'Undocumented,' Crossing the Mexican Border

“The computer has selected you for a secondary screening.”

I thought he was kidding, except he wasn’t smiling, and it certainly was no joke to me.

We had been sitting in line for an hour and a half. Yes, sitting.

This was not the airport. This was the Mexican border at 6:30 in the morning. It was the town of Tecate, where I had been speaking at the wonderful Rancho La Puerta spa, but now I needed to be back in Los Angeles early, and when I asked what time I had to start out, I was told that if I really needed to be back early, I’d better get to the border by 5 A.M. at the latest, given the morning line.

The morning line?

Mexicans who sit for hours every single morning, in order to cross the border to work. Many get there as early as 4 A.M, so as to be first in line when the border opens at five. The line stretched for miles by the time we got there at five.

My car was in the shop, so I was driving the car Hertz would let me take into Mexico, a bottom of the line Toyota that was the fanciest and newest car in the line.

Along the line, women sold burritos and drinks to the men to take along for lunch. Dogs ran in and out of dirt poor shacks by the side of the road. And the men sat patiently and waited.

Do they do this every day? my daughter asked me.

I guess they do.

The day before, an employee at the spa explained that the men get day passes to come into the United States; when I said I didn’t understand, she shrugged her shoulders. People have to work, she said. People will do anything to work. People have to eat.

It’s better than Tijuana, she told me, where the line is three hours. People do that every day, too.

My daughter is nervous. She lost her passport, we didn’t have time to get a new one because she was away at camp, and her birth certificate was at her dad’s and all we have is her school ID. I had called the 1-800 Passport Number and they assured me it should be fine, but still. It turns out the ID has no address on it.

At the spa, another mother tells us that she has brought both her daughter’s birth certificate and her old expired passport. People express shock at our collective negligence. As we sit for hours, all kinds of thoughts enter our heads. What if they won’t accept the school ID? What if they say it isn’t enough? It is still dark. There are hundreds of cars behind us.

I wonder if we are the only white people in the line. The woman selling burritos smiles at me, and I smile back, and the gap between us yawns.

We get to the front of the line, and by now I have placed my daughter’s slightly defective school ID inside my passport, and piled on my lap all kinds of other proof of our collective status as mother and daughter, Americans both, including her school calendar with the address on it, when I roll the window down, offer a silent prayer that the agent watches Fox News, and say my most pleasant “Good Morning.”

I am about to launch into my routine about my sleeping daughter’s school I.D. matching the calendar in my lap and the lady on the phone, when he slaps my passport down, barely even looking at it, and I realize how few of these he has seen this morning, how silly my worries have been.

I see myself in his eyes and in the eyes of the people in the morning line and I hear his accented voice in that instant tell me with as much regret as I feel, that of all the people in that line, the computer had picked me. Some computer, hunh?

They searched my trunk and the hood of my car. My daughter and I stood with the three Mexican men, one of whom helped me open and close the hood, which I hadn’t a clue how to do. It took an extra 20 minutes or so. An agent gave me back my passport and waved for us to get in the car.

We were the first ones of the group of four to be sent off. I started the car and we realized that the ID wasn’t there. I looked at my daughter. I’ll get a new one this year, she said.

There was a sign that said, Exit United States. We kept driving.

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Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission.

Estrich's books include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System," "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders," "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women" and "Sex & Power," currently a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel.

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