October 5, 2001

First Week of New Border-Crossing Cards Keeps Few Back

By Yvette tenBerge

Martha Carlón Sanchez, 77, shuffles obediently behind the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) inspector who holds her expired border-crossing card and leads her to "secondary" for further questioning. It is about 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday, October 2, and Ms. Sanchez, one of a small group of senior citizens making their way from Ensenada, Mexico to Viejas Casino in Alpine, is only one among many Mexican nationals that day who will attempt a border crossing without either the new, high-tech laser visa or a validation sticker indicating that the new card is on the way.

Inspector M.R. Herring checks the identification of those wishing to cross the border.

The tour leader, María Luisa de Cordoba, stands by her side to explain to INS inspector, M.A. Araujo, that Ms. Sanchez "was told that she had a few more months left" in which she could cross with her old card. "Just let her across this one time. All we want to do is go to Viejas, and she really needs to pick up something for her neck," says Ms. Cordoba, who wonders what the harm is in letting one little, old lady across the border.

After asking a few more questions, Inspector Araujo tells Ms. Sanchez that her new card should be waiting for her at the U.S. Consulate office in Tijuana. The two ladies, both of whom are dolled up in shiny lipstick and sparkling costume jewelry, shrug their shoulders and make plans to find a taxi that will take them to the U.S. Consulate.

Although INS inspectors working the U.S./Mexican border this week held their breath in anticipation of expected mass confusion and long delays, the October 1, 2001 deadline requiring that all Mexican nationals with either rose-colored I-186 or green I-586 border-crossing cards replace their cards with high-tech laser visas, passed without incident.

According to Regina McGuire, Assistant Area Port Director for the INS, 362 people were turned away within the first 24 hours. By 10:00 a.m. on October 2, only 42 more people had to be turned away. Compare this number with the more than 120,000 to 130,000 people who cross the border on any given day, and it is easy to see why INS inspectors and officials are breathing one, huge sigh of relief.

Although roughly two million laser visas have been issued since 1998, U.S. officials estimate that as many as three million Mexicans still hold old border-crossing cards. These cards allow visitors to shop, visit relatives and conduct short business trips in the United States. These cards do not entitle holders to work.

Christina Israel Gómez holds up the laser Visa he has had since 1999.

In order to purchase these visas, applicants must pay a $45 fee, interview with the U.S. Consulate and undergo a background check. For those who do not have their new cards by now and who still wish to cross, the INS will grant emergency, short-term visas for a fee of $170.

Presently, the U.S. Consulate is conducting about 2,400 interviews each day at three offices in the Baja region. Those people who are turned away at the border today may have to wait until November or December before they are granted an interview.

Each laser visa card, or biometric Mexican border-crossing card (BCC), includes a photograph and a fingerprint on the front, as well as biographical information, such as name, date of birth and the date the card was issued. A signature and a photo show through the shiny, black hologram strip on the back of the card.

Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for the INS, confirms that the INS has yet to purchase the machines that can read the biometrics data, the digital fingerprint and photograph, which is encrypted on the back of the cards. Even without these machines, though, the INS claims that these cards are a major improvement from the older cards.

"This new card is the most secure card we have. Each card is individually produced with the encrypted data, and security features are etched in images on the reverse of the card, making them impossible to counterfeit," says Ms. Mack. "The new laser card is the first step towards moving forward with high technology, and it will help us to perform more effectively and efficiently."

As part of the Immigration Reform Act passed in 1996, Congress mandated changes, one of which required that the State Department take jurisdiction of the border rather than the INS. By 1998, the high-tech laser visa was issued as part of the State Department's new program.

"U.S. Consulates throughout Mexico began to get public information out about the new program in 1998. In 1999, Congress extended the program for one year, allowing more time for border crossers with old INS issued cards to apply for the new, laser visa," says Ms. Mack. "That extension expired October 1, 2001."

Despite an extensive advertising campaign that included color fliers and radio announcements, there are still plenty of people like Tomás Morales-Mendoza, 75, whose busy lives and family obligations have kept them from getting their new card in time. As the INS inspector leads the tall, proud man to the secondary counter, he pulls out a wad of paperwork from his pocket. The date of his October 31 interview with the U.S. Consulate is underlined in green marker.

"My sister has been very sick for a long time, and I spend most of my time taking care of her. I did not have the chance to apply for my new card until recently, and I need to cross to pick up my social security check," says Mr. Mendoza, whose sons and daughters live in the United States. He goes on to express his confusion at the new law that will deny entry into the states to someone who spent three decades of his life working in the United States. "I want you to give me a chance to pass into this country. I worked in the U.S. for 30 years; for 10 of those years, I was a brasero."

Although the Inspector Araujo agrees to grant Mr. Mendoza an emergency waiver for a $170 fee, Mr. Mendoza turns to go, promising to return "tomorrow." Like most of the Mexican nationals who cross the boarder each day, being offered the chance to pay the $170 fee and cross is the same as not being allowed to cross at all.

In Mexico, visa information is available by calling 01-900-849-4949.

Vist the U.S. Embassy website at www.usembassy-mexico.gov

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