Customs Clash

In The Clutches Of U.S. Customs, No One Can Hear You Scream.
By Kevin Franklin

TO DECLARE, OR not to declare. My instincts tell me not to bother mentioning the couple of apples and oranges in the back of the truck. Our little band has been on Mexican roads for 11 hours today, wrapping up a week of exploring western Sonora. We're tired, dusty and want nothing more than home and a hot shower.

"All U.S. citizens?"

"Yes sir," I reply.

"Anything to declare?"

The produce sign, with its glowering, authoritarian government fonts, hangs menacingly in my mind.

"No...except, uh, just a few apples from the U.S."

In the pause between the "no" and my declaration, I could see in the agent's eyes he was on the verge of letting us pass. Immediately after the word "apples" passes my lips, his attitude changes and he slaps a big, neon green agriculture tag on my windshield.

"Pull into bay three."

Me and my big mouth.

Waiting in "Bay 3" we decide to make ourselves useful by pulling the fruit in question out of the back.

A sidelong glance reveals a squat woman with a haircut from 1973 and a full head of steam charging over to us.

"What are you doing!" she barks. "Never start unpacking things. It makes customs people nervous and looks like you're trying to hide something!"

Here's the point where I want to fight back against this raging civil servant, and would if I weren't lodged in this purgatory between foreigner and citizen. I hold my tongue.

"Sorry." Look, you angry little weeble, the only reason we're sitting here in Bay 3 is because we mentioned the apples, so why not pull them out?

Then, in a staccato barrage, the inspector asks if I have any alcohol, meat products, live animals, plants and a whole list of things that surge past my road-weary mind unprocessed.

Unable to visualize the immensity of gear used over the past five days, I simply gestalt the whole mess--we didn't buy anything and there's nothing illegal in my truck.


She peers into my truck.

My 70-pound dog peers back and wags her tail.

"What's this? This is a live animal!"

"Oh, well, yeah, my dog, I have all her papers," I reply quickly, suddenly concerned she'll take the frustrations of her small life out on Shelby.

"I asked if you had any live animals," she spits.

"What's this?" The choleric KathyBates lookalike has discovered contraband--three abused Tecate cans floating in my cooler. "This is alcohol. You are not being honest with me, sir."

Ibriefly consider explaining that Tecate is more like near beer, but think better of it as she tears into the rest of the truck. A bottle of table wine is unearthed from a crate.

"More alcohol? You are this close (two chubby fingers illustrate) to a fine, mister."

I can only wonder what kind of repressed frustrations are bubbling around in her head. Does she honestly think I'm "importing" a California wine with English labeling and a U.S. Surgeon General's warning on the side? Clearly we're just tired people returning from a camping trip with stuff from the U.S.

"Sorry, I forgot about that."

And then she finds it. The coup de grace. The linchpin in our sinister attempt to circumvent the import laws of the mighty United States of America. The marrow of our smuggler bones--hot dogs! Never mind that they're hermetically sealed in their original Safeway packaging.

"Wait right here. Don't you move." And she storms off to quickly return with a pair of heavily armed customs agents in SWAT gear.

"Stand back, sir." These guys are all business. You can see it in their eyes--years of tense situations and busting cocaine mules. They emerge from the truck. Out of earshot, I see her show the offending weenies to the other officer. A visible wave rolls over him. I can almost hear him thinking, "Hot dogs? You brought me over here for hot dogs?"

The second SWAT guy disappears.

"Well, you have to dump three of these beers or the bottle of wine," he says to me, almost apologetically.

Hallelujah! Finally someone who isn't completely off his rocker. Take it all. I'm just glad not to be eating a fine at this point.

"I guess we'll dump the beers," I answer.

"Oh, these are turkey dogs. You can keep these," says our now hobbled, but still volcanic, inspection agent.

"You may think I take my job too seriously," she lectures, "but just one bug from Mexico could ruin the agriculture industry of Arizona."

Bullshit. Just to the north of here, hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce per hour are rolling north from Mexico to U.S. supermarkets through the commercial entry point. It's not fumigated and you can be damn sure each orange, tomato or head of lettuce is not inspected. Hell, they slip human beings and crates of cocaine through. They can't seriously believe they're going to keep out a bug. This episode has nothing to do with produce and everything to do with having power over another human being.

Just something to keep in mind the next time someone starts talking about eroding our civil rights to fight crime, stop illegal immigration or--and it's amazing they can say it with a straight face--keep out tiny bugs. TW

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