Dialogue, a binational group of business and political leaders, his goal has been to create political and social mechanisms to insure that the moral climate of these two overlapping cities divided down the middle by the national border will remain beneficial to all citizens on both sides of the line.

If the men and women at the port of entry could hear him speak, they would redouble their efforts at making a real dialectic out of interdiction and facilitation. If the dogs could hear him and understand, they would sniff twice as hard for contraband. This lawman has worked as hard as anyone to make his policies outlast his own tenure.)

1:30 a.m. The stories that keep people going on this job, the continual search for a load of drugs, for the cache of human cargo stashed away under seats or in trunks.

Once, an inspector says, we opened the hood of this car, and you could see that the space alongside the engine block was too small, and we pried open this compartment and there were two children, one on each side of the engine block, little kids, nearly dead from the fumes.

Sirens whine as a CHP car pulls over a vehicle in the far lane. The pilgrim’s aching head is getting soaked.

(Interlude, with the Border Patrol: Out in the dark to the west of the port of entry, they’re riding in their four-by-fours, moving along wet, rough Monument Road, past a few small family ranches and some other houses, into the weird territory along the line just north of the Ensenada Highway, where new steel fencing has made it almost impossible for anyone to make it beyond about a hundred yards into U.S.territory, Every night they're out there constantly changing position, then hunkering behind thee wheels of their vehicles, lights out. watching lie dark for movement

It’s wet out tonight, R.S.. the agent, says to the pilgrim. So people will be on the move. They think we won't want to get out there and chase them in the rain and the mud.

Up and over thick muddy trails and suddenly the lights of the vehicle are reflecting off the embankment directly at the side of the highway the pilgrim has seen this place before in tapes taken not so many /ears ago. when hundreds of people lumped down onto the American side and started running past the helpless Border Patrolmen. He has also read Joseph Wambaugh’s Lines and Shadows, a nonfiction narrative about the special San Diego Police Department squad that in the late 1970s patrolled the border line in order to prevent crime against illegals by scavengers on both sides of the mostly symbolic fence between the U.S. and Mexico.

“So the task force assembled across the canyons and chose their observation points, from which they would support each other, observe crimes, arrest bandits and corral victims. And they would look at one another in wonder when hundreds of other aliens suddenly materialized in he dusk. Human beings of all ages would rise up as though from the earth itself. People who had been invisible — resting, sleeping, eating, praying. Up from the mesquite and 'he rocks and the .skeletal oaks. They would simply rise up. And then it was dark, just like that...The hills began to move. The masses began to surge northward on their journeys to the land of plenty....”

Now, there's no one here.

There was a campfire over there the other night, R.S. says, pointing to a spot just beyond the wall. No one there now. Since 1994, when Operation Gatekeeper went into effect, we’ve reduced border jumpers in this area, the most popular route for illegal immigration to the U.S., down almost o zero. We’ve reached the lowest rate of apprehensions in seven years.

Yes, the pilgrim thinks to himself, remembering some statistics he saw before coming out for his night ride along the borderline. The government has increased spending for INS about 53 percent since 1993 and by the end of 1998 will have 7000 border patrol agents on the job, twice as many as in 1993. John Williams, former head of the San Ysidro Port of Entry and one of the godfathers of Gatekeeper, can look south from his new desk at the INS headquarters in Laguna Niguel and be pleased.

On the Mexican side of the big drainage slough that parallels the border for a few thousand yards, we see figures moving, and they could be kids playing or they could be adults trying to figure out how to cross over to our side.

A Border Patrol vehicle sits waiting for one or more of them to make a decisive move.

But for most of the time the only signs of life we see are the other Border Patrol officers sitting behind their steering wheels. Some of them don’t want to talk to the pilgrim, refusing to put themselves in jeopardy. They have been fired on from the Mexican side of the border. They have been threatened. They don’t want their names in the paper.

And then the pilgrim meets a charming black former transit department (read, subway) cop from Brooklyn, who loves the job and talks a while about the importance of it, as he sees it, leaning way out of the vehicle to make a point with flailing hands.

It’s great work, he says. Tedious sometimes, but you always think about your mission and that keeps you going.

The pilgrim nods, smiles at the guy, and can almost hear his inner voice, explaining his mission to himself. You know, everybody, no matter who he is and what he believes, he’d protect his family and his household, right? That’s what I see I’m doing. I’m protecting the house. I’m guarding the doorway of the American house!)

1:45 a.m. The pilgrim heads back through Secondary where groups of inspectors gather at the rotation sheet, dogs roam up the pavement at the end of short leads. It’s dinnertime for those with appetites. Someone goes out to Taco Bell with an order for a number of inspectors. Two automobile searches later, and the food arrives. In the main building, ground floor, a small lunchroom, with tables, chairs, soda machines, the pilgrim sits down with an uncustomary plate before him. (He’s abjured meat some years ago.) Here most of the inspectors eat fast food every day and night. There’s only 30 minutes to eat. Fast is necessary.

Though one man in his early 30s sits across from the pilgrim, chewing on barbecued chicken and eating salad and fruit from small plastic containers.

From home? the pilgrim asks.

The inspector nods.

A lot of people work here don’t have anybody at home to make them dinner, he says. I’m lucky.

The pilgrim chews on his unnamable taco and agrees.

A middle-aged female inspector comes into the room and sits with a container of coffee on the table before her and a novel in front of her eyes. John Grisham.

Enjoying it? the pilgrim inquires.

I like to read, the inspector says, shifting the book slightly in front of her. If there's a really good book, we pass it around.

The pilgrim remembers his nights in the booth on the New Jersey Turnpike, the still hours between late night and false dawn when only a few cars might approach the gate, when he read Proust and Thomas Wolfe, lost in the seemingly endless pages of amazing prose rolling past his eyes beneath the odd illumination of the toll plaza lamps. (Reading is the true hallucinatory experience, a high that rivals any drug, and dictators have known this, making books contraband from time to time in the worst times of the modern world. And wasn’t it only about 70 years ago that Customs inspectors confiscated copies of Ulysses at the New York Port of Entry? and copies of the books of Henry Miller as recently as 40 years ago?)

The pilgrim promises to send the woman a copy of one of his own books, apologizing to her—and to himself, he supposes —because they're not John Grisham and they aren’t Proust either. Then he washes down the remaining shreds of his taco with an overly sweet, lemony soft drink and returns to Secondary.

He nods to some Customs officers he’s seen earlier, then crosses the exit lanes and enters the Pedestrian building. There lie meets W.C, a Customs inspector and former Navy veteran. W.C. explains the intricate crossing and recrossing of Customs and INS inspectors on the job. We supplement each other, complement each other. They’re mainly watching for fake documents, for impostors, felons on the loose, and we’re looking for drugs and contraband.

It’s an important job, W.C. says. X thousands of people cross here on foot every day, going to work in the morning, coining home at night, coming across to shop, going over to T.J. to shop and eat. And it’s challenging. I wake up every morning and can’t wait to put on my uniform and go to work.

We watch as a busload of tourists enters the building, checked in by an INS inspector at the door, and then funnels along the side of the building to the exit where their bus will meet them, having been checked over by Customs inspectors.

We’ve found big loads in buses, W.C. says. So we have to keep ail eye on them.

Adults and children, Italian tourists, shuffle along to meet their bus. One of them wanders through the wrong turnstile. An INS inspector raises his voice in annoyance, pointing the way back toward the exit for the bus.

W.C. says, The only problem I have with this job is watching some of the other people behave like that. Not showing courtesy to the people coming across. It hurts me to see that.

But otherwise, it’s the best job in the world.

Another Customs inspector who has been listening while we speak steps up and adds this to our conversation: there’s another problem. You probably heard about it already. Facilitation opposed to interdiction?

The pilgrim nods, yes, he’s heard.

The INS folks, this man says, they just want to move people along.

It’s their supervisors, we hear it from ours, they hear it probably more from theirs. They set the pace.

Yeah, well, if we had time, we’d get all the drugs. Right now, what do we get? Ten percent of the stuff moving through here?

The other inspector shrugs. Nobody really knows. They say 10 percent. But it could be 1 percent, it could be 20 percent.

(Interlude, Undercover: Earlier in the week while standing at the Pedestrian crossing, the pilgrim noticed a tall, blond-haired fellow in jeans and windbreaker who sidled up to the inspection turnstiles and watched intently as people came through.

He’s S.R., an INS agent in plainclothes, on the tail end of an undercover operation to track smugglers of illegals. We exchange a few words, and the pilgrim walks out the door with him, shadowing the shadower of a 25-year-old Mexican man in a leather jacket who has just passed through Immigration. Out onto the street, into the crowd, along the pavement, across the street, past a parking lot, and then into the Burger King. We hurry along, trying to look nonchalant and move quickly at the same time. Seven other agents in plain clothes dot the landscape, but the pilgrim’s moving too fast to be able to spot them all. Into the restaurant where the pilgrim buys a cup of coffee for the agent and an orange juice for himself. There’s no time to sip, as the apparent fugitive leaves the restaurant and heads back toward the trolley stop.

Going to ride the trolley to town with me? the agent asks.

The pilgrim hesitates, torn between the lure of going out on an undercover operation and the duty of remaining at the port of entry to keep up his watch.

But then the plan falls apart as the man in the leather jacket decides not to take the trolley, and the agent takes off after him as the pilgrim turns back toward the entrance to the Pedestrian crossing.)

2:00 a.m. G.S. enters the building. He’s on his second shift, working here at Pedestrian as a supervisor.

You’re going to see quite a show tonight, he tells the pilgrim. Saturday night, in a little while, they’re all going to start coming back across, a lot of kids from San Diego who’ve gone over to get drunk. It’s quite a sight.

(Interlude, Sierra Club Argues About Closing the Door: “In the next few weeks, the half million members of the Sierra Club will vote to set the club’s policy on the issue of immigration...the debate, which has already been spirited, represents an invaluable chance to raise the issue of how many people this country can and should contain.... If we’re not willing to reduce the size of our families or the size of our sport utility vehicles, then cutting immigration is piggish scapegoating: it may save some of our landscape, hut at the price of our national soul....” Bill McKibben, New York Times, March 9,1998.)

2:15 a.m. INS inspectors converge on a thin, dazed brown-skinned boy of about 17 as he walks through the turnstile. He’s carrying no luggage, says to them when they ask where he’s going, “Sacrademente....” “Where?”


The inspectors hustle him off to the INS office at the far corner of the building. The pilgrim follows along to see him place his fingerprint in the new “Ident” system reader and have his photograph taken. An inspector tells him to take a seat on the bench along the wall. The computer searches for a match for the fingerprint If he has tried to cross the bottler before and been apprehended the machine should discover this. ( The Ident system is one of the results of the more than one-billion-dollar budget increase for automation and technology that the INS has seen since 1995. Since 1990, the INS budget has increased by 223 percent, from $1,176 billion to $3,799 billion!

A commotion outside the office catches the pilgrim’s attention and he wanders back outside to see a long line of revelers suddenly swelling the hall. It’s as if every Saturday night is New Year’s Eve here at the Pedestrian crossing, with shouts and songs

and yelps and whoops coming from the staggering crowd of partyers returning from their night in T.J.

Here’s a group of girls in their mid- to late teens, dressed to twist and shout, two of them holding up a friend in the middle who seems on the verge of alcohol poisoning.

Here’s a gaggle of servicemen, several of them nearly brought to their knees from drink, struggling to stand upright as they lurch up to the INS inspector at the turnstile.

It’s like that George Jones song, an inspector says, where he sings how his bloodstream’s become a distillery?

Another inspector watches the crowd with cold eyes.

Not to mention what else they got in their bloodstreams, he says.

G.S. comes up to the pilgrim and says. They’re somebody’s children, and look at them. You think their folks know where they are right now? I doubt it. He watches watches, like a hawk on a wire studying 'he landscape below.

Telephone rings. G.S. answers it I’m heading back over to Secondary tor a few minutes, he says. Some pharmaceuticals they need some advice about.

He's our pharmaceuticals guy, a young clean-shaven Customs inspector says to the pilgrim. If it’s something made in Mexico that can’t come into the U.S., he’s the one who knows about it. He’s been training Europeans about how to do that kind of work. Nice specialty.

The pilgrim listens and watches the line, trying to inhabit the spirit of the hour, watching faces for some revelatory quiver watching hands that might shake out of fear of discovery.

Where’re you from? a burly INS inspector behind the desk at the center turnstile says to a group of ruddy-faced, crew-cut tourists.

U.S., one says.

U.S of A, another says.

America, a third savs.

He passes themalong.

He studies documents, he looks people in the eye. Now and then takes someone’s hand and studies the prints on their fore-fingers, comparing them to the prints on their identity cards.

Where’re you from? Alabama.

Country? the inspector says. Alabama.

Where’s that? the inspector asks.

The sailor raises his voice. Where’s Alabama?

The inspector at the pilgrim’s shoulder says, I hate it when they do that.

Which one? the pilgrim says.

When the INS guy gives them a hard time. So the guy says Alabama instead of the U.S. Big deal.

A female sailor behind the Alabamian says something to the INS inspector at the turnstile.

What? the inspector says. Heads turn at his raised voice.

Why are you giving us such a hard time? the woman says.

All right, the inspector says, folding his arms across his chest, as if to say. Want to stay in Mexico? Fine with me.

I wish he wouldn’t do that, the inspector at the pilgrim’s side says. But you know it’s the law, even if you’re a citizen, once you leave the country, you’ve got no automatic right to come back in. But this guy, he’s just fooling with them.

The woman shouts at the inspector, a loud noise, but her words are garbled.

Whoa! a shore patrolman, on duty all night to watch for trouble among returning seamen, rushes over to the turnstile, and the INS inspector jerks his thumb toward the sailors. The noise rises, the line lengthens behind the turnstile until several other INS inspectors open up new lanes and take the overflow. The INS man gestures to the sailors to pass. The shore patrolman takes them aside just on this side of the turnstiles. He speaks to them in low, quick sentences about alcohol and about courtesy. The female sailor jerks herself around and stalks back to the angry inspector.

I’m sorry, she spits out at him.

He shrugs and goes back to his line of waiting pilgrims.

A Customs inspector standing just in front of another turnstile suddenly surges forward, calling to a blonde hulk of a fellow, clearly American by his walk and his clothing, who has just crossed over the line.

Yes, sir? the fellow says.

The inspector asks him to step up to the long table nearby and open his suitcase.

Another inspector watches at the pilgrim’s shoulder.

What’s his problem? the pilgrim asks.

This guy is stoned, high on something or other.

The blonde fellow talks a mile a minute, fussing with the clothing in his suitcase, emptying his pockets for the inspector.

Nothing illegal in hand.

Out of a crowd of foreign tourists just disembarked from a tour bus, a man steps over.

In Germany, we destroyed our wall You should be ashamed, you keep this wall up.

The inspector shrugs, as if a passing bird has deposited guano on his shoulder. He searches through the suitcase, takes the young man inside, while G.S. runs a check on him in the computer. A few minutes later, they release him.

Whatever he took tonight, it’s in his bloodstream, not his suitcase, G.S. says.

(Interlude, letter to the New York Times, March 13, 1998: “The headline on the article by Bill McKibben says it all (‘Immigrants Aren’t the Problem. We Are,’ Op-Ed, March 9). With well over a million immigrants coming in every year, we will nearly double our population by 2050. How will we be able to deliver necessary infrastructure like water, sewage disposal, transportation, food and police and fire protection to twice as many people when we arc barely able to cope in many areas of the country now?... This argument has nothing to do with nativism, racism, or any other'ism.’ In the 19th and early 20th (Centuries, we needed low-skill immigrants to fuel the Industrial Revolution. Today, immigrants crowd our schools, hospitals, and prisons. We must weigh self-interest in decisions on immigration.” Byron Slater. San Diego, March 9,1998)

2:30 a.m. Hundreds more pour through the turnstiles after their late night on the town in T.J. The pilgrim remembers a line of Dante’s, in the Inferno, after seeing the vast number of souls crossing the border from the land of the living into the outlying reaches of Hell. “I never knew that Death had undone so many...."

They keep coming, singing, chanting, yipping, snorting, many more of them dragged along by friends, made into near corpses from drink on the other side. Tall ones, short ones, pretty girls, their clothing askew, as if they’ve just been roughed up at a fraternity party, sailors in civilian clothes who appear to have fallen on their faces on the pavement and then jerked upright, like puppets on a string.. .dark skin, light skin, long hair, short hair, eyes rolling with booze, noses running, hands flapping. The air in the building seems permeated now with the sweet stench of whiskey, as if a weather system of alcohol has settled over the place for the duration.

Behind him, the pilgrim hears a conversation. Two female parole officers, a slender, athletic-looking woman in jeans and a denim jacket with an impressive blond permanent and a lithe black woman with close-cropped hair looking as though she might be a literature instructor ready in the wings before a lecture on African-American poetry, are discussing their private lives.

A flabby-chested black shone patrolman standing a few yards away calls over to the black woman.

Baby, he says, his high-pitched voice almost a musical whine.

How you doing? she calls back, lapsing into the vernacular.

Doing just fine, the man says.

Mobs flow through the turnstiles, pass between them. He’s only got eyes for her. She watches the faces in the crowd.

Baby? he says.

She flicks a smile in his direction, then turns back to the crowd

Slow, the blonde parole officer says.

Uh-huh, she says. Except for him, meaning the shore patrolman.

They keep on talking among themselves. The parole officer whom the pilgrim encountered on the highway operation earlier comes into the building. A Mexican-American plainclothes INS agent takes up a stand next to t he parole officer, talking about events that occurred earlier in the day.

The rhythm of their voices, of their vigil, reminds the pilgrim of fishermen on the shore.

How’s it going?


And what's been happening.

This and that.

That and this.

So many bales of marijuana. A load of meth. Found some heroin. Two kids hiding in a compartment built under a van. Fellow walking alongside a van trying to sneak through the line.

And then suddenly they’ve got a bite. An INS inspector nods and a Customs inspector moves up alongside a tall, husky young man, brown hair, light mustache, wearing a checked wool jacket and jeans, just as he passes through the turnstiles.

Excuse me, sir, but do you mind stepping over here.

Why not, the fellow says, and comes over to the table. The two parole officers converge on him as the Customs inspector asks him to empty his pockets. Everyone notices the thick curlicue of tattoos on his thick forearms that rise up under his jacket sleeves.

The plainclothes INS man begins to question him while the parole officers watch carefully from nearby.

Where you coming from?

The Customs inspector slides an identity card from the man’s wallet and hands it to the plainclothes agent.


What were you doing there? The agent studies the card, turns it over, and studies it again.

You know, the fellow says, eating, drinking.

Now the agent studies the man’s face. You bring anything back with you?

No, the fellow says. Just what I ate.

Good food over there, the agent says. This is not a question.

Oh, yeah, the man says.

And good prices, the agent says.

That’s when the pilgrim notices that G.S. has come back into the building and taken a stand at the edge of the table.

How long were you in? the agent says.

Seven years, the man says.

Clearly, they’re not talking anymore about a visit to Tijuana.

Are you on parole? The blonde parole officer steps into the conversation.

The man says, Not on parole. I got a job.

Where do you work? the agent says.

The man tells him.

And you’re not on parole? the woman says.

That’s right, the man says. I’m finished.

What were you in for? the woman asks him.

I have to talk about it?-

Come on inside and we’ll talk about it, the agent says, and he motions for the man to walk around to his side of the table and then leads him into a small room at the front of the hall.

G.S. has already walked into the office at the side of the hall where he taps out a name on the computer.

The pilgrim watches the crowds surge through the turnstiles, listens to the raucous sounds of their early-morning passage. Like some performer from a passing circus, a black-garbed border patrolman on a bicycle pedals slowly through the hall and out the side door. A federal policeman, big thick belly preceding him, waddles toward the turnstiles and then turns and announces to the assembled Customs and INS inspectors, I godda go home. I can’t take this no more!

A few inspectors nod, nobody laughs.

G.S. steps out of the office and the parole officers converge on him.

He’s on parole, one of them says to the pilgrim a moment later. Served time for murder, in a gang fight when he was 17.

He’s gone, the woman says. You can’t cross over into Mexico if you’re on parole. Back to prison for him.

That’s it? the pilgrim says.

That’s it, the parole officer says.

The pilgrim doesn’t have much time to consider the swiftness of this transition, the fellow coming back from a night of carousing — or who knew what? — in another country just a few feet over the county line and now he’s on his way back to prison. Zero tolerance ail around is a powerful sight to witness.

3:00 a.m. Approaching that hour of the night, of the early morning, when all things that seem to have happened may happen again without any of the observers believing them to be true. In their beds, all over America, citizens turn in sleep, some without any dreaming witness to their laboring slumber, others seeing endless processions of fears and hopes and lust and mercies coming up to the turnstile, declaring their place of origin, and continuing on through to the other side. Some of these dreamers have come from Guam, some from Guanajuato, some from Lvov, others from Tashkent, Mongolia, Urgench, Dublin, Mombasa, Belfast, Cape Town, Irapuato, San Cristobal de las Casas, Yokohama, Shanghai, and thousands of villages less hopeful even than these. And these dreamers have children who sleep also at this full hour of the night, and these children have children, so that a full cast of the population of this county, and the state, and the nation made up of all these states swelled with the homesteads of immigrants and the children of immigrants makes up the United States of Helpless Dreamers, citizens in their beds all vulnerable to whatever menace tries to creep upon them in their unawakeful conditions.

Who stands at the door? at the gate? at the turnstile? at the window? keeping watch tor intruders at this fragile hour?

3:15 a.m. Listless drunks proceed through the turnstiles, bringing home to America bellies full of digesting food and large quantities of alcohol already rising through their veins to test the blood/brain barrier. While earlier in the night there might have been something of a contest between illegals and inspectors, between smugglers and inspectors, schemes pitted against surveillance, wiliness going against canniness hill head-on, now there is no contest. Those crossing over have already crossed a line in their minds, if not in their lives: they are prisoners of time, returning to be repatriated to daylight, having lost the battle of the revelry of the night before. One or two of them might make an occasional yelp, but they all move like sheep to be herded, and their crossings are simple and swift.

Where you from?


Where you headed?

Back to base.

Where you from?

Chula Vista.

Where you headed?

Going home, man, going home.

A K-9 corpsman—a black woman with curly orange hair, looking bulky in her uniform of deep blue — passes through the hall, allowing her dog to sniff at the ankles and the sacks of the stragglers wandering toward the turnstiles.

Yes, baby, she says to the dog. That’s a girl, that’s a girl.

Another border patrolman winds around the hall on his bike.

Where you coming from?

T. J., sure.

Where you going?

Chula Vista.

Where were you born?

U. S. of A.

Where you going?

San Diego.

What’ch you got there in that bag?

Cheese. Cheese and tacos.

Let’s take a look.

Okay, okay.

Where you —

Chula —

Born where?


Going home or coming from home?

What time is it?

Four in the morning.

Then I don’t know, man, I just don’t know.

The rhythms of the voices, the slurrings of the night, the suitcases and backpacks and grocery sacks unkiaded, sifted through,

repacked, odors of food, odors of bodies, some perfumed, some unwashed, the heat of men and women and dogs and children, exhaust of automobiles, the roar of fans, the clank of doors. This is what we do, pass back and forth across these lines of demarcation, night and day, year after year, until finally we come to the final port of entry, where we all lay our burdens down and pass, bidden or unbidden, needing no cards of identity to make the ultimate crossing to that undiscovered country just over the frontier from where we have made our marks and mistakes and merriment and madness and good deeds and bad.


A noise rips the texture of the diminishing hour. At first the pilgrim thinks it’s a dog handler whose animal has just sniffed out a load of marijuana or some other contraband narcotic. But no, coming through the line is the wife of the driver of the Chevy Silverado all those many hours earlier, struggling to hold her squirming handicapped four-year-old, her other two children trailing along behind, towing suitcases behind them. Her husband in detention, she has been released herself and now will try to make her way into San Ysidro, to go who knows where.

Oaaah! the handicapped girl bellows, writhing so much that she nearly turns head down in her mother’s arms and almost tills to the floor. Ockuuih! pure misery! the father arrested, the mother struggling, the child damaged and confused.


All the inspectors turn toward this pair as the mother passes through the turnstile and stops to adjust the weight of the flailing child.

G.S. steps forward, reaches her quickly, takes the child from the mother and adjusts her in his arms, walking beside the Mexican woman as the fractured family wanders to the exit and trundles off into what is left of the night.

The pilgrim, tired beyond fatigue, makes his own exit, leaving behind the last watches of this port of entry shift, drives north a while to his bed, closes his eyes, and dreams of endless lines of men, women, children, donkeys, horses, buffalo, sheep, and birds overhead, thick dark clouds of birds, swirling, veering, squawking, honking at the travelers below. It’s as if all the rest of the world wants to gain entry to his dream, and there is not enough room, not enough room at all.

Novelist, story writer, essayist Alan Cheuse lives in Washington, D.C., serves as book commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered. His new collection of stories, Lost and Old Rivers, will be published this fall.

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