Crossing the Border

I was not yet a year old the first time I crossed a country border. My family was driving from our home in Upstate New York to our cabin in Canada. I’ve made that drive many, many times since.

Photograph by Winn Brewer

Photograph by Winn Brewer

For my family, it is a distinct process, crossing that border. On the way into Canada, we always stop at the duty-free store, mostly to stretch and exchange money. Then we drive across the bridge (one of a few) connecting New York with Ontario across the St. Lawrence River. This particular border check is pretty sleepy; we never have to wait long, but while we do we always rehearse what we’re going to say to the border agent:

We are going to our cottage in Quebec.

No, we do not have any firearms.

Yes, the dogs have had their rabies shots.

We’ve always said the Canadian agents are nicer than the American ones. Though one time, my dad, sister, and I did get held up (detained?). Apparently the agent was suspicious of a man driving across the border with two bleary-eyed little girls. We were just tired from getting on the road at 5 a.m., and Mom wasn’t with us because the cabin is too rustic for her taste. This was in the days before passports were required for U.S.-Canada travel, so we only had copies of our birth certificates as identification. Since this was also the pre-cellphone era, we had to wait a couple hours with Border Patrol while officials alternated trying to reach my grandma or my mom so they could verify our story.

While all my border crossings have been in the north, the southern U.S. border has been in the news a lot lately. And people aren’t crossing it to go on holiday. Record numbers of Central American children are crossing into the U.S. alone.

Shadowed by the containment bars of a Border Patrol car, a 10-year-old boy is driven back to his hometown of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico, after being picked up in Brownsville, Texas. Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

Shadowed by the containment bars of a Border Patrol car, a 10-year-old boy is driven back to his hometown of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico, after being picked up in Brownsville, Texas.
Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic

Border Patrol detains these kids for days or weeks. I was held for an hour or two, at most.

Their futures are uncertain. Mine was waiting at the other end of a telephone line.

Some traveled through Central America and Mexico riding on the tops of trains, afraid to fall asleep lest they fall off or get robbed of their few possessions. I traveled in the family car, snuggled with a blanket and munching on doughnuts.

Others were “helped” by a series of unknown smugglers. I was safely chauffeured by my dad while he drank cups of black coffee, singing along to Johnny Cash.

How lucky I am that when I cross a border I’m not striving, aching for a better life.

How lucky.

Written by Jessica Shea, National Geographic Center for Geo-Education.

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