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My run for the border

June 01, 2007|JOEL STEIN

THE SENATE TALKS; I act. While they were hammering out their compromise immigration bill, I deployed on a mission to see why Mexicans are crossing our borders. To send back money? To join our culture of optimism and progress? To see TV actors express emotions in ways other than opening their eyes as wide as they'll go?

To take on this rugged, dangerous mission, I found a small luxury hotel about 700 miles south of the border. Parque EcoAlberto has boating, camping and zip-lining, but it's famous for what is perhaps the most bizarre tourist attraction in all of Mexico. Which is impressive, as you know if you've ever been to a bachelor party in Cabo.

Every Saturday night, 35 middle-class Mexicans pay about $20 to simulate crossing the U.S. border while being chased by fake Border Patrol agents. Amnesty International has criticized this theme-park-type amusement as being in bad taste because it makes light of the struggles of the poor. This might have dissuaded me if I had ever met someone from Amnesty who has any sense of fun at all.

Huddled by a tree for our pre-crossing pep talk at 8 p.m., I was immediately confused. This was mostly because I don't know any Spanish beyond what I learned from "Sesame Street." From what I gathered, our leader, "Poncho" -- who has smuggled hundreds of Mexicans across the real border and refused to take off either his ski mask or jaunty straw hat all weekend -- wanted us to open and close things and count to 12.

The weird part was that instead of teaching us useful English phrases, or at least reassuring us that in the U.S. you can order meals just by saying a number and pointing at a huge picture, the staff had us unfurl a Mexican flag and sing the Mexican national anthem. I wrote it off, figuring maybe border crossing is just Mexican baseball.

I didn't have time to think much about it because for the next six hours, in the cold and dark, fake border agents in Ford Broncos shot at us using what I really hope were blanks, and yelled at us in American accents that I found deeply offensive. (Do Border Patrol agents really stop Mexicans with "Howdy, pardner?") To escape them, we ran through mud, ravines and pipe tunnels, across rope bridges and along narrow, cliff-side paths that overlooked certain death. You know an economy is in desperate shape when they don't even make you sign waivers for this. When two women sprained their ankles, instead of stopping, they simply continued with help from the others. One woman even brought her baby. More insane, she let me hold it.

In between mad sprints, we'd sometimes gather in a circle, hold hands and sing the Mexican national anthem again. One time, I tried to psych my group up for our trek with a rousing version of Neil Diamond's "America," instructing them to shout "Today!" whenever I pointed to them.

"Free!" I sang into the night. "Only want to be free! We huddle close! Hang to a dream!" I'm not sure if it was my voice or that the song has aged badly, but I got up to, "Oh, we're traveling light today," when they abandoned "Today!" and started shouting "Mexico! Mexico!"

A little before 2 a.m., disoriented, muddy and annoyed with the spotty reception on my Treo cellphone, I was blindfolded and put in the back of a flatbed truck with the rest of the group. When they unmasked us, we saw hundreds of lighted candles perched along a mountainside, meant to represent the Mexicans who successfully crossed the border. That's when I realized that we weren't making fun of poor Mexicans who crossed the border through mud. We were celebrating poor Mexicans who crossed the border through mud as heroes.

Because the money that expats send back is Mexico's second biggest foreign exchange after oil, people who escape to the U.S. aren't thought of as traitors. Risking your life against selfish people who protect their cash with guns has been re-appropriated as an act of patriotism. Border crossers are celebrities in Mexico -- working as valets in Vegas and tossing twenties back at the motherland. America isn't a better country. It's a country that's sloppy with its change. I found this deeply upsetting -- like they only cared about Americans' money and not our deep, important values -- until I remembered that my great-grandparents came here for economic opportunities.

But in the past, the U.S.A. won immigrants' hearts after suckering them in with money. Now, I worry that with this Senate compromise bill and its greedy, $5,000 citizenship-buying indulgences and sub-citizen guest worker status, we're going to be stressing our greediness over our ideals. If that happens, we're going to make our fears a reality. We're going to have a bunch of people in our country who don't want to learn any Neil Diamond songs.


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