Proof of Extreme Hardship

I was almost there, barreling along I-54 through the valleys where the New Mexican plateau drops and the land pours a deep, scarred red around mountains and dry riverbeds. The sky was electric with light; silvered clouds drifted across patches of bright, afternoon blue. Shadows floated over the desert like fast-swimming fish. Occasionally, a cloud would release an isolated downpour, fat drops gleaming in the sunlight.

“Zaragoza bridge or Zaragoza road?” I shouted into the cell phone before it cut out again. Rain came smacking down on the roof.

“I don’t know, just keep following the road immediately and….few kilometers…”

“But which-?” and the phone went dead again.

Even though I’d plugged in the point of departure – Columbus, Ohio – and the destination – La Quinta Inn, Ciudad Juárez, Mexico – again and again, I couldn’t get the Google driving directions to take me past El Paso’s César Chavez Cross-Border highway. Jorge was rushing to piece together the final, crucial bit: the actual crossing of the border.

I-54 emerged from the long stretch of desert solitude to windswept and destitute-looking hamlets where whitewashed garages sold kilos of chiles. Fences and warning signs crept up around the highway, and then I was passing Alamogordo and its army base. I stopped at a gas station next to a Border Patrol parking lot, where agents were suiting up for the night behind the opened trunks of their cars. In the gas station, a young woman rang me up, chatting in a fluid stream of Spanish with the clerk next to her. A group of young Latino guys in a truck accosted a girl in the parking lot – “porqué te ries?” they teased aggressively. “Why are you laughing?”

I made the ninety-mile stretch between Alamogordo and El Paso in just under fifty minutes, El Paso appearing before me as a bowl of stunning, eerie desert light: maroon reds and purples with gold hues lighting up the dry green mountains and the sweep of valley.

Ciudad Juárez hovered over El Paso like a man who leans a little too close at a party; he knows he is being watched, but still he presses, his breath felt and smelled. The mayor of Ciudad Juárez, the owner of the Diario de Juárez, and hundreds of the city’s wealthy and hunted live in El Paso.

I circled on I-375 around the city’s suburbs with their predictable sidewalks and gas stations and 20 oz. margarita deals, their patches of lawn and ranch homes and tidy streets, until the highway pulled up and away and then fell into a region of stark empty land, the Cross-Border Highway now hugging the path of the Rio Grande. The maquiladoras, those NAFTA-born factories once celebrated as symbols of Mexico’s impending progress, sat somewhere close by to the south. The suggestion of their presence lent the air a foreboding stillness. They are not symbols of progress now. Hundreds of the women who work in them have been raped, tortured and murdered, their bodies discovered in the fields skirting the maquiladoras. Women are still turned away at their doors for arriving a minute, two minutes late. The buses that made them late have left, and the women must walk back home, alone, at midnight. Many disappear. Some of their bodies are discovered by children playing in the fields. Their mothers find their soiled underwear, find clumps of their hair matted in the weeds, find the things that the government and the police didn’t look for. Their mothers post photocopied pictures of them around the shantytowns, but their murders are never solved. More women – often girls aged twelve, thirteen, fourteen – show up to take the jobs of those who have disappeared.

The exit was indeed Zaragoza Bridge, near the Cross-Border Highway’s end. There was nothing there except for an empty intersection and a handful of tollbooths. When I drove up to a booth to pay my $2.50 to exit the U.S., I was surprised to see a woman in her 60s working it, a Texan dame with caked foundation and sugar plum pink lipstick. I asked her in a voice grown panicky with expectation,

“What do I do when I get to the other side?”

She looked at me, baffled.

“I don’t know,” she said curtly, with a shrug. “I’ve never been over there.”

And that was it; I wanted to cling to that woman for a few moments more, make some small talk, but she stared straight ahead, doll-like and impervious, and I had to drive on.

After the toll, concrete blocks and cones made zigzags, preventing people from hitting the gas and flying through the checkpoint. When the maze ended it opened onto a long narrow space where soldiers and their automatic weapons clustered around cars with open trunks.

I pulled into a diagonal slot. A soldier peered into the window and I rolled it down and handed him my passport.

He looked at it for a moment, puzzled, and then shook his head.

“No,” he said. “Open the trunk.”

I obeyed and stayed put. I did not want to leave the protection of the car, so I had to hope he wasn’t one who’d plant a kilo or two in my backpack and then whistle for some buddies. Hope he was not one of those like we’d encountered in the isthmus of Oaxaca, drunk and digging through our bags looking for anything that would force us to bribe him, tossing aside sweaters and sandals with bloodshot eyes and cheap beer breath.

This guy looked too fresh-faced and new. He closed the trunk after a few seconds.

“What are you bringing with you?”

“Clothes, suitcases, books…”

“Where are you going?”

“Just here, to La Quinta, to meet my husband and wait for his –”

“Ok,” he said dismissively. “Pásale.”

“Do you know if this road becomes Ejercito Nacional?” I asked.

He let out a low whistle.

“I was just sent here. Hang on a sec.” He jogged over to some soldiers inspecting another car a few slots over and I regretted asking.

In his absence I noticed a woman standing on the concrete apron next to my slot. Soldiers had taken over her ivory white SUV and were searching it intensively. She had an apologetic half-smile and was dressed in heels and the skin-tight, butt-and-boob-exaggerating jeans and frilly blouse of telenovela stars. Her hair was dyed blond, but it was an expensive and credible dye job. Her expression was soft, almost rueful.

She caught my eye and smiled. I smiled back.

The soldier returned. “Yes,” he said, “this road becomes Ejercito Nacional. Keep going straight and it changes names.”

“Thank you,” I said and hesitated.

“Bueno,” he nodded, and directed me forward.


I have made the transition from the United States to Mexico many times and grown accustomed to the assault of poverty, of street life, of jumbled houses and tiny roads and color and sound and smell. I usually feel my soul tumble gratefully into something like home in that first taxi ride back in Mexico; inching in bedlam traffic past the taco stands, the sound of salsa blaring from restaurants, the people crammed in the streets. I feel relieved at the intimacy and immediacy of life.

This was different.

The city was a filthy, hazy, industrial flatness. Everything was kicked and battered around and haphazard: the dusty trees; the pedestrians hunched along on the gravely roadsides; the ambulantes straying into traffic with newspapers flapping in the cooling wind.

In places where the traffic clogged I caught the eyes of men on me, picking me out among the jammed cars, their gazes crawling up my long thin arms and making the light hairs there stand on end. Unlike the men in Oaxaca, who shouted bawdy jokes, they were silent, their stares fixed and unabashed.

I came to an intersection. The intersections stopped time just long enough to let the possibility of sudden violence coalesce above everyone’s heads. Then the lights changed and everyone took off again, given another chance.

At the next intersection, ambulantes straggled between cars, pressing the nota roja of newspapers to the windows. The pictures showed bodies ripped open by grainy bullet holes and sprawled on the pavement. Ink-gray blood seeped from their heads. The ambulantes were young men with bored, irritated, hungry looks. Little sparks of recognition fluttered across their faces when they saw me. I leaned forward and thought tough, tough, tough. They tapped on the windows. I shook my head firmly and said no quiero, no, no, but they tapped more insistently, their confidence growing with each tap and each time I flinched.

I had no pesos, no change in the glove compartment. What would the consequences of that oversight be? How could I have forgotten that? The teenager tapping on the window squirted the windshield with cleaner fluid despite my firm shaking no, and as he started to scrub in circles the light changed. He pulled back a bit as I sped forward, leaving him staring at me, holding his wet rag in the middle of traffic.

The boulevard surged into open spaces: long stretches of sandy, ashy and dusty browns pockmarked occasionally by small buildings encaged in fences, “For Sale” signs staked prominently before them. Dry bent grasses cluttered the corners of empty lots. I couldn’t be far now. I had been driving for more than ten minutes, and the hotel was only a few miles from the border.

At the next intersection I braved rolling down the window and asked for directions from a family in a minivan to my left. The man reassured me that I wasn’t far, only a few blocks from La Quinta.

Later, recounting the story of this initial voyage to Jorge, I mentioned that I’d been helped by this friendly family in a minivan.

“Ha,” Jorge said, “haven’t you heard about the carjackings?”

“No,” I replied, “why.”

“The latest carjackings are by families in minivans. The driver never suspects them, right, and then they block the path of the car, get out, force the driver out, and one of them drives the stolen car while the rest follow in the minivan.”

“Effective,” I said, dry-mouthed.

La Quinta was on the right. La Quinta was on the right. I zoomed at 60 mph ahead of the other cars and shot across the boulevard, coming to a halt just before the hotel gates and the small box with mirrored heavy windows where the security guard worked.

“Name?” he asked.

“Jorge Santiago.”



That night Jorge and I caught up and ate Papa John’s amidst stacks of papers with passport photos affixed to them.

Jorge had flown from Oaxaca (where we’d been living for the past few years) to Ciudad Juárez with our dog, Stella, and I had driven down to pick both of them up and bring them back to the United States, where we were relocating so that I could go to graduate school. We were in Ciudad Juárez applying for the K1 fiancé visa. The K1 would allow him to cross the border, marry me, and apply for a green card.

Many people assume that the fiancé visa is an instantaneous green card, but it is only the first step in a long and expensive process. Applicants for the K1 visa first file, among dozens of other forms, a $455 “petition” proving their relationship. If the petition is approved, the K1 visa is issued and the foreign fiancé enters the US and gets married. Then a new but very similar process is initiated. The applicants must file a second, $355 petition proving their relationship again and a $1010 “change of status” form, along with dozens of other financial and personal documents. If any of the petitions or the change of status form aren’t approved, the applicant is out of luck and all of the money spent up to then, unless he/she files a $545 hardship waiver to try and get the rejection overturned. While the applicant waits for the green card – which can take up to nine months to process, and longer if the USCIS requests additional information or interviews – he/she cannot work or leave the country on the K1 visa, or the whole process will be invalidated.

The procedures in Ciudad Juárez could take anywhere from two or three days to a week or more, depending on how quickly we cleared each hurdle: the medical appointment, the interview, the fingerprinting and background checks, the processing and delivery of the K1 visa. The next morning was the medical appointment: the first step in our visa journey.

The city sprawled beyond the window in its flatness, a distant spread of lights made eerie and romantic by the fluttering outlines of the palms in the parking lot. We went to sleep to the drone of the air conditioner.


The hotel has a strange, charged energy in the morning. People start stirring awake at 5:30 or 6 to make the pilgrimage through the darkened city to the consulate, where they’ll clutch packets to their chests in a line and wait. Muted noises rustle through the walls; the sound of footsteps, showers whirring to a start, toilets flushing, bottles clinking, doors gently closing. People linger in the doorways and kiss their loved ones goodbye, each knowing the fifteen minutes or half an hour spent before an official at the consulate will determine the course of the next several months or years.

The lucky ones – citizens, permanent residents – stay behind and wait, walking their way mentally through all of the questions and answers, hoping the dialogue goes exactly, exactly as planned.

By 7 a.m. the sun had risen and the soft muffled clamor of the morning had died down, leaving the hotel shrouded once more in the deep silence of carpets and air conditioners. I headed down to the breakfast buffet, where Mexican families sat eating Fruit Loops and bland chilaquiles, looking over each others’ shoulders, throwing sentences into half-hearted conversations.

There were many tall, white-skinned Mexicans with deep black hair and strong Spanish blood, their features aquiline and sharp: padres de família procuring visas for themselves and their families. Their fate was not uncertain. They would walk into the consulate, give the secretaries their numbers and payments, exchange some politesses with the appropriate bureaucrats and be on their way. It was the small dark men who were in trouble, and the ones with the rough faces. There were not many of them in La Quinta, and hardly any of the Mexican women I know so well from Oaxaca: short, thick in the middle, with big strong arms, long braided hair and skin the color of dark wet wood. Many of them stay in different places if they need to come here; or they do not come at all, knowing their chances are slim, and they simply cross with everyone else in the middle of the night with a backpack and a water bottle.

The short dark men were curious. They rebuffed my Spanish with the haughty defensiveness of those leaving the past behind. I’d get into the elevator and ask,

“Al uno o al dos?”

And they’d respond, standing up a little straighter,

“Yes, two please.”

It was a slight recalibration of each conversation, moving the needle carefully back into the groove.


Jorge came back at around 11.


“No problems,” he said, “But no mames, 155 dolares just for that.” I grunted.

“It’s a good thing I went today,” he continued, “the guy behind me in line said he’d gone before and it took him four hours to get in, and some people had to wait until the next day. So I guess it’s a good thing the consulate closed.”

The consulate had closed the previous Friday under threats (the nature of these threats was vague on the embassy website, but there was a consensus among Mexicans that one cartel or another had dropped the consulate a line) throwing us and hundreds of others into a panic. We ended up getting lucky; the consulate re-opened the day Jorge’s flight landed. By then many people, with no advice from the consulate as to when it might reopen and little sympathy for their wasted time and money (“You’ll just have to reschedule,” they were told, after many had waited weeks, months, years) had left the city and changed their appointments, which ultimately worked out to our advantage: shorter lines, shorter waits.

“What did they ask you?” I probed.

“The typical stuff –do you smoke, do you drink, do you do drugs, etc. Then they do this real quick exam and that’s it. Except, ha, the nurse violated me.”


“She said, ‘ok, pull down your pants.’ And I said, “what?” And she sort of laughed and said, ‘don’t get any ideas. Just pull down your pants.’ So I did.”


“Well, she looked, and kind of smiled, and made some marks, and said, ‘ok, you’re done.’”

“You’re joking.”


“Why the hell.”

“Maybe the consulate has high standards.”

And that was it. Ten, fifteen minutes, $155 U.S., and a packet of forms. One person after another: it was a required procedure for any appointment or interview, so no matter your chances of acceptance or rejection, you had to stand before the nurse and pull down your pants.

In the parking lot, where we took Stella out for a walk in circles around the steaming asphalt, we met a woman.

“Gorgeous dog,” she said, with a slight country accent, a blue-collar roughness around its edges. She looked tough, in blue jeans and a white cotton t-shirt decorated with shiny silver swirls. Her face was broad, freckled and free of makeup; a peach somewhere between firm and gentle.

“What’s her name?”

“Stella,” I said. The woman stroked Stella’s head and the dog nuzzled her hand.

“I’ve driven with my dog every year,” she said, “but this year I just thought, I don’t have the time, and I’m too tired, and it’s just getting too intense.”

“I know,” I said, “I parked the car in this lot and I’m not moving it until we leave.”

“Last year,” she said, “we drove all the way down to Guanajuato. That’s where he’s from. We took the dog on that trip, and we were pulling up to a checkpoint just south of here and I think all those soldiers thought she was a person, you know, like hiding in the back, ‘cause she was kind of hunched over, and they all pulled their guns and started yelling and I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa!

They made us roll down the windows and get out of the car with our hands up and everything and finally I think they relaxed and then they were like, ‘does she bite’? And I said, nooooo, noooo…don’t shoot me….

She’s a Rhodesian Ridgeback. Huge.”

This was her third time in Ciudad Juarez. Her husband had crossed the border illegally and they’d met in Kansas, where she runs a roofing company.

“Me, in charge of all those men,” she said with a grin, “imagine it. That’s why I need to get back there soon: I’m the boss.”

They’d decided to try and get him citizenship. The first time they applied, they were rejected and told that he had to apply for an I-601 waiver. The I-601 is for anyone who has been denied or is ineligible for a U.S visa because of illegal entry, overstaying a visa, communicable disease (which used to include HIV – only on January 4th, 2010, was being HIV-positive no longer sufficient grounds for denial of a U.S visa), criminal acts, and a host of other conditions. The form asks that the applicant’s ineligibility be waived, and that he/she be allowed entry despite whatever factor is grounds for denial. Filing an I-601 requires a $545 filing fee and a “hardship letter,” in which the applicant demonstrates that being denied a U.S visa will cause him or her extreme hardship.

The extreme part is important: missing one’s wife and children is only “normal hardship.” Not enough. On immigration law websites and message boards, applicants swap advice on how to intensify their stories: in one post a Mexican man wrote that his wife’s application had been denied, and he was trying to figure out how to up her hardship level from normal to extreme. His post had been viewed 10,275 times. A commenter suggested that his best bet was to shell out several hundred dollars for a psychiatrist’s note attesting to her deterioration.

An I-601 application reads like a demented love letter to the United States, avowing that just about everything in that country is superior to the equivalent in the writer’s own country and going on a paranoid quest to prove so via “exhibits.” The more statistics and U.S State Department reports about crime, poor education, lack of health care, poverty, discrimination and lack of opportunity in Mexico the applicant includes, the better his or her chances. Letters take on a religious quality: the United States offers nothing less than salvation. Sample letters on immigration lawyers’ websites make statements like these:

I have been living an honest life as I attempt to obtain the American Dream of a wife and kids living together in a loving home. My wife made a mistake by entering the US and we have been living apart for more than 2 years which has been incredibly emotional for me, my wife and our son. I’m now humbly asking the government to recognize my contributions as a U.S citizen and permit my wife to enter the United States of America by granting this waiver so that my family (family photo: exhibit P) can be made whole…

Our home environment is a safe environment. The neighbors are friendly and our community has much to offer to our family. My fear for our child’s safety in Mexico would greatly increase and not allow me to be a mother that they deserve to have for a parent. Knowing that Mexico has a high crime rate and high rate of kidnappings creates much anxiety for me. (See Exhibit 31)

Dislike of food affordable in Mexico I have a high intolerance for spicy food. It is near impossible for me to eat peppers, tomatoes, and onions. Since these make up an important part of the diet in Mexico, especially if you are on the poorer side, it would make it very difficult for me to find things that I could eat, and my health would likely decline.

Cannot drink the local Water I have gone to Mexico a couple times in the past and I’ve always had to drink bottled water. Any time that I’ve ever drank the water in Mexico I have become incredibly sick with what is called Travelers’ Diarrhea (also known as TD) (Exhibit U- Printout). It is caused by bacteria, parasites, or viruses in the water. Mexico is considered a high risk area for TD (Exhibit V- Printout). If I were to relocate to Mexico, I would have to buy bottled water everyday for as long as I lived there. This would become very expensive and impossible to afford.

The man wrote his hardship letter, signed it, and sent it and his $545 to the U.S government.

His fiancé drove back up to Kansas and waited; uprooted again, he returned to his family in Guanajuato and waited. A year later, when his interview was finally scheduled, she drove back across the country with the dog in the backseat, leaving her roofing business behind and speeding again across the haunted sweeping mesas of I-54 to bring her husband back. They spent two more weeks in the hotel in Ciudad Juárez; she gave the dog baths on the grassy patches behind the pool as he shuttled back and forth from the consulate.

He was denied: not enough hardship. She drove home with the dog. He returned to Guanajuato. He gathered forms, documents, exhibits, and applied again. The consulate requested more information, then more processing time, then more information. Now, after two years in their respective countries living according to the slow ticking of bureaucratic time, they were back in Ciudad Juárez again. This time she flew – spared the dog and herself the soldiers and the voyage – and she knew the drill. She knew her hotel, her bench, the routine. This time, she said, they should be able to make it, but her voice trailed off and ended in a laugh.

A man walked out of the hotel. He had a rough barroom face and short curly hair in disarray, as if he’d been sleeping on it funny. He wore a black t-shirt and jeans that tapered into black sneakers, the rubber-looking kind sold at Wal-Mart. He was big and broad and something about him made you draw back a little.

“Her dog is beautiful,” the woman said in Spanish, and the man nodded, distracted. I inched Stella closer to him and smiled. He glanced down and sized her up and down without a word. Awkwardness settled over us and, slowly realizing where it came from, I fumbled over my Spanish and excused us.

Narratives are critical in the visa journey. The bureaucrats want well-crafted ones with characters that resemble themselves, or idealized version of themselves (cultured, worldly, manicured, with the noblest of higher intentions).

.7% of the total 1,130,818 green cards issued in 2009 went to people with blue-collar jobs in areas like construction, maintenance, and repair. 4.2% went to people with jobs in production, transportation, and material moving.

In other words, class matters. Background, presentation, the story the couple tells matter. And this woman’s story was that of a working class woman falling for a working class man who happened to be a migrant. The system begrudges these stories, resenting the way they pollute a visa process intended to be only for the wealthy, the worthy. The rest are supposed to cross the desert.

Jorge and I sent photographs of ourselves on the Great Wall, of ourselves on boardwalks in Borneo, of afternoon walks with the dog in flowering Oaxaca. We sent the entrance tickets to Chinese museums and boarding passes to Kota Kinabalu; napkins we’d saved from restaurants in Mexico City and emails with poems and songs and Borges quotes and sweet nothings. I wrote our story in the appropriate box on the application: “Describe the circumstances under which you met, etc.” I wrote of a dashing photographer, a rising-star artist wooing a young traveler in a Oaxacan café, of the two taking off for adventures in Asia, of her acceptance into an MFA program and their subsequent move to Pittsburgh to settle down into the Good Life, the American Life. This is a story the consulate very much likes to hear, a story that makes the bureaucrats settle comfortably into their chairs with a slight paternal smugness: now, aren’t these two doing it right. Don’t they share our values. Never mind that during my time abroad I rarely made more than $600 a month, that all of our trips were paid for by my teaching positions and that we were always a hair’s breadth from financial disaster; never mind that Jorge grew up without enough money for lunch, saving for months for basketball shoes, that his brother migrated to the U.S at age 17 and lived in a cave for months before moving back to the Sierra Juárez, that Jorge has always detested Los Estados Unidos and never wanted to live there, and that I never would have returned to live if it weren’t for school and we’d both most likely leave as soon as the program ended: we knew how to write our story, knew which photos to send and what to wear to the interview, and we managed to borrow enough money to fill a bank account, and that was all that mattered. So on seventy-two pages of K1 visa petition, we were a rosy-cheeked and charmingly adventurous young couple who were finally settling down to jobs and sofas in the United States.

Upstairs the hallways were silent, tomb-like. The padded carpet absorbed the soft indentations of our footprints. Outside the afternoon blared on in saturated blues and heat-blasted whites and yellows, taking on a distant and faintly unbelievable quality behind the lacy inner layers of curtains; a world seen after a death or from a hospital room or a bus window, detached from the dark interiors where people huddle.

Stella collapsed beside the air conditioner.


That evening we tried “The best sushi on the border!” from across the street. Our food options – Little Ceasar’s, Papa John’s, Subway, Denny’s – were a reminder that this border was the terrain of American capitalism. La Quinta’s website lists sixteen chain restaurants in a two-kilometer radius: ten of them are American-owned. Just about every major American hotel chain is present; some have two or three hotels (Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Holiday Inn Express & Suites). They all offer the same services: the free shuttles anywhere in a 10k radius, the breakfast buffets, the guarded parking lots, the 24-hour security, the fences, delivery from the surrounding American chain restaurants. Their abundance does not simply indicate that this is the largest American consulate in the world, processing some 250,000 visas a year – many of those visa applicants stay in much humbler hotels in a different district – but also that this tortured and wrecked city was a hub of American commerce and the epicenter of a NAFTA-inspired boom. These were comforting landmarks to all of the business professionals who, before the factories moved to China and the locals realized they couldn’t survive on their salaries and the threat of assassination and kidnapping and carjacking became so great, came to this city to make deals and profits.

While we were waiting for the sushi to arrive, Jorge insisted I watch a video he’d discovered on YouTube.

“Seriously, it’s terrifying,” he said. “You have to see it.”

It was a video of sicarios (hired killers). Not a news clip about sicarios but a video of them carrying out a hit in Creel, a small town about 600 kilometers south of Ciudad Juárez, in the same drug and violence-plagued state of Chihuahua. Creel is best known as the gateway to the Copper Canyon, one of Mexico’s premiere tourist attractions. The video had been captured by a Chihuahua State Police security camera. It was posted on YouTube (where it went viral, getting over a million hits) and sent to Televisa, Mexico’s television monopoly, which dutifully broadcast it. (The video eventually made it to at least one American newscast as well, in which a clean-cut blonde guy with a pink tie asks – when the sicarios finally go in to make their kill – “Who the target is, we’re not really sure, but does it really matter?”)

No one at Televisa questioned who had sent a state police security video to their offices, or how a state police security camera under constant surveillance could zoom in on narcos’ faces and follow their movements for over an hour and a half with not a single state policeman actually showing up on the scene. The State Attorney General of Chihuahua made an official announcement that the sicarios in the video had stolen it from the state police, posted it online and sent it to Televisa in order to threaten their enemies. The more popular theory in Mexico was that the sicarios were in fact state policemen. Jorge and I settled in together, our backs to the headboard, and he pushed play.

The music, an urgent rhythm of rising and falling keyboard notes, starts up. The camera shows a small, dingy town with one main street, where a single pedestrian is walking down the center of the road. Creel, Chihuahua, the white type in the corner reads. 5:30 a.m.

A narco truck appears. Then a convoy of trucks. They pull off to the left side of the road. The light is a gauzy gray-purple. Six or seven men, maybe more, carrying AK-47s and wearing thick jackets and masks, get out of the SUVs. The camera zooms in on the boss. He has a blocky face with no discernable expression, and he’s sitting in the plush passenger seat of a truck, holding a plastic bag of cocaine. He is silent and stoic as he holds the bag out for communal use. Everyone dips, the men procuring a visible pinch of white powder and snorting it, some coming back for another sniff or two before the boss dips: once, twice, three times, four times, calmly. Then the camera zooms out to show the men pacing and one of them in a ball cap giving the others directions to go out and do reconnaissance. The light rises in an orange-gold wave.

A black SUV drives up and squarely blocks off the main road into and out of town. The sicarios are chatting with the driver when suddenly they stare down the road and the camera pans to a white pickup pulling to a slow stop in front of the roadblock. The sicarios swarm it. The driver is yanked out, slammed against the hood of the car, and frisked. The sicarios flash their weapons around, lean in to grill a passenger inside, and ultimately send the driver on his way. Then they gather back at their trucks; a group of ten to fifteen men, all with assault weapons thrown over their shoulders, standing on the main road in town. No one, not the state police, not any of the nearly 10,000 soldiers in Chihuahua, no citizen of the town, shows up to stop them.

Then they take off, fanning out across a large field set aglow by the early morning sun. Their black figures cut long shadows beneath the sun’s rays. They run towards a large, new white house. Two men kick and pound the door but it doesn’t open. They fire shots inside. The shots register as brief orange flashes in the shape of windowpanes. The men kick harder at the door and fire more shots. The camera pans out. Sicarios come streaming around the sides of the house, chatting, gesturing, conferring. The family inside has been executed: nine people, including a 14-year-old. The sicarios’ breath is white smoke in the chilly dawn air.

The camera pans back across the field to the road, where another truck has stumbled into the wrong place at the wrong time. It pulls up to the roadblock and the sicarios approach it with the steady measured pace of soldiers, guns swiftly at the ready. The driver gets out immediately with his hands up and is turned around and frisked. The sicarios climb in and explore the car, climb out again, walk around the car, alternately pointing their guns at the driver and inside the car before finally letting the driver go. He pulls away very carefully. Then the sicarios pile into their respective trucks and drive away unhurriedly, a convoy of a half-dozen or so SUV’s that moves casually, not speeding, not rushing, against the outline of the Sierra de Chihuhua, their wheels stirring up clouds of dust. Creel, Chihuhua, the white text reads. March 15th, 2010. 6:30 a.m.

The sushi came. The deliveryman took off quickly after we’d paid.


The next morning I stuck details on Jorge like post-its: “Remember NOT to give them the 2009 tax return unless they ask for it…remember I was born at Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati Ohio on July 8th 1982…and remember it’s the creative nonfiction writing program and it’s three years, a Masters In Fine Arts, Maestría En Artes Fines…and remember do not mention the Oaxaca wedding and only Ohio on the 18th” –

“Ok bébé,” Jorge whispered. “Adios.”

Jorge and I had gotten married in Oaxaca but were keeping that wedding (which was officiated by a friend and didn’t involve any legal procedures) on the sly; officially, we were engaged and getting married in the US. It takes far less time to get a K1 fiancé visa (in which the couple comes to the US engaged and then gets married) than a K3 spouse visa (in which the couple marries abroad and then moves to the US), so we’d decided to have a wedding in Oaxaca with friends and family and then a quickie legal wedding in the US with paperwork and bureaucrats. Our first marriage involved molé and mariachis and mezcal and the Zapotec tradition of dancing with a turkey. Our second involved G-325 addendums, letters of sworn intent to marry in the United States of America, translated emails, photocopied receipts and affidavits from friends avowing to the “bona fides of [our] impending marriage.”

The consulate has a perverse fascination with personal details. “What’s your fiancée’s favorite color? Where was she born? What exact day did you meet? Is it your anniversary? Why, or why not?”

These questions, which pop up in both the interview and the visa petition that precedes it, are ostensibly to sniff out false marriages or engagements that have been made with the sole purpose of getting someone into the U.S. This is a fairly common practice. People will pay American citizens thousands of dollars to walk them through the immigration process; the Americans collect on their citizenship, dutifully appearing in front of immigration services in two years to prove they’re still with their “partners”, and the partners get a shot at legal immigration they would never have had on their own and an exponentially sped up green card process. After five years, once the partner has become a citizen, the couple can divorce.

Never mind that American citizens marry each other all the time in the interest of money, and are not required to file paperwork when they do so swearing before the state that theirs is “a love marriage”, and never mind the irony that in a country that commodifies every last instant of daily existence from breakfast to sex to death, and that privileges the free market pricing of human values above those values themselves, citizenship, of all things, cannot be sold.

So Jorge set off to prove our love to the American consul in Ciudad Juárez, and I shut the door like all the others and waited.


He returned at 2 p.m.

“And?” I said.

“I think it went fine.”

“AND?” I pressed. “All the details, please.”

He sat on the bed and narrated his day for me.

At the consulate door, people were rooting through dumpsters looking for their discarded cell phones and belts. The consulate will not allow anyone to enter with anything other than the requisite packet of papers. No bags or items may be left or stored, so unless a person wants to lose his much anticipated appointment he’d better be willing to chuck whatever offending object on the spot. Jorge learned this in Mexico City, at an interview for a tourist visa; he’d had to take the overnight bus from Oaxaca for an 8 am appointment, and he had a small bag. The consulate told him to throw it away or miss the interview (for which he’d, of course, already paid his $155.00). He dashed to a Starbucks across the street and the baristas there held it for him while he was inside.

There was an air of competition and carefully manufactured calm in the waiting room. Each person standing before judgment, waiting to be called for fingerprinting, for payment, and finally for the interview, a meticulously compiled packet on his or her lap.

Jorge’s number was called, and he went into the consul’s office. She was a svelte older American expatriate. I can imagine her clearly from Jorge’s description. Tall, lithe, blond, with a hard intelligent face and a smooth gray suit, sizing Jorge up. I imagine her driving to work in the morning in a glinting silver car and wearily sizing Juárez up, this place, again; a hardship post, probably. She’d glide into the Starbucks in the strip mall near the embassy, order herself a large black coffee and pull back out again, ease into the embassy parking space, waltz through the front doors with bored authority – buenos dias, buenos dias, cruise into her office, sit down, sigh, and begin thumbing papers.

“Do you speak English?” she asked sternly.

“Yes,” Jorge said, sitting up straight.

“Good,” she said, “because I speak English.” She said this with a sharp little laugh, as if it were a misunderstood fact in this job, something most damn Mexicans failed to pick up on. That put him in good standing with her. She conducted the interview in English, firing off a list of questions.

“Have you ever entered the United States illegally?”


“Have you ever done drugs?”


“Have you ever sold drugs?”


“Have you ever been arrested?”


“Have you ever been in jail?”


Nos are perfunctory – one single yes could complicate matters for years. One young guy Jorge met in line at the consulate had been denied his K3 visa the year before because he told the consul he’d smoked marijuana once at a party. I did research and found that immigration lawyers have expressed dismay over the increasing inflexibility of the Juárez consulate with regards to the drug question and are counseling their clients to flat out deny ever having used any type of drug or alcohol. Any drug use whatsoever, whether or not it led to addiction or was illegal in the applicant’s home country, is grounds for denial. This creates a rock-and-a-hard-place scenario: if an applicant admits to drug use, he can be denied no matter how frivolous and far in the past the incident, but if he lies, he can be denied for falsifying information, and potenially banned from ever entering the U.S again.

“I figured it’d be best to be honest, right?” the guy told Jorge. He had passed both the drug test and the psychological exam. Still, his visa application was rejected. The consul told him to come back in six months and to say “no” when asked if he’d done drugs. So there he was, back for the second round, out another thousand dollars but at least aware of the script this time.

“Well,” the consul said after she’d gone down the list, “I see no reason not to approve you. Provided your fingerprints come up clean, the visa will come on Monday.”

Jorge thanked her, and she nodded and ushered him out. Next.


This necessitated celebration, which in Ciudad Juárez took the form of a six-pack of Bohemia and a bag of jalapeño chips from the OXXO station a short walk down the boulevard from the hotel. We decided that the circumstances were worth venturing beyond the hotel gates: something we’d only done only once before to fetch Stella in the abandoned lot.

At the OXXO I grabbed a Diario de Juárez. The headline read:

“It’s really happening: hit the floor!” and referred to the institution of programs in Juarez schools teaching kids how to duck and protect themselves from gun battles. Several executions had already taken place near schools, with windows shot out and children gaping at the bullet-ridden corpses.

The death toll for the previous day was 19. The Diario de Juárez kept faithful count of the numbers: each morning the previous day’s dead surfaced in numerical form.

We held out until 2:30 before we started in on the Bohemias, setting up our fiesta in the shade of the hotel’s back flank, which looked out over a fence with a warning sign (“La Quinta is not responsible for losses, damages or robberies in this parking lot”) to the vacant lot and a neighborhood beyond it. We tried to fetch Stella, but she came back whimpering, her paws steaming from the heat. She curled up between the two of us and tried to sleep.

Sometime then, right after sitting down with Stella and around the first few sips of beer, we heard screams. Distinct screams coming from one of the houses in the neighborhood. They echoed clearly across the vacant lot in the stillness of the afternoon. They sounded female, but had an uneven quality that made it hard to know. Then there were clattering sounds like boards falling on top of one another or furniture breaking. Then muffled furious shouts. And then nothing.

We didn’t say anything. The sky was a gleaming oppressive blue. Off to the left I could make out a church dome that looked new, shiny and gold. On the gray concrete back of what might have been an English school the paint was peeling off of a Union Jack. Everything had the crisp, unreal definition of a movie. Parched yellow weeds rustled the fences in the wind. It was silent.

“What was that?” Jorge said a few moments later.

“Don’t know.”

We ignored it. It almost felt normal. It was a hot endless afternoon, and it was Ciudad Juárez and it was in that other world where screams drifted out over vacant lots and everyone took another sip of beer.


Visas are sent through DHL: the applicant pays for delivery after his or her visa appointment, and whenever a decision is arrived at the package is sent from the DHL office at the consulate to a branch near downtown.

Checking the site quickly becomes a ritual. On the many visa forums online I found micro-analyses of each DHL status update, and many threads devoted to consoling anxious waiting applicants, who were so close to the border and yet still so susceptible to whim, to the possibility that the package just wouldn’t arrive or would contain an error and they’d end up like the two men I met in the lobby, frantically calling their lawyer about a forgotten document, or like the family from Tijuana whose twins’ pictures had been mixed up and who’d had to stay on an extra two weeks in Juárez while the consulate sorted it out.

The yellow-bordered screen with its one scrap of information –Shipment Information Received 8/06 – was seared into our brains by Thursday night.

On Friday morning Jorge went to the OXXO again. As he was waiting to be checked out, two men strutted in. He said they looked like lower-class machos you’d find anywhere in Oaxaca. They stood behind him in line and talked about how they’d “threatened a woman real good” and “they’d show her next time, uh huh” and “she got the message, didn’t she.” They were bragging about something, looking pointedly at the cashier –a young, pale girl with dark brown eyes and black hair – and at Jorge. They were making a point. Whether it was a specific point or simply a point about what they were capable of was not clear. Jorge left and hurried back across the street. He didn’t tell me that until much later that night when we’d had a few beers and were eating Papa John’s on the bed.

On Monday morning we woke up with a slight buzz of excitement. This was our day. Jorge hit the breakfast buffet and this time did not bring stockpiles of Fruit Loops for the afternoon. We checked the site again. And again. And again.

11 a.m. Shipping Information Received 8/06.

11:30 a.m. Shipping Information Received 8/06.

12 p.m. The head maid, who had the face of a dark brooding actress with a tiny mole above her lip, knocked and asked the inevitable question: another night? We pleaded for one more hour. She nodded and moved on to the next door.

At two, we called the front desk in resignation. Jorge sunk into resolute silence and I ranted and paced. Ultimately we watched the afternoon wind tear through the palms and the sky turn wispy and then sharp, and the lights begin to gleam as night settled over the city again. On Tuesday morning we slept late and stayed in bed, fiddling with our computers and munching on leftover chips.

“It’s not going to come today,” I said from time to time. “Who knows when the thing will come.”

The head maid knocked at noon. We were still in our pajamas. We gave her a flat out yes, we’re staying.

At 1:47 p.m. I screamed.

“What?” Jorge shouted.

“It says ‘Shipment picked up.’”

Fifteen minutes after the status update we were ready to go. We were racing against time now– it was 2 p.m., getting late to attempt the border crossing, which could take hours.

We hurried downstairs and stacked our things at one end of the cool marble hallway, Stella in her kennel in the middle of them, the centerpiece of the chaotic jumble that constituted all of our material possessions. Jorge went to the desk to ask about the shuttle; there was one leaving in five minutes to go to the consulate and then to DHL.

When Jorge left I kissed him an enthusiastic goodbye and settled in on the floor next to Stella. The one thing we had to hope for now, the last unknown, was the name of the bridge that would be scrawled in the bottom left-hand corner of the DHL packet.

It was a fortune written by an emperor, that small lettering that told you where to go with your package. If you were lucky, the people at the hotel told us, you got Zaragoza, the bridge only a few miles north of La Quinta, which I’d crossed nearly a week ago. The soldiers there were trigger-happy – they’d killed several people after opening fire on a car that had sped through the checkpoint – but the bridge was quick and close.

If not you’d get Puente de las Américas, a ten-lane nightmare of a crossing a good thirty-minute drive across town from the hotel. Cars waited in long hot lines to pass immigration and pedestrians waited infinitely longer.

Twenty minutes later Jorge bustled through the door. I stood up.

“It’s the other bridge,” he said, “Puente de las Américas.”

“No,” I said. “No. I can’t do that.”

“The shuttle can lead us,” he said, “It’s leaving right now. First we go to DHL so more people can pick up their packets, then to the bridge.”

“Oh God,” I said, “Really, we have to drive across the city –”

“Go,” he said. “Now. Go get water. I’ll take things to the car.” He thrust a water bottle at me and I went.

In the bathroom I looked at myself in the mirror as I filled the bottle. My hands were shaking. The water started overflowing. I screwed on the cap and glanced at my reflection for a second longer before hurrying out.

The shuttle driver helped us load the suitcases and asked,

“All set?”

We nodded.


The drive into the city center took us past big box store after big box store: Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club, Home Depot and Office Depot, each with an oceanic parking lot coruscating with cars, and in between the familiar swaths of flat, dusty, vacant land.

When we pulled into the parking lot of the strip mall where DHL was located I was already damp with sweat. Jorge, Stella and I stepped outside the car to wait in the shade under an awning while the others picked up their visa packages. A narco truck, one that looks like one of those float planes that land on emerald lakes somewhere in Alaska, idled in front of us, its bulky driver reading a Diario de Juárez. We’d been in such a rush that morning that we didn’t have a chance to catch the death count. An older woman in black sunglasses we could barely make out through the tinted glass glanced from time to time towards DHL.

“Well, we’re in an ideal spot for a shootout,” Jorge said. “Plenty of cover, shade, hidden from the action.”

When everyone had gathered their yellow envelopes the shuttle pulled out again.

The strip mall fell away on the left and the sterile blues and oranges of various logos bled together on either side of the car. Further on the road narrowed slightly into two lanes going each direction, separated by a low cement barrier. La Quinta’s van passed suddenly into the right lane, and I swerved behind it. A minute later, trucks full of federales came charging up behind us.

Two, three, four trucks passed us, each with a bed crammed full of men and women in dark navy uniforms, with padded vests and ski masks, tersely holding AK-47s. The last truck stayed even with us for what seemed like ages, waiting for the others in front to ride up on cars and force them over. The federales peered down into the Honda with its Ohio plates and gringa driver; I couldn’t look up at them, but I could feel the weight of their masks tilted downwards.

A moment or so later they’d cleared out the lane and zoomed ahead to the latest crime scene.

We twisted and arced and turned behind the van. In my concentration, yelling at Jorge to be quiet and fixing my eyes on the bobbing heads of the passengers in the shuttle’s backseat, I saw only the faint blurring of green foliage at the windshield’s edges and the darkening of streets as we passed through a residential area full of high walls, and then, finally, we turned left on a long, sweeping curve and before us lay the border: a wide ramp rising towards the other side, packed with cars.


I would have to cross alone; Jorge had to walk through because of his type of visa. I dropped him at the right side of the road as the shuttle driver had said to do and joined the cars streaming towards the ramp, coming to an idle at the bottom. We were packed into five or so slapdash lanes. The actual border wasn’t visible yet; only the shining roofs of the cars ahead and the fences to either side, hemming us in.

I realized with dread that there were ambulantes everywhere, selling sparkly Jesus paintings and plastic trinkets from China and bottles of water. They maneuvered deftly between cars, pressing their wares to the windows. They spotted me quickly.

One rapped on the window with a knuckle. I summoned Stella to the front seat, hoping she’d bark, sense my fear, raise her hackles. She panted with a big toothy grin.

There was no pulling away here. I tried to smile and give a slight shake of my head, but the man only rapped more persistently. Others were starting to gather around him. I gave up and rolled down the window.

“You’re in the wrong lane!” the ambulante announced, gesturing at the lines of cars to the left.

“Como,” I said.

“This is the Mexican side, for Mexicans. You’re a gringa, you have to be in the gringa lane.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “No one told me about this.” I sensed a scam.

“Yeah, well, if you stay in this lane you’re going to have to pay a fine of five hundred dollars. This is for Mexicans only. The gringo lanes are over there, see. See how all of these cars have Mexican plates?”

I couldn’t help it. I looked. It was true; I could see only Chihuahua plates in the lanes to the right. There was a Texas plate a few lanes to the left.

“You stay in this lane you won’t be able to get over and you’ll have to pay,” the guy insisted.

“I don’t think so,” I fought back. “No one said anything about this.”

“Listen,” the man said, his friends pressing behind him now, their silhouettes large and black against the bleached afternoon sky, “You’re not from around here, so you probably don’t know, but you’ll be in big trouble if you stay in these lanes and you cross on the wrong side. Big problems.” His friends nodded behind him.

“Let’s clear a way for this girl!” he said.

“No, no,” I said, “please don’t.”

“You have to get over,” he insisted, “otherwise you’ll have big problems.”

In the seconds I hesitated the men made the decision for me. They began reorganizing traffic professionally, far better than any Mexican transit cops I’d seen. They ushered the women selling refrescos a few lanes to the right, hurried the hunched old man begging for change several cars back, and stalled traffic in the neighboring lane. Then:

“Come, come, come!” the director of the operation shouted.

I obeyed. There was nothing else I could do. I veered the Honda into the next lane, held up my hand in a show of thanks and said gracias, gracias, gracias, over and over, hoping to put an end to it there. But the moment I’d straightened out the car, the ambulantes had stormed around it and began working on clearing out the next lane over, paying me no heed. They barked at hat-sellers and peanut-hawkers, scattered miserable panhandlers, and then the man in charge, the ambulante boss, stepped in front of a car and detained it with his palm.

“Go, go, go!” he shouted. This time the space was tighter. I hesitated. Men surrounded the Honda and slapped its trunk to signal that I was OK. I inched forward, jerked a little to the left, pulled ahead at the banging insistence of the men, and finally straightened out into the next lane.

“Uno mas!” shouted the boss. They were full of adrenaline now. I was panting. Stella was panting. There was only one more lane to go and then I’d be in the farthest one to the left.

One of the boss’ buddies tried to block a car but it surged ahead of him unfazed, barely missing his foot. He threw himself squarely in front of the next one, a huge narco truck in the floatplane style: black, with tinted windows. I felt a surge of nausea. No, not that one, don’t stop that one, I thought. The narco truck stopped short.

“Ven, ven! Go, go!” the ambulante shouted. The other men slapped the back of the car in a disorienting crescendo of metallic booms.

I looked sideways at the narco truck, lifted my hand out the window in a gesture of armistice and then swept ahead into the final lane, coming up tight against the fence.

The ambulantes swooped around the Honda for their prize.

“How much for helping you?” they said. “We did you a big favor.”

I fished around in my bag, fumbling through my wallet one-handed to avoid bringing it out, and produced two dollars.

“Here,” I said.

“Que?” the man exclaimed, outraged. “No no no. There is a fine. It’s very expensive. Another American man gave us forty dollars. We saved you a lot of problems.”

“I don’t have more,” I said firmly. “I have to get gas on the other side. I’m almost out.”

“You have more,” he said, half playfully, half menacingly. “Forty dollars. At least.”

I tried another tack.

“Listen,” I implored, “my husband is going through the pedestrian side and I have to pick him up. We have to drive all the way to Ohio. I have hardly any money and hardly any gas. I’m sorry, I’m really sorry. Please.”

“You married a Mexicano?”

“Yes,” I said, smiling sweetly, “those Mexican men are dangerous.”

“Hey guys!” he shouted. “This one speaks good Spanish! Se casó con un mexicano!”

“Oralé!” remarked a stout guy in a baseball cap, easing around the hood. I greeted him and he said, hand on his hip, “So your Mexican gets a free ride then, huh.”

“Not really,” I said, “it’s very expensive to do all this. And I don’t have any money because I have to pay for gas as soon as I get to the other side.”

“You have gas,” the man standing over the window pointed out. I did, indeed, have nearly a full tank of gas. Fuck.

“Yes, but I’ll need some quickly once I start driving. And I need cash because my husband doesn’t have any money.”

“The Mexican problem!” the man laughed. “No hay dinero.”

“De donde eres?” asked the stout guy. I said Ohio.

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m supporting my husband,” I said with the demure dignified suffering of the virgencita, “because I didn’t want him to be alone.”

The stout man smiled, sensing the ploy and buying it at the same time.

“Please, leave me alone?” I asked. “I’m very stressed out, I’m scared, I don’t know what to do, please.”

“But we helped you,” said the man lurking over the window, “it’s not easy to do this, move all these cars. We did you a big favor.”

“I know,” I said gently, “but I didn’t ask you to do it, and I just don’t have the money to give you.” I started sniffling.

“You have money.” he said.

“No, I don’t,” I said syrupy-sweet and pleading, “Please.”

His voice grew hard and his mouth firmed into a line.

“Give me one more dollar: there are three of us.” I fished out another dollar and handed it to him. He stared down at me for a second and then sauntered off.

The cars edged forward. I stared ahead in a stupor. The narco truck sat like a brooding bull behind me.


We nudged closer and closer to the dividing line, fifteen, twenty minutes, the car sweltering. The ambulantes were done with me now. One tried to sell me a Jesus carved in stone and covered in glitter, but gave up after a minute or two. I would not open the windows again, even though Stella and I were both woozy with heat. I kept turning and dumping water on Stella’s head, and she was too hot to turn away in distaste. My hands were covered in German Shepherd fur.

About thirty minutes in, the ramp fanned out into a plain of ten or more lines waiting to pass through customs. I could see no discernable difference between the lanes to the right and the lanes to the left. Cars bled out gratefully into the wider space; I pulled forward into a new line and the narco truck edged up right beside me, to my left.

I glanced over, unable to control myself. The driver was wearing an eye patch. The driver was wearing an eye patch. He was staring, cold, unflinching, just staring and not caring about staring at all, on his fluffy leather seats high above me, his good eye cocked right at me. I turned straight back ahead and thought about some day in an Ohio winter when I’d be listening to NPR and cruising down I-71 and suddenly a truck would pull in front of me and pump me full of bullets.

This was my final thought in Ciudad Juárez. I meditated on it for the last three or four minutes as the man with the eye patch and I moved together towards the toll, him staring at me the entire time, my bare arms on the steering wheel, my hair wet from sweat.


The light turned green and it was my turn. The customs agent took my passport and Stella’s papers, flipped desultorily through them, and waved me through to the inspection point.

While the agents zipped and unzipped suitcases, fingered pockets and patted down bags, I wondered how many kilos of cocaine and marijuana and meth were slipping through in tires and false beds and cans of jalapeños right now, how many sobres the customs agents had received this month and how many right now were giving a nondescript OK to certain vehicles of a particular make and year.

The agents gave me the go-ahead and I wove again through the zigzagged concrete blocks and turned into a long narrow parking lot.

After days of waiting in the hotel, waiting in the consulate, waiting in the doctor’s office waiting room, waiting on the bridge, people waited again, finally, in this parking lot.

There was a small sheltered area about the size of a bus stop, with a few wooden benches. Dozens of people were crammed in there, sweating and fanning themselves. At first Stella and I joined them, and a little girl fed Stella treat after treat, delighting when Stella slapped her warm paw on the girl’s hand in a shake. Then we got restless and tired and instead went back to the car, where I opened all the doors and windows and reclined the seats as much as possible.

An hour. Two hours. Three hours. Finally I left Stella in the car with the windows cracked and raced inside. I was tremendously thirsty and worried about Jorge.

The building had all the importance of a church basement: just one big room with a few bulky machines in the corner, and a smaller interior room where dozens of people were seated, waiting, in stiff plastic chairs.

I sweet-talked my way past the Latino immigration officer and made it into the small room, where I spotted Jorge in the third row. He jumped when he saw me. We stage-whispered over the crowd.

“When will you finish?”

“It’s been two hours already and there’s still no one at the window.”

I checked: all seven or eight windows were dark and empty. Fifty or sixty people waited, cramped in their chairs with their packets and numbers on their laps.

“I don’t know,” Jorge said. “It could be hours.”

We said goodbye to one another and I sprinted back to Stella in the car.

The day faded. The bowl of sky cupped over El Paso and Ciudad Juárez took on the vivid oranges and greens of desert sunsets, then went pink around the edges and blue-purple in the center. Families left and more came, the parking lot always full, people always hovering beneath the shelter, people always passing back and forth between nations. The crossing is open twenty-four hours a day.

Later, at 10:30 p.m., after a little more than six and a half hours of waiting, Jorge would come out of the building and we would hug one another, get in the car, and drive off into the desert night. We would break down in Big Spring, Texas, for three days, make it to Ohio a little over a week later, sign the marriage papers in a Columbus park, and send off another round of forms and fees for the green card. In November, Jorge would become a US permanent resident.

But there, in the parking lot, the hours crept on, the light fell, and Stella ate a papaya – the only food in the car since we’d brought none through customs – while I sat on the curb under a streetlight, unable to sit in the car any longer. The sky was soft and dark, and behind me the expressway shimmered with cars.

A painstakingly dressed woman and her three little girls in white princess dresses waited beside us for awhile in an immense truck that towered above the Honda. The girls pointed at Stella and giggled when I waved hello with a paw. They had white bows in their hair and white patent leather shoes and they were giddy with a kind of holiday excitement. Their mom smiled, nervous and checking herself every so often in the rearview mirror. The four of them got out for a spell and sat on the bed of the truck, looking towards the border, their legs swinging in the warm air. A tall man in a white sombrero and cowboy boots eventually came out and met them, planting kisses on all of them and whisking them away into the night.





  • bruce says:

    very excellent story. i enjoyed it and wish you and Jorge a long and happy life together

  • Anna says:

    Really fascinating personal account interweaved with tales of others, and beautifully written. Also, really gripping at the end – I felt like I was in that car with you trying to convince the ambulantes to leave you alone. so tense! phew. going to make a cup of calming tea.
    Thanks for the ride.

  • Carissa says:

    This story is really overwrought. I’m sure Juarez is scary, but every single Mexican in the story can’t be scary. There’s no other people in it, it’s a tale of one woman and her intense fear. Flat.

  • Soooo good, thanks for this, I imagine I’ll be undertaking a similar adventure in the near future.

  • Dennis Smith says:

    Carissa: Overwrought? Have you ever been in a situation where, without notice or any hope of police protection you could be raped, murdered, or perhaps even worse? If you are saying this as an American tucked safely in your home, I suggest a little more empathy would be in order.

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