How many hoops does a human have to hop through in order to reach the other side?
Deportation is a drag… a serious crashing drag. It’s happened to me… twice; once in Paraguay and once in Mauritania. I did nothing wrong, of course (in either country). I was a tall white dude trying to travel in countries where tall white dudes are not the majority population. I thought my papers were in order but I must have been mistaken. In both cases, I could have avoided deportation had I been willing to pay sufficient funds. But I, like a fool, demanded fairness and was cast out because of it. I just heard on the radio that the Obama administration has deported more illegal aliens than any other administration in history. Meanwhile, the Republican candidates argue about the best ways to deport more and more. As I sit here, in a comfortable cabin, on the side of a mountain in Vermont listening to the radio, I can’t help but think about that one dreadful day in that far away place…
There I was, on the triple frontier, where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay come together in a confusing tangle of inter-jurisdiction. I was on my way to Ciudad del Este in Paraguay from Argentina but the bus had to pass through Brazil in order to get there. I didn’t have a visa for Brazil but apparently I didn’t need one if I stayed on the bus. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even get stamped in. That’s the way it worked. Or at least that’s what the driver of the local bus I was on told me. I stamped out of Argentina and didn’t stamp into anywhere. I was a visitor to the world between boundaries. It was only 40 minutes or so that we had to drive through the territory of Brazil to reach Paraguay but a slight cloud of paranoia descended upon me. Why did I feel like I was doing something wrong?
My friend the Frog lives in paradise. Of all the places I hang out once in a while, his home in Central Vermont is one of the most comfortable for me. It’s a small place, on the side of a mountain on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. He has all the modern comforts and technologies, a great collection of music and books and a pantry fully stocked with healthy organic food. This is Third World America however so he is almost never there because he works all the time. A stressful job in retail management keeps him away from his glorious refuge. As a matter of fact, he’s not home when I arrive in the late afternoon. I have to crawl in through the dog door. Kali… his elderly dalmation… greets me with a friendly lick rather than a defensive bark. I open the fridge, grab a beer and sit down on the futon. The view is spectacular out the big front window; snowy fields and distant mountains against a backdrop of darkening blue sky. Kali climbs up next to me and puts her head in my lap. I use the remote to click on the radio. Sure enough, the sound of NPR fills the room. It’s a story about illegal immigration. Everybody seems to be against it. Both political parties come down rather strongly in favor of deportation.
The craziest thing about my whole border crossing fiasco in Paraguay was that I fell asleep on the bus and missed the entry into the country. I finally woke up as the bus pulled into stop at a busy market in downtown Ciudad Del Este. All the other passengers got off there so I collected my backpack and went to ask the driver about immigration. He acted surprised. He pointed back the way we came and informed me that I should have got off at the bridge. Bridge? What bridge? I don’t remember crossing any bridge. I look in the direction the driver is pointing. I don’t see any bridge from where I’m standing. It must be a long ways. How long was I sleeping? That’s when the realization became clear in my mind. Holy shit, I thought to myself. I accidently snuck into Paraguay. I’m an illegal alien.
Meanwhile, back on the radio in the present, the politicians are using the buzz word of self-deportation. The more they try to explain the concept the more bizarre it sounds. Obviously, these guys have never been deported. Honestly, if I understand them correctly, they are openly advocating a policy of making immigrants as unwelcome and miserable as possible so that the immigrants will choose to leave on their own. They try to cloak the concept within the garb of the rule of law. As if only the technically illegal will be subjected to the mistreatment. But it sounds to me like some sort of fancy way of saying legalized racism. Self-deportation? Are they kidding?
There I was in Paraguay. Smack dab in the center of a very big market in the middle of town. But I had no entry stamp. Technically, I was nowhere. I had left the civilized world and landed in the unchartered territories outside the paper trail. The temperature hovered in the vicinity of ten thousand degrees. Sweat dripped from my body and I had yet to even begin walking. I needed to stop and think for a minute. I had to figure out what to do. I saw a street vendor selling coca cola. Fortunately, he accepted several currencies including the Argentine pesos I had in my pocket. I bought the coke and sat down. The metaphors overwhelmed. I was perched on a precipice between two worlds. I was tempted by the fruit of pure anarchy; the real freedom of an illegal existence. The thoughts ran through my mind like a train careening down a track… Bust out, break free, there’s a whole damn world to see. Who needs papers? Who needs bureaucracy? Who needs red tape? I am a free animal of the planet earth. I need not bow my head before the rules of the man. Identification is for slaves. Passports are so 20th century. Why can’t we all just be brothers under the sun? Why the boundaries? Why the nation states?
But alas, the fear of arrest and deportation hovered over me like a cloud of foul black smog on a hot and humid day. Visions of handcuffs and billy clubs and an uncomfortable encounter with angry men in uniforms made me reconsider my reverie. I had to deal with reality. How much trouble could I possibly get in? It was only an entry stamp I lacked. American’s don’t even need visas for Paraguay. What’s the big deal? Can’t I just continue on into central Paraguay? There’s a bus right there with a signboard for Asuncion, the capital city. Do I really have to go all the way back to the entrance just to fill out some stupid paperwork and be officially stamped in before I go on? It doesn’t seem fair… But there’s probably a police checkpoint in my near future and if I don’t have the proper paperwork bad things will happen. By the time the coca cola is drained to the bottom, I make my final decision. I give up on the ideal of illegality and decide to self-deport.
The politicians on the radio are now talking about illegal immigration and its effect on the economy. Supposedly, the illegal aliens are taking the jobs from ordinary (white) Americans. These same politicians are champions of the “free market” and the globalization of capital. With their off shore tax havens and portfolios full of stocks from multi-national corporations they claim the legal right to own the resources and assets of foreign lands. Do they not understand the absolute inconsistency of their two positions? Real free markets you fools… not fake ones.
It took me about twenty minutes to walk back through town and reach the immigration office at the international bridge. Thanks to the heavy backpack and oppressive heat, I was drenched in sweat by the time I arrived. I went up to the appropriate window and handed my passport to the man in uniform on the other side. Expecting a quick stamp and the appropriate words of welcome I was quite surprised when the evil little man started shaking his head vigorously no. “You need visa,” he says, “where is visa?”
“I’m American,” I say, “I checked on the internet before I came here. I don’t need visa. Just a tourist stamp for 30 days please?”
“No,” he says, “you need visa.” He points at a door to the right and indicates for me to go through it. He stuffs my passport in his pocket and disappears into an inner office.
So I go through the door as directed and find myself in a small office. There’s a big desk, and a couple of chairs in front but there are no other people. It reminds me of an interview room at a corporate headquarters. I take the seat of the applicant and wait for the authority figure. After a few moments, the uniformed man from earlier enters through a side door and sits behind the big desk. Everything seems very formal and official. Nevertheless, my spider senses are tingling. I have a sneaky suspicion I’m about to get squeezed.
“You need visa,” he says, “how come you don’t have visa?”
“I don’t need one,” I insisted. “I checked on the internet. Americans get free tourist passes for up to 30 days.”
“Law changed one week ago,” says uniformed authority man behind big desk. A mischievous smile turns up the corners of his lips and his big fluffy mustache twitches. “Now you need visa.”
“Okay,” I say reluctantly, “I guess we have to follow the rule of law. How do I apply for a visa?”
“Normally you have to apply at the embassy,” says the devious little man, “but you seem like good person, trustworthy person, respectable person (translated these words mean white guy with money), maybe I can make extra special exception just for you.”
“Oh really,” I say, “that’s very kind of you. How much is this extra special exception going to cost me?”
“I’m not sure,” he says, “this is unusual. I will have to check with the central administration in Asuncion. Excuse me for one minute. I will go see.” He pushes himself away from the desk and disappears behind a door again. I can’t understand why he didn’t know the price. It’s all very strange. What could possibly be unusual about this situation? A tourist wants to enter the country so he comes to immigration? The whole thing seems suspiciously like a great big scam.
I only wait a few minutes before the tyrant returns with a paper in his hand. He’s smiling like a redneck with a winning lottery ticket. “No problem,” he says as he hands it over, “Asuncion will make special exception just for you. You can have a tourist visa issued here at frontier. All you have to do is sign this form and pay me one hundred fifty dollars.”
“A hundred and fifty dollars?” I question as I look at the form, “that’s got to be the most expensive visa in the world.” Seriously… it’s not even a visa application. It says tourist card on the front and it’s just like one of those six line entry forms you see at most international borders. If this story is legit, I’m an Arabian princess. Obviously, this tyrant in a uniform is going to pocket my cash and just give me a regular entry stamp like every other tourist that comes wandering in. He singled me out as a white dude he could squeeze for a little extra cash. Damn I hate this shit.
“Not very expensive,” says the smiling tyrant, “only 150 dollars. And you are American, you can afford. And this special visa. Only available at the frontier.”
I should have just paid the money and went on my way to Paraguay. But no, I didn’t. I had to be a smart ass. And because I was a smart ass, Mr. Smiling Tyrant Authority man kicked me the heck out of the country. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll pay the 150 bucks. But something about this troubles me. It’s inconsistent with what I read online. So before I pay you the money, I need to write down your full name and identification information. I’m going to double check this with the embassy when I get to Asuncion. Could I please see your id?” I pulled out a notebook and pen from my backpack to demonstrate that I was serious.
All of a sudden, the smiling tyrant stopped smiling. He turned around abruptly and exited the office. He returned a few moments later with two other officers. “There has been a mistake,” he said. “Visas are not available at this border. You will have to leave here and go to the embassy in Brazil or Argentina to get one. These two men are here to make sure you do not try to enter this country illegally. Thank you and have a nice day.” He turned around again and exited the office. And so, I got deported. They didn’t handcuff me or hold me in detention or anything. They just followed me outside to the bridge and watched me as I flagged down a taxi cab going back towards Brazil and Argentina.
In the last phase of the Immigration debate on the radio, the candidates discuss securing the border with more patrols, a taller fence and ever increasing security. Once again, the two political parties seem to be in complete agreement on the basic premise: Build the wall, they say, build it bigger, taller, stronger and better. They only disagree and argue about how much taxpayer money should be spent on the project and the specific design of the overall security apparatus. In a bizarre twist on reality, I long for Ronnie Reagan and the famous words he spoke to Gorbachev…. Tear down the wall Mr. President… Tear down that wall.
As I rode in the taxi away from the Paraguayan border, it occurred to me that I was still a man outside the nation states. I had checked out of Argentina several hours before and I had yet to check into anywhere new. I was in Brazil, but I wasn’t allowed to be in Brazil because I needed a visa and an entry stamp in order to enter. I couldn’t go to Paraguay because of the tyrant so my only option seemed a return to Argentina. But I’m not one to give up so easy. So I had the taxi drop me off at the Paraguayan embassy in Foz de Iquazu in Brazil. I went inside to see if I could get some justice. I wanted to find out the truth about the visa requirements. I wanted to report the tyrant who tried to force me to bribe him.
Big surprise. They did pass a new law the week before. Americans did indeed now need visas to enter Paraguay. Of course the visa only cost 30 bucks but I had no proof that the guy at the border demanded 150 so there was no way I could get him in trouble. I could, however, get a 30 dollar visa right there and then at the embassy and go back to Paraguay with it. Then the tyrant and his goons wouldn’t’ be able to stop me. And so, I applied for a Visa. It was a real visa form. Several pages, with lots of information requested. The hard part was the request for the number on the entry stamp for Brazil. Since I had no entry stamp, I couldn’t fill in the number. I tried to explain the situation to the lady behind the immigration desk. What should I do about this number if I don’t have an entry stamp? And that’s when the friendly lady was friendly no more.
“Oh my god,” she said, “you have no entry stamp. You are illegal. We can’t give you a visa. You can’t even be here. You must leave here right now or I will call Brazilian Immigration. They will deport you.”
“I will call them right now.” She picked up the phone.
And so, for the second time in the same day I had to self-deport from a country. It’s a lousy feeling to be officially unwelcome somewhere. To have… to leave. I stood outside the embassy and considered the absurdity. About 4 hours ago, I checked out of Argentina and headed towards Paraguay. I never arrived. As a matter of fact, according to the official records I never arrived anywhere. I went to some unknown place. I now have to return to Argentina… to the exact spot I left. What the hell happened in the last 4 hours? My innocent soul was cast down upon the rocks of bureaucracy. I was denied, rejected and refused entry. On the roller coaster of life I took a deep downward plunge…
Meanwhile, back in the present, I hear the sound of the Frog’s car in the driveway. I click off the radio as he walks up the steps. He puts the key in the front door and comes on in. The dog stays with me on the couch. I haven’t seen the Frog in quite some time. He knows I might be coming by for a visit but he’s not sure when. He doesn’t expect me to break in. This is a small surprise. I only hope he will be happy to see me. Thankfully, a big smile stretches across his face.
“Well well,” he says, “you evaded my defense systems and neutralized my guard dog. I see you found the beer… Everything is as it should be. Is there anything else you need to feel perfectly welcome here in my home?”
“Perhaps, one more small thing,” I say, “and I’m guessing you have some in that drawer beneath your telephone.”
“But of course,” says the Frog.
If all the immigration officers on this planet were as friendly as the Frog, the world would be a wonderful place.