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As of February, 2000, it was still possible to enter the United States without a computer making note of the fact, at least, not at that exact time. It is even possible to get in without a photo ID, and with an undeclared rifle in your luggage. Surprised? Not everything you hear about U.S. borders is true, but enough of it is that you should still exercise extreme caution when crossing one. Let's look at just one border, the U.S.-Mexico border. Here are some basic facts:
1] You do not need a passport to go to Mexico. You really don't, even though some U.S. government agencies will misinform you on this point. Mexican immigration officers clearly expect passports, so we can assume that most people use them, but they do not require them. You can get in with just a birth certificate and ID, and with just a birth certificate if you're a minor. This is a very useful bit of information for people who don't want the passport office to ask the IRS about them--a routine query, in case you didn't know.
2] Mexico actually has two borders with the U.S., on land. There's the international border that follows the trickle of evil-looking water misnamed Rio Grande, where the friendly U.S. border guards patrol picturesque fences topped with razor-wire in their souped-up SUVs. This is the border where you encounter serious business headed north: papers, searches, etc. Going south, you only get a perfunctory glance, and that only if you tell them you're going deeper into Mexico than the border city where you are crossing. This is because Mexicans want Americans to come south and empty their wallets as easily (and as often) as possible. From 30 to 60 clicks farther in to Mexico, at checkpoints in the desert that lies south of the border cities (except in Baja and the coasts--yes checkpoints, no deserts), there's a second border where the immigrations and customs officials take great delight in treating Americans like shit and tearing their cars and suitcases apart. This is where they exact revenge for all their compatriots who get the same treatment going north, or who simply get shot trying to avoid same.
3] Immigration and customs officials of both countries treat travelers differently, depending on what mode of transport they are using. In my experience, land crossings used to be easier--airports always being such paper-conscious places--but the War On (Some) Drugs has changed that. I guess you could hide a lot more cocaine in a car than in a suitcase, so the U.S. folks are pretty suspicious of all cars crossing northward, and enter their plate numbers into their computers. They can't search 'em all, but they couldn't care less about how much of your time they waste, so they try to give at least a glance at every car they don't think is a commuter (yes, there are people who cross the border daily). For their part, many Mexicans hate all the foolishness they have to put up with in order to stay "certified" in the WO(S)D, so it seems to me that they picked the first excuse they could find and made a big issue of it in checking gringos headed south. That issue is guns; it is absolutely forbidden to bring any kind of gun or ammo over the border, and there are mandatory prison sentences if you get caught. If you drive into Mexico, you will be searched--it's not an "if". Even having passed the official border and the official immigrations and customs "second border", a vehicle with American plates can expect to be stopped and boarded every hundred clicks or so, all the way to Mexico City and from time to time beyond that still, supposedly to check for guns and other contraband. The land checkpoints can take hours to process you; sometimes over 5 hours will pass between the time you arrive and the time you leave, several hefty taxes having thinned your wallet. People arriving by air, on the other hand, are processed fairly quickly (maybe tourists rich enough to pay airfare are seen as sheep more worth encouraging to return for more frequent fleecing?), and not taxed for the privilege of entering Mexico (though everyone is taxed for the privilege of leaving, so don't spend your last dime before heading back!).
4] Bribery has become more difficult. Bribing American border officials has always been a very risky proposition, of course, since many of them actually believe that they are doing something that should be done. I don't think I know of anyone who's even tried. Mexican officials, as well as those in many other third world countries, are famous for taking cheap bribes. Mexico has attempted to address this issue by separating the inspection from the collection at their borders. Immigration and customs officials are no longer allowed to assess fines for people in violation of Mexican law, or to accept your payment of your taxes and fees; they just fill out forms, which you take to a bank or "Hacienda" (their version of the IRS) office for payment. This has, of course, annoyed a great many officials who used to make more money off the books than on, and that may be why so many will go through the motions of giving you a hard time, but will actually let you skate on minor violations, or even completely blow off their duties. You can't count on this, but in a recent series of tests, Mexican officials let 10 out of 12 Americans with expired visas leave Mexico without paying fines, or even filling out papers. In 6 of the cases nothing was even said, and in 4 of the other 6, simply asking the official to "give me a break" had the hoped-for result.
5] While the U.S. has a reputation worldwide for having border officials with personalities surgically removed, American customs and immigration people can be pretty relaxed about returning Americans, if they look innocent enough. Someone I know recently flew into a major arrival point for immigrants and tourists coming to the U.S., with a long metal stick with a wooden handle sticking out of a duffle bag--it would have been immediately recognizable as a "weapon" by anyone who saw it out of the bag. The part that was sticking out had nothing more elaborate than a cardboard poster tube stuck over it for cover. He smiled at the customs woman who was screening people, deciding who would be picked for a baggage inspection, and offered her a cookie. She declined the cookie and waved him on through. Another person I know arrived at a very busy international airport with no current ID, but she had an expired passport that the immigration official didn't even open (let alone stamp or enter into a computer) when he waved her on through. She was pretty pregnant.
Why should anyone care about such border technicalities with a dirty developing country? Because it's also a beautiful place with exquisite (and dirt cheap) food, no interest in pursuing U.S. tax protesters, and even less means of catching them once they're there. For folks interested in PTing, it's much easier to make a good living off the books there, too. Think about it--and there are other countries...
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