Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Magic Wand

Efficiency is not a word that I have ever associated with any government body, even the government of the United States of America, and especially lately. During my weekday commute this non-association has only intensified in the last decade or so, after having witnessed countless wasted taxpayer dollars minding the border of the United States of America and the United States of Mexico. There have been mornings when I have imagined piles and piles of money being hoisted on top of the border fence, so that in no time at all the big metal barrier is covered in fives, tens, and twenties, sticky with the slimy fingerprints of politicians and the upper class. This mental image that I sometimes carry is ironic in the sense that the real borders of every country are economic. Any fence can be brought down with a crude blowtorch, but razing a ladder to scale an economic wall is another thing entirely.

As they say, it takes money to make money, and so on.

But I will say this about the United States of America: At least they sometimes try to be more efficient. Their reasons for trying to be more efficient are often suspect, what with democracy and voting and so on, but never mind that for a moment, motives can always be explored separately. For whatever reason, various programs are sometimes initiated in order to illustrate the desire of the government to strive to be more efficient in some way. All governments, incidentally, use the same basic formula when striving toward efficiency.

First, you need a good acronym for the new government program.

Some years ago, the United States of America decided that some of the people who cross the border almost every day might be safe enough risks to provide themselves with a means of a fast and almost hassle-free method of passage. Being a safe enough risk crossing the border into the United States of America means that one is not likely to bring undocumented immigrants, pesky fruit flies, illegal drugs, more than one liter of booze, or a Cuban cigar into the country. The United States of America instituted a program known as SENTRI to efficiently deal with such safe enough risks. SENTRI is an acronym that stands for ‘Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection’.

There are hundreds of ironies in all of this, by the way, but I cannot go on without pointing out two of them. First, the symbol that marks the vehicle lane designated as a "SENTRI" lane is a sign that sports a seventeen hundred and seventy-six bluecoat American revolutionary sentry, rifle at his chest, looking quite immovable. Second, the obvious irony is that the words making up the acronym have nothing to do with the application process. For example, the word, travelers should really be replaced by the word commuters, but then SENCRI wouldn’t lend itself very kindly to that image of the bluecoat on the signs. And on and on.

The vehicle SENTRI lanes opened up a few years ago, even before the Homeland Security Department was a twinkle in the government's eye.

To become a SENTRI card holder - which entitles one to bring him or herself in their vehicle across the border in the designated lane - a fee of sixty dollars or so, along with a lengthy application process and certain proofs of residency, citizenship, and so on, must be submitted to the appropriate office. Then, an extensive background check is performed, and maybe three or four months later, they notify the applicant of acceptance or non-acceptance.

Second, you need to promote the new government program.

Since Americans and Mexicans alike are in love with their automobiles, very little promotion was required so many years back when the SENTRI program was born. In fact, there are times when I cross the border as a pedestrian that I notice the regular lanes are only five or ten cars deep, and the SENTRI lane is approaching one hundred. I swear.

About one month ago, I was handed a flyer by an employee of the Homeland Security Department, which used to be the Immigration and Naturalization Department and the Border Patrol, and so on, but that has all changed now. Go figure. So, this flyer was promoting a new program called 'Pedestrian SENTRI', and I should call a telephone number and find out all about it. It was a free ‘beta’ program. I like free. I called. The recording at the other end provided no clue as to what the flyer promised, but said that I should go to a government web site in case of such a lack of information. The web site had no mention of it. I had no idea how to see what in the heck this new government program was all about.

Third, you need someone to sign up for the new government program.

Yep. Right this way. Wherever this way is.

* * * *

Since the lines at the San Ysidro border crossing had dwindled a couple of months ago, in order to sleep in a bit I began crossing there again. It is a lovely feeling to wake up and know that I don’t have to leave until seven-thirty or so, that I have time to make sure that my socks match and so on, that I can even pass on the full calafia down the hill and wait for one with an empty seat. Lately, though, in the past couple of weeks or so, the lines have once again lengthened. Twenty or thirty minutes sometimes.

Standing in that line gave me the opportunity to notice that I failed to apply matching socks to my feet because I had to get up a little earlier now. It gave me the opportunity to consider that it would only get worse in a week or two when school started again. It also gave me an opportunity to notice the brand new pedestrian SENTRI line, off to the right. Never traveled in the times that I was crossing. Sparkling, inviting, begging for someone to walk through.

Last Monday, by chance, I arrived at the San Ysidro border crossing more that one-half hour ahead of schedule. Every time in the past couple of weeks that I passed the old building that used to be the customs building until President Nixon opened the one that is currently used, I noticed a sign that finally gave a clue as to where one should sign up for the new Pedestrian SENTRI card. I never had time before. I seized the opportunity.

On Wednesday, the Homeland Security Department issued me a magic wand.

* * * *

Friday morning, I left the house at eight o’clock. My cab dropped me off well South of the entrance, where I walked right by the long line, and some Homeland Security Department officials eyed me curiously as I approached, pack over my shoulder. I flashed them my magic wand from the distance.

"You needn’t concern yourselves with me," I silently projected through my magic wand.

They turned to each other and continued to chat away.

I was Merlin, damn it.

I cut through the line and walked against the wall past the hundreds in line who watched this magician float by (note to self: must buy some new purple robes and a mage’s hat). I approached the entry gates and waved my magic wand at a white object on the wall. The gates opened.

I walked down the aisle and waved the wand again, turned and faced a camera, placed my left index finger on a reader, and as the man behind the counter said, "Have a nice day, sir," I again waved my wand and the exit door opened and then closed behind me.

I boarded the trolley and wondered if I could get my magic wand to make the border disappear completely.


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