An American in La Paz

Or, Being on the Other Side of the Immigration Process

In my first month in Baja, I have been treated overwhelming well. Due in large part to our gracious (and brilliant, energetic, and super fun) host, Laura, we have been introduced to an amazing group of people working in conservation in La Paz and throughout Mexico. We have also been introduced to incredible fish, a ridiculous lemon almond cake recipe, and a dog who surely has one of Mexico’s largest four-legged personalities. And as far as encountering the typical issues of being an American in Mexico, such as the extra hassle from local police, we have seen almost nothing.

After a full day of work, Laura turns out exotic cakes and delicious food--every day!

After a full day of work, Laura turns out exotic cakes and delicious food–every day!

For example, during our drive 1,500 kilometers south to La Paz, we were never hassled at a federal checkpoint, of which there were many. On the contrary, when I briefly explained my research, most guards would nod in approval and then waved us through. Only one even glanced in the back of the truck, which was overloaded with all sorts of sketchy looking bags and containers. The only time we encountered a shady character was at the agricultural stop between Baja Norte and Baja Sur, where the (unarmed) man demanded 20 pesos (less than two dollars.) After scoffing and saying No way, I thought better and told the man we did not have cash, only credit cards. He narrowed his eyes, his supervisor (or friend, or whoever) nodded, and we were on our way with no bribe paid. Friends in La Paz have been relatively aghast at this story, and say this is quite rare. All of our interactions otherwise have been smooth.

This has all changed with the Instituto Nacional de Inmigracion (INM), or Mexico’s Immigration Services office in La Paz.

My grant administrators, COMEXUS, prepared a document telling us how exactly to proceed through the exchange of one’s temporary Student Visa (issued over the course of two entire days spent in San Francisco), for a Permanent Student Visa. This requires an online form, a copy of one’s passport, the FMM form one receives at the border, and three mini photos of one’s head.

My mini mug.

My mini mug.

For some. Perhaps the rest of the Fulbright fellows. But not for me, or anyone else in La Paz.

Over the last two days, I have been given increasingly bizarre and arcane tasks in order to exchange my student visa.

I must also provide a copy of my temporary visa–on 8.5×11 paper ONLY.

I must write a letter, directly to the Regional INM director, explaining my student status and my activities in Baja. This cannot be handwritten, it must be typed.

However, I must submit a handwritten map of both where I live and the location of the university in La Paz. Nevermind that my address is on every other document, someone needs a map.

My letter of affiliation from this university must be the “original.” When I explained that the “original” was all online, that there was never a hard copy, ever, the man behind the counter looked up from under his forehead and said “I understand this. But you need the original. It’s very important.”

I need a utility bill from the house where I live. Laura suggested this and I thought this extra touch might give me an edge, but it did not, and the list grew.

On my first day in the INM office, I mustered all of my patience and plastered a smile to my face as I repeated, Are you sure? These are all new requirements.

During my second day at the office, I also continued to smile / grit my teeth as the agent explained that I could not write the letter in the office, I had to return on Monday with it typed. There was a moment 20 minutes into our interaction, when he looked up at me to say YO entiendo, that I suddenly realized that he might see the ridiculousness of some of these requirements—but I still had to do it.

Nevermind that all of these processes already took place in San Francisco.

This state of Jacques Cousteau on the malecón is searching for unpredictable immigration documents on the horizon.

This statue of Jacques Cousteau is searching for unpredictable immigration documents on the horizon.

As an American traveling abroad, I have always been, and continue to be, handled with kindness at borders and offices. Even when I have been hesitant to declare my status as an American for fear that I would be treated poorly, I have found everyone from taxi cab drivers in Thailand to department heads in Mexico are largely amused by the antics of U.S. heads of state and enjoy chatting about some of the ridiculous ways of my homeland.

I found myself enraged as I left the immigration building both days—but tempered by a strong sense of self-preservation to NOT be that irate American. Others walked out of the building cursing.

As we drove away, I was blathering on to Josh about ridiculous visa requirements when suddenly I remembered the entire days my international colleagues have spent waiting at offices in San Francisco, or even flying to Atlanta, to resolve visa issues. These people are brilliant and the U.S. is lucky to have them. But between their home countries and the U.S., their time gets lost in the red tape.

And I realized this is my turn to pay my dues as a foreigner.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to immigrate to the U.S. from Mexico, or deal with immigration as a Mexican in the U.S.: the trepidation before the trip, a long list of requirements that is not always clear, and the potential to encounter an unfriendly agent. Our neighbor, Meredith, the executive director for the non-profit Baja conservation organization Niprarajá and one of the most upstanding people one could possibly meet, told us she lived in constant fear of the police when she lived in the U.S. We do not have a reputation of treating our foreigners well. Yet my student visa is entertained at Mexico’s immigration office.

So. I will return to this office, with handwritten maps and color copies and mini profile photos of my head, and I will continue to muster my best smile and hope for the cracks that reveal humanity in immigration agent demeanor. In addition, the entire Economics Department at the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California Sur has mobilized to help me, further reinforcing my belief that they are not only leading intellectuals in climate economics, but compassionate and kind people. I am thrilled to be in their care as both a researcher and an American.

With my handmade sketches, the irony has not escaped me that I am here to make interactive maps using advanced computer software. But I am also here to experience life as a foreigner, complete with maps of all kinds.

Last note, and a hat tip to my GIS professor Maggi Kelly: always title your maps. The agent today explained that he would not know which map was which if I didn’t label them: I had neglected to do so.  I couldn’t help but smile. Sometimes learning, and relearning, happens even in the immigration office.

And good maps, and pride in mapmaking, should be for everyone—not just academics in the U.S.

As Dolly says, If you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain. The view from our casa in La Paz.

As Dolly says, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain. The view from our casa in La Paz.

5 Responses to An American in La Paz

  1. Bill Mania October 19, 2014 at 8:13 pm #

    It seems no nation has a monopoly on pointless bureaucracy?

  2. Katie October 20, 2014 at 6:33 am #

    I’m so sorry. I think only the researchers in D.F. had an easy time with INM. Our experience was similarly frustrating, although for different reasons, and the process stretched on for 6 weeks. At each visit we’d be given new (and sometimes conflicting) reasons for why things weren’t being processed. Bill is right – bureaucracy is worldwide!

  3. angelh5 October 20, 2014 at 10:47 am #

    Well written and thoughtful, Jess! Hang in there!!!

  4. curlyreilly October 20, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

    Thanks Bill, Katie, and Ang!! I had dinner with friends on Friday night and heard other similar horror stories from Mexican nationals trying to get a passport, or even tougher, a passport for their kid at INM. As my mother would say, Grin and bear it! It’s the journey…


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