This story is two years old now, from April of 2010, during the height of the Arizona immigration law controversy. I dug it up because I was recently asked for a funny anecdote about my life in Mexico from Internations.
I got stopped by immigration at the North Bus Station in Mexico City on Friday after a longer than usual trip from Toluca. My friends were on their way to pick me up, so I decided to walk around outside the station while I waited. Right between the main central exit and the entrance to the metro station I was stopped by a man in all black who asked for my papers.
“Mis papeles? Porque?”
The response was too fast for my emerging Spanish skills, but I caught the word “pasaporte.”
“No tengo mi pasaporte.”
Then he switched to bad English, asking for some ID. I noticed the writing on his shirt, which included the word immigration, so I gave him my Canadian driver’s license. He told me to wait, took out a cell phone, and stepped away.
There were about 10 of them, all wearing the same black polo shirts with the yellow immigration seal over the left breast. A young, angry blonde guy in a suit stood nearby, also under scrutiny.
The man returned with my ID, asking me (in Spanish again) how long I’d been here, where I lived, where my passport was. I told him: one and a half months, in Toluca, in Toluca. He stepped away again, still on the cell phone.
A young lady officer approached and asked me, in good English, “So you’ve been here for 6 months, and you don’t have your passport?”
“No,” I calmly explained, “one and a half months.” I also explained my situation – that I was just coming to the city for the weekend, that I lived in Toluca, that my passport was there, and that I didn’t carry my passport on me all the time, especially when I was going out drinking.
“They should tell you at the airport,” she explained. “Mexican law states that you must have your passport and tourist card (the paper they give you at the airport) with you at all times.”
“I had no idea.”
She told me that they would try to find me in the computer. Before I could explain that although my ID was Canadian, my passport was from the US, she said that some people were being very rude to them.
“Because you don’t have your passport with you, I could take you to the immigration jail right now.”
“What would happen then?”
“Someone would have to bring your passport there.”
I imagined calling my girlfriend from the immigration jail, asking her to go to my apartment where she would have to convince my landlady to let her in, and then busing to the immigration jail, wherever it is. Not to mention the unknown horrors of the immigration jail itself. I’m sure it isn’t good to be an American in those places.
“But because you’re being nice, we can work this out here.”
I didn’t realize that I was being nice. I braced for the bribe request, but then she kept talking.
“Like him,” she said, pointing at the guy in the suit. “We’re going to take him in. Americans are so rude.”
“Well, you’re just doing your job.”
We chatted a little more, about her former boyfriend from New Zealand, and how that next time I would be sure to have my passport. She told me that copies would be ok. All the while they stopped every Caucasian who passed and one Asian. They all must have had passports because they moved along quickly.
The first officer came back and said they couldn’t find me, so I had to explain that I and my passport were American. The poor girl turned bright red and apologized. I thought that maybe this confusing fact about my status might earn me a trip to the jail, but they found my file in the computer.
“You’ve been here six months,” she said. “So you have to update your status right away.”
“No, really, I have just been here a month and a half. Six months ago I came for one month. That was the last time I came. I came and I left.”
“Well, you can go.”
All in all this took about half an hour. The American was still standing there, looking angry, and I saw that he actually had his passport in his hand.
Now, it seems to me that this must be a reaction to the Arizona law, about which the Mexicans are pissed off, and rightly so in my opinion. Of course there are illegal Americans in Mexico, and I’m sure that the gov’t would be happy to find some and deport them publicly. But what about the irony that the contentious nature of the Arizona law, that immigrants must always carry their papers, is apparently the same in Mexico?
So, expats in Mexico, make a copy of your passport and tourist card and keep it in your wallet and don’t get mad when you get stopped. As you know, in Mexico the police and military can and will search you at any time. It’s not like in the US or Canada, where you can refuse, claiming your rights. You have to keep calm and polite. And for those of you who have overstayed your time (6 months), time to take a bus trip to Guatemala and back.