Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.
The Death of the Hired Man (1914), Robert Frost
Today is the first day on which everyone, including U.S. citizens must show a passport (or a special drivers’ license) to enter the United States by land. The U.S. has been tightening documentation requirements for some time, but this move, the one that requires citizens to have a passport to step into the states from either Canada or Mexico, really bothered me.
I grew up on the Texas/Mexico border and remember many car trips “across” to visit family and friends, to vacation, to shop, to eat, to attend weddings and baptisms. Our cities (Laredo, Texas and Laredo, Tamaulipas) were more like one city with a bridge in the middle than like two cities. Other than the long wait, leaving and re-entering the states was not a big deal. When we drove back, border officials asked us two things, “what are you bringing back?” (any alcohol, cigarettes to declare?) and “U.S. citizen?” My parents taught me to look the border guy straight in the eye and answer “U.S. citizen.” I learned to anticipate it, to announce my citizenhip and be admitted without waiting for a question. It was like magic. It always worked. It worked also for my grandmother, a little, brown, barrel shaped lady who spoke no English except “U.S. citizen.”
I wondered why our Mexican friends and relatives, even the schoolchildren, carried I.D., why I didn’t need any, why my mother didn’t have any. (She didn’t drive for most of her life, and never had any I.D. card until she was well into her 60s. ) Our country, My parents told me, always welcomed her own. Our word was good enough, unless their was some very good reason to doubt it. My grandmother’s thick accent as she spoke the magic words was not a good reason, nor was my own dark brown skin. They did not speak, nor did they especially think much about, the evils of national I.D.s, but it would have outraged them to think that my father, a D-Day vet, would have had to prove to anyone his right to walk on American soil. He was one of those guys who got his mother to lie about his age so he could serve, one of those guys who always cried when he told about his trip home-not home-Texas, home-the U.S.. Told me how soldiers were jumping overboard when they caught sight of the the statue of liberty, how they couldn’t wait to get home.
I grew up, of course. Realized that the truth was not so simple, that the magic words didn’t always work, and certainly didn’t work for everyone. Learned that border police sometimes hold guns to little boys’ heads, and that even white English speakers sometimes have trouble at the border. Later, I learned all of that. I think in my heart, I always believed she’d always welcome her own.
The stories of our childhood shape the way we see the world, our relationship to our community, our place. For me, the belief that Ionly needed to claim my birthright to gain entry always meant something: that I was not a subject here at the nation’s pleasure but a citizen; that she was mine as much as I was hers, that this was home.