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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
One visa, never stamped

Globe and Mail Update
Thursday, January 29, 2004

My life as an undocumented alien in Mexico began on Jan. 10. Assigned to cover the Special Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, I got myself a ticket that took me there from Toronto via Mexico City. I could have flown through Dallas, which would have been shorter, but in this era of nail-file paranoia and orange alerts I figure it's best to avoid U.S. transit points. I know we're all supposed to be dazzled by the wonders of biometric technology. But I can't help thinking I might, against all odds, have the same iris as Osama bin Laden.

Now, undocumented is perhaps a bit of a stretch. I actually was in possession — am still in possession — of a rather elaborate visa, No. 1279985, provided by the very amiable folk at the Mexican consulate in Toronto. It isn't just a stamp in your passport. It's like a separate passport in itself, with a stiff olive-green cover and no fewer than 20 numbered pages. It contains a print of my right thumb, and a photo in which I appear to be contemplating some terrible ordeal that lies ahead. It declares me to be, among other things, married.

On Page 3 of this booklet is a space in which the date of my entry into Mexico was supposed to be recorded. It remains blank. What happened was this: The flight to Mexico City arrived late, and I hustled through the airport from the international side to the domestic side to make my connection. The traveller there has two options: go through immigration, or approach the transit desk. I did the latter, said "transito para Monterrey" in what I hoped was an assertive tone, and was waved through. When I arrived in Monterrey, a friend I'd met on the plane from Toronto inquired about immigration, and was told they only dealt with people who were coming directly from another country. Puzzled, but anxious to begin work, I left the terminal and headed into town.

Now, my intent isn't to chide the Mexicans for not catching me before I wandered across the U.S. border and enrolled in flying school. The fact that one person slipped through the net doesn't prove anything, except that safety is relative. Always has been, always will be. If you think you're golden because the guy in front of you has to take off his possibly metal-reinforced ostrich-leather cowboy boots before he goes through security, you're seriously deluded. The whole experience made me nostalgic for a simpler time, before people who think killing babies and blowing up airplanes will solve the world's problems had a hammerlock on international travel.

Moreover, I'm happy to report that for an outsider, Mexico remains welcoming, fascinating and, of course, endearing. I mean, where else can you walk into a car-rental agency, ask for a small, inexpensive (hello, boss!) automobile, and be offered a Volkswagen Beetle? (After showing a valid driver's licence, I hasten to add.) My vocho was a jet-black model of indeterminate vintage. It had that mildewy smell that all indifferently maintained cars acquire with time. It accelerated like Lyle's Golden Syrup and steered like the Exxon Valdez, but there was a pleasing fin d'époque feeling about driving it. Mexico was the last place they made Beetles; the final car came off the assembly line last year.

I told an acquaintance in the Mexican government about my immigration anomalies, and asked what might happen if I tried to leave the country without an entry stamp. Inquiries were made and I was told not to worry — the agents at the airport in the capital would have my name, and would regularize everything when I showed up for the flight home. As it happened, no official asked to see a stamp — neither in Mexico City nor anywhere else. And no one insisted on seeing the tourist card that all visitors supposedly fill out, retain, and surrender on departure.

I passed through Mexican airports nine times over a two-week period, and only once was I subjected to anything more than a cursory passport glance. That was in Ciudad Juarez, up on the U.S. border, where there are supposed to be extra controls. The immigration agent there looked at my olive-green visa as well as my passport, but said nothing about the lack of an entry stamp. In sum, if I'd been of any interest at all to the terror-fighters, they would have seen my trail go cold in Mexico. As far as the records are concerned, I was never there.

All of which would be little more than departure-lounge chit-chat, if it weren't for the fact that airport security is supposed to have been beefed up recently. Mexico went to its equivalent of orange alert before Christmas, in lock step with the United States, and according to the Interior Ministry it's still in effect. For two weeks, beginning on Christmas Eve, Mexico allowed FBI agents to monitor security operations in its airports. No government wants to risk looking soft on security these days — especially one on the United States' southern flank.

I'm not saying Mexico or any other country should drop its guard. But how tough is it physically possible to be? Nearly 22 million people passed through Mexico City's airport last year, one-third of them non-Mexicans. That's more than 20,000 foreigners every day, just in the capital. Mexico, by the standards of the developing world, is technically sophisticated. But it is also a country that has trouble solving high-profile multiple murder cases, and one where tens of millions of people remain mired in poverty.

The next time you're asked to perform a semi-striptease at an airport X-ray point (shoes, jacket, belt, wallet), consider the law of diminishing returns. We're probably now at the point where the world could double its investment in air-travel controls for no appreciable gain, except to those in the business of providing security services. We cannot — we will not — live the rest of our lives in a state of high alert; that is simply stating the obvious.

We can confront the threat of terrorism with security and detective work, but confrontation will take us only so far. Eventually it must be defused — by acquiring a keen sense of what drives people to desperate measures, and by addressing the deep-seated causes of discontent.

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.