Fear and loathing on the US-Mexico border

At the San Ysidro land border crossing, I learned you could be fined $300 for eating a mandarin orange.

People cross the San Ysidro port of entry of the Mexico-US border on November, 9, 2021,, as the US reopens air and land borders to coronavirus-vaccinated travellers for the first time since COVID-19 restrictions were imposed in Tijuana, Mexico [Toya Sarno Jordan/Reuters]

On November 8, 2021, the United States reopened its borders to eligible international travellers who are fully vaccinated against coronavirus, thereby ending the restrictions on “non-essential travel” that were implemented at the outset of the pandemic in March 2020.

Of course, US borders are never really “open” to the majority of the Earth’s population – vaccinated or not – such being the nature of imperial hypocrisy in a world where the US is free to transcend other people’s borders, military and economically, while closing its own frontiers to, inter alia, individuals fleeing US-imposed military and economic havoc.

The grand November “reopening” occasioned such jubilant headlines as the BBC’s “Scenes of joy as first visitors arrive in US after 20-month ban”.

Regarding the reopening of the San Ysidro land border crossing between the Mexican city of Tijuana and the US state of California, meanwhile, the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper similarly gushed: “Border reopens smoothly to cheers, hugs and tearful reunions.”

Granted, San Ysidro was never closed to US citizens, who were free to come and go – vaccinated or not – since imperial privilege is, you know, “essential”. This arrangement naturally did not stop xenophobic representatives of the US political establishment from blaming COVID-19 propagation along the southern US border on “illegal” immigrants.

As misfortune would have it, I, myself got to experience the San Ysidro reopening – albeit one day late, on November 9. And it was far from a joyous occasion.

A US citizen myself, I had spent the past 18 years avoiding the country at all cost in the interest of my mental health while travelling the world in one continuous ethical conundrum: namely, the ability to traverse international borders pretty much at will thanks to a passport bestowed by a homeland I hated.

On November 9, though, I had to repatriate myself for a day. The pandemic had put a temporary hold on my frenetic itinerance, and I had taken up what was the closest thing I had had to a fixed residence in two decades in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Now I had to renew my Mexican visa, and so I flew from Oaxaca to Tijuana to guiltily kill two birds with one stone: walk across the border and back and be granted six more months in Mexico, while also observing the conditions in which non-gringo migrants were forced to attempt to survive in Tijuana as they waited in punitive limbo in a city that served as a backyard migrant holding pen for the US and its ever militarised border.

I visited a dismal migrant camp by the name of El Chaparral in Tijuana, just a couple of stone’s throws from California, that had recently been fenced off by Mexican authorities carrying out the anti-migrant dirty work of the US – giving it the air of a zoo of sorts. Even from outside the fence the atmosphere was asphyxiating, and one family had fittingly draped a tapestry featuring the poop emoji over one side of their tent.

I thus should have had little to complain about when I went for my own visa renewal excursion, which entailed waiting in line for less than an hour to enter the United States. And yet it was asphyxiating in a super-privileged sort of way.

Before heading to the border, I had fallen into conversation with an elderly man from the Mexican state of Sinaloa – notorious for its eponymous drug cartel – who had lived for years in Tijuana. He informed me that he did not mind going to the US to visit whenever the country deigned to give him a visa, but that it was “not a place to live”.

Sure, it was possible to do plenty of shopping in the US, he said, but there was no sense of community – and essentially no life.

As soul-crushingly alienating a place as it may be, however, it is still a safer space for many folks from Central America and elsewhere who are literally running for their lives from decades of US-backed violence.

But these people are not the ones who now have the option to waltz across the “reopened” border.

My own waltz at San Ysidro consisted of approaching the US border official with a polite greeting – once the person in front of me had moved on – only to be sternly ordered back to the line until I was called. I obediently returned the few steps to the line and turned around, whereupon I was immediately summoned back to the desk.

The theatre of the absurd continued from there, and I volunteered the information that I was in possession of a mandarin orange, as it is prohibited to cross the border with certain fruits (but perfectly fine for Mexico to export all fruits to the US under “free trade” agreements that help destroy Mexican lives and livelihoods).

The official looked at me as though I had just announced that I was in possession of a nuclear warhead and demanded to know the location of the mandarin. It is in my backpack, I said, and maybe I can just eat it now before crossing the border to avoid any problems.

Piercing me with robot eyes, the official made it known that consumption of said mandarin would incur a $300 fine. Put your backpack on the table, he bellowed, and do not touch anything until I tell you to.

Eventually, the mandarin was extracted from my backpack along with the red plastic bag from Albania in which I had placed it – a relic from my travels and emblem of my inexplicable international plastic bag fetish, the ecological recklessness of which I have endeavoured to compensate for by never throwing them away.

The official then demanded to verify my destination in the US. When “My friend is picking me up and we’ll hang out for a bit and then I’ll escape back to Mexico” did not suffice, he threatened to have me detained.

In the end, “San Diego” worked as a destination, and he scribbled it on a yellow slip of paper as I contemplated asking him if there was a human residing somewhere in his interior – but I did not, as I was frankly scared of the answer.

The official ordered me over to the X-ray machine, where the X-ray machine people disposed of the yellow slip, plastic bag and mandarin, but I succeeded in recuperating the plastic bag from a sympathetic or at least indifferent Spanish-speaking border agent.

He also provided me with a printed list of permitted cross-border fruits, which included “lemons, Persian limes, and sour limes” as long as they did not “have leaves” – as well as avocados, but only in the form of guacamole.

I exited this venue of arbitrary, abusive power and entered into a surreal dystopia populated by McDonald’s, the Jack in the Box fast-food restaurant, and outlet malls.

My friend picked me up and we set out for San Diego on the freeway, the massive expanse of which appropriately embodied US dehumanisation. I stared out the car window in petrified catatonia, and he asked me if they did not have cars in Mexico.

We passed exits for Home Avenue, which seemed cruelly ironic, and Imperial Avenue, which was more appropriate.

And as much as I felt sorry for myself, I was also acutely aware that whining about highways and mandarin confiscation was not at all charming on a border – not to mention a whole world – that criminalises migrants and refugees.

I, at least, was able to quickly extricate myself from the country, but for many of America’s victims “Imperial Avenue” is the only chance they have – even if it is, as my interlocutor from Sinaloa put it, “not a place to live”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.