A Guide to Paperless Travel: Or, Border-Crossing for the Uninitiated

The Nation, October 6, 1997 | Go to article overview

A Guide to Paperless Travel: Or, Border-Crossing for the Uninitiated


In my village of Ixtlan everyone, even those yet unborn, is an immigrant.

--Primitivo Rodriguez,

Mexican political consultant

Much of the business- or work-related travel north of Mexico into the United States is done without the bureaucratic complications of passports, visas, residence cards and so on. People who use this form of travel are known as "illegals," but only to those who are unaware that the U.S. Constitution grants legal status to all persons, even those without papers. Nonetheless, the undocumented traveler will have a more enjoyable and profitable sojourn if he or she is fully prepared, from start to finish, beginning with the cost.

The free spirit who chooses to go north without a tour guide is rare these days, given the rigors of crossing, the border. Anyone planning a trip should expect to spend about 1,500 U.S. dollars for a tour, plus the cost of second-class bus travel from the interior of Mexico to the crossing point. For the price of this one-way trip, the guide will deliver the traveler to a point north of the last Border Patrol checkpoint or to an airport in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston or Dallas/Fort Worth.

Choosing a tour guide, known as a pollero or chicken handler, is of utmost importance. The best tour guides depend on repeat business and word-of-mouth advertising. If possible, one should speak to satisfied customers or relatives of satisfied customers who are now working and living in the United States. It is almost always a mistake to wait until one arrives at the border to choose a tour guide. More than a few of the guides who wait at bus stations in border towns hoping to find clients are inexperienced or unscrupulous.

The high cost of an experienced guide compares to first-class one-way air fare, and it should be considered as such. Although there is some risk to the traveler because all fees are nonrefundable, the wise traveler will keep in mind the purpose of the trip: The cost can be amortized in a relatively brief period, given the differential between below-minimum-wage work in Mexico and in the United States. A jornalero (day laborer) who earns about $2 a day on a farm in Chiapas can sometimes net that much in an hour in the United States picking strawberries in the insect-free ambiance of a cloud of pesticides or merrily washing dishes in the sub-basement of a restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown; some paperless travelers may even be able to do piecework in the comfort and security of the room in which they live. In the latter instance they can work right alongside their children late into the night, protecting the little ones from the endemic national corruption of television and rock and roll. These business arrangements are strictly at the option of the traveler; guides rarely perform extra service as employment counselors.

Once the guide has been selected, it is wise to prepare for the method of travel. Crawling through a drainpipe and crossing the Rio Grande near Brownsville call for entirely different attire. …

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