Photo by Robert Burroughs
“Hey! Goddamn it!” shouts the inspector, pounding on the car’s trunk. “Wait a minute!”
There is a switchblade in that car — and a woman with a trembling left breast. The woman of the trembling breast and her three companions — two young men and another young woman — are sitting in a silver 1973 Chevrolet Vega hatchback, waiting in line at the San Ysidro border crossing.
“Okay,” says a matron inspector, opening the door to a personal-search room. “Back here, young lady.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
Two cars ahead of them, a customs inspector pokes his head inside a dusty Mustang sedan and directs the driver to open the trunk. After a cursory inspection. the driver is allowed to leave. Next comes a rusty Cortina with a number of dents. The Mexican driver is ordered out of the car while the inspector sticks his hand under the bucket seats and raps lightly on the door panels. The driver returns to his seat and is sent on his way. Then comes the silver Vega.
John McNally: "You get an awful lot of drunks who come through here, and many of them are very macho-minded."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
The inspector punches the vehicle’s license-plate number into a computer and receives a negative response. In the front seat of the Vega sit the two young men, who look to be in their early twenties, and in the back sit the two young women, including the one with the active mammary gland. In her open purse lies the switchblade knife, its cutting edge exposed and glinting in the midmorning sun that pours in the car window.
Fermin Cuza: “A guy a couple of lanes over said he’d been waiting forty minutes, and another said thirty minutes. Who’s to say why that is?"
Photo by Robert Burroughs
The inspector assumes an extremely courteous attitude as he asks each of them their nationality — all Americans, as it turns out, from Orange County. He asks the driver routine questions — where they’ve been, what they’ve purchased — but seems less intent on the answers than on looking into the rear passenger window on the driver’s side.
"I don’t think your scum will drive clear out to Tecate to cross when they can crawl out of Tijuana at night."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
He spots the switchblade knife in the purse, and, as he raises his eyes to the young woman, he sees her left breast quiver slightly. Just the left one. The inspector casually drapes his right hand over the can of aerosol mace on his utility belt, steps back into his inspection booth, and picks up a bright yellow cone with a magnetic base, which he attaches to the car’s hood. "I'm going to ask you to drive into our secondary inspection area,” says the inspector, as if speaking to a child. “I’ll walk alongside your vehicle, so please drive slowly. Let’s go.’’ As the inspector begins to walk, the Vega screeches off its mark — but only for a moment. “Hey! Goddamn it!” shouts the inspector, pounding on the car’s trunk. “Wait a minute!” The driver stops completely, apologizes, then proceeds one hundred yards north of the primary checkpoint, to the secondary inspection area.
The driver is guided into a parking space nearest the customs office, a space reserved for those who might present a security risk. The four young people are then marched into a small inspection room with a counter, behind which arc a metal desk and four customs inspectors. The two young men are patted down for weapons and made to empty their pockets. One of the inspectors asks the two girls if they have anything in their pockets. They both say no. their pockets are empty. But as they answer, the woman with the knife in lifer handbag — which she has conveniently left behind in the car — begins to squirm. Her left breast once again begins to vibrate. The inspectors all stare at the twitching within her blouse. The woman makes a sudden grab for her chest and two of the sitting inspectors quickly rise from their seats. A moment later a small animal head begins to emerge at the throat of her blouse. It is dark green and feathered — a parrot. The woman removes the parrot and cuddles it to her chin like a small housecat. “Okay,” says a matron inspector, opening the door to a personal-search room. “Back here, young lady.”
I am standing in a nearby doorway with John McNally, the director of customs for the San Ysidro division of the San Diego district. He has asked me to put away my notebook while we watch the interrogation, so, he explains, “nobody will be crying about their civil rights being violated or anything.” McNally, a graying, fatherly type in his fifties, opens a fresh pack of Rolaids and stoops down to a water fountain in the next room. “If it’s their first time,” he says of the four would-be smugglers in the interrogation room, “they might get a fine and they’ll lose the prohibited items, but we won’t go for criminal prosecution.”
Amateur smugglers, such as the four tourists in the Vega are an hourly occurrence at the Tijuana-San Ysidro border checkpoint; hardly anything to raise an eyebrow over. Sitting in his second-floor office which overlooks twenty-four traffic lanes coming into the United States, McNally says the small-timers favor such items as extra bottles of liquor, unapproved drugs of all sorts, tropical birds, switchblades, and firecrackers. “It’s pretty hard to profile the typical person who’s sneaking something across,” he says, pointing out at the cars in no-man’s land, the stretch of highway directly south of the border station. “What we’re involved in at the primary checkpoint is a limited screening process. The inspectors ask a few basic questions, check for nervousness, determine the age group inside the vehicle, and the type of car they’re driving — anything that varies from the norm; and that covers a lot of territory. If something out of the ordinary can happen, it happens here. I’ll tell you, there isn’t a tougher port to work at than San Ysidro.”
In ninety minutes, it is possible to travel by automobile from downtown San Diego to Disneyland; from Philadelphia to New York City; and from Saint-Tropez on the French Riviera to the Italian frontier (except during the Cannes film festival). But in ninety minutes, it is often impossible to drive an automobile the one mile from central Tijuana to the customs checkpoint at San Ysidro. The San Dicgo-Tijuana boundary is the site of the largest single international border crossing in the world. In the fiscal year ending in September 1979 — the latest date for which figures are available — the San Ysidro crossing counted 33 million people and just more than nine million vehicles. That enormous influx is checked by 127 customs inspectors and sixteen supervisors, plus a similar number of Immigration and Naturalization Service personnel.
Those 33 million border crossers pass through one of twenty-four traffic-inspection posts or six pedestrian posts. (Actually, there are presently only twenty-three traffic lanes in operation; one was badly damaged by a drunken driver fleeing Mexican police last year and won’t be repaired for several months.) Half of the inspection stations are manned by customs inspectors and half by immigration inspectors. In theory, the immigration service inspects people and the customs service inspects material goods, but at the primary checkpoint their objectives are the same: to prevent anyone or anything from illegally entering the United States. Because the delineation between the two services at the primary checkpoint is often blurred, they by necessity must work in harmony with each other. “It’s a good working relationship.” says Fermin Cuza, an assistant director of customs for the San Diego district. “By its nature, it has to be.”
But whether an incoming driver is inspected by an agent of the customs service or the immigration service, he will be sent to the secondary inspection if the inspector has any doubts. “Sometimes,” says McNally. “it might be something the driver says that tips off the inspector. Let’s say some guy says he’s from San Francisco tells the inspector that he was only in Tijuana for fifteen minutes. Now that’s very unlikely for someone to come that far and to stay for so short a time. Sometimes the inspector has something specific to go on; other times it’s just a hunch.”
If the reasons used by customs inspectors for sending someone to the secondary inspection often seem arbitrary, it is because they often are arbitrary. A newspaper reporter based in Los Angeles, an acquaintance of mine, says he was sent to secondary for stopping improperly at the inspection booth. “First off,” he confesses, “you have to understand that I was drunk and belligerent. Hey, I admit it; what can I say? We’d been down at Hussong’s Cantina in Ensenada for the day. When we got to the border checkpoint, there was one car ahead of me that was being inspected by the customs guy. I pulled right up to the bumper of the car in front and the customs guy freaked out. He started yelling at me, asking me why didn’t I stop by the white line a few feet back and didn’t I know that I could’ve run into him. So he sent me to secondary inspection and went through the car. He found a film canister in the console between the bucket seats and said it had some crumbs of marijuana in it. But I knew it didn’t; I’d already looked, hoping to find some. Anyway, he finally just let us go because there wasn’t anything he could do.”
The primary inspector has the option of either escorting the vehicle to the secondary area — if he has reason to believe smuggling or weapons arc involved — or sending the car to secondary unescorted, with a ticket tucked under the windshield wiper informing the next inspector of the reason (often immigration-related) the vehicle has been singled out.
An undeniable fact about the inspection process — both secondary and primary — is that it is a major cause of the frequent confrontations between indignant citizens and the customs inspectors. McNally insists that the situation should be seen from the inspector's point of view. The inspectors, he says, are faced with a unique experience each time a car approaches the border. "You get an awful lot of drunks who come through here.” he says, “and many of them are very macho-minded. There’s a feeling in the country these days that one ought not to submit to any authority or inspection.
People always say their civil rights are being violated, particularly when you ask a young lady to look in her handbag.” (One such young lady I spoke with recently had her handbag searched by an inspector who pulled from her purse a plastic bag filled with white powder. His astonished expression turned to one of embarrassment, though, when the young lady pointed out that there was a birth-control diaphragm in the powder, and that the powder was cornstarch to keep the diaphragm free from moisture.) “The inspectors don’t always have a lot of smiles, meeting and greeting everyone real cheerfully,” McNally continues, “although we do try to stress tact and courtesy. But you have to realize these cars are burning gas and oil. and the inspectors are smelling all these fumes. It’s not a good place to be. physically. And when they have reason to believe a car should be sent to secondary, they’re not in any mood to fool around.”
A typical inspector’s report: "Upon entering the U.S. from Mexico, subjects declared two wicker baskets. Driver could not produce any identification. Subject stated he left his driver’s license in his girlfriend’s car. and had gone to Mexico to obtain a bodywork estimate on vehicle. Subjects and vehicle were referred to secondary for further search. Detector dog was run on the vehicle and alterted on center console and door panel. Inspection of door panel on passenger side revealed two Amazon parrots. Penalty assessed and vehicle held pending payment of penalty.” And this: “Had an irate citizen complain because we were violating his Constitutional rights. Claims to be an aspiring member of the bar. His demeanor indicated that he had been to a bar and had consumed too much tequila. Although he was very vocal, no violence took place. He did take everyone’s badge number and threatened to sue us all. Video tape was retained.”
The video tape, incidentally, is now an integral component of the customs routine at the San Ysidro border checkpoint. Cameras are stationed at invervals throughout the customs building, and virtually everything that happens — inside and out — is recorded on video tape. “It’s for our own protection,” says McNally. “If someone takes a swing at one of our inspectors and has to be subdued, we would have proof that our inspector was attacked. ”
The most common complaint from inspectors concerns the driver who gives a cute, non-responsive answer to a basic question. McNally likes to use the example of the flippant driver who is asked his nationality. “What the hell do you think I am?” snarls this driver. "Do I look like an Eskimo?”
But on the other side of that situation is the driver who may have been waiting in line for an hour or longer, and who finds himself being scrutinized dubiously by the very man responsible for the long wait. One San Diegan who has crossed the border nearly 200 times in the past thirteen years is thirty-year-old Larry Demarah. who holds a master’s degree in sociology from San Diego State and works as a mechanic. He estimates he has been pulled into the secondary inspection area as many as thirty-five times — almost once for every five crossings — although the only thing a customs inspector has ever found in Demarah’s car was an extra bottle of liquor. “In general. I’d say that two out of three customs inspectors are pretty easygoing guys,” Demarah says. “But then you have the other third. Even though I consider the customs agent an authority figure, if he wants to be cocky. I’ll return the favor.” Demarah says he has never been frisked by a customs inspector, but that hasn't lessened the frustration he sometimes feels in secondary inspection. “A couple of years ago we crossed at Tecate,” he says, “and this customs inspector — he must have weighed close to 300 pounds, I swear — pulled us into secondary as soon as he saw us. It was just a girl and me. and he separated us when we got out of the car. It took him an hour and a half to go through the car and her purse. He wouldn’t even let me get a drink of water while we waited. When he finally let us go, 1 asked him point blank about his weight problem. I said to him, ‘You’re obese. How can you possibly have this job? You should lose weight. You are a sad example of the type of person who is supposed to represent the United States.’ I guess I was so mad I was ready to be punched out.”
Demarah further points out that he is more often sent to secondary when accompanied by a woman. “It seems like the inspectors look at a bunch of guys down in Mexico as a real out-with-the-boys type of thing, something they can relate to,” Demarah says. “But almost every time I’m with a woman I’m sent to secondary. And none of the women has ever been belligerent. I don’t know if it’s a repressed sexual hangup or what, but the inspectors sure seem more domineering when a woman is involved.”
Nearly everyone agrees — customs officials and civilians alike — that the confrontations at the checkpoint are sorely aggravated by that most notorious of border hazards: traffic congestion. Although the waiting time is not as horrific as it once was (Demarah says before the new border facility was constructed seven years ago, he spent more than six hours in line on several occasions), a Sunday or holiday afternoon can be a disaster for anyone in a hurry. On the most crowded days, the wait can be as much as two hours or more.
As McNally and I sit in his wide-windowed office on a Friday morning, he says the line of cars below us represents a twenty-five-minute wait. When I ask him how he knows this, he calls in senior inspector Tom Welsh, a customs veteran who now heads the classification and value branch of the San Ysidro division. I stand at the window with Welsh and repeat the question. How is the waiting time measured? After all, it can't be exactly the same in each of the inspection lanes, because they all progress at a different pace. When does the wait begin? How is it monitored? Are there sophisticated traffic counters paired up with computerized tracking systems? Welsh gazes out the window. "See that traffic signal light over there?” he asks, pointing to a place on the highway about an eighth of a mile away. “That would be about a, mmm, twenty, twenty-five-minute wait from there, right?” He looks to McNally for confirmation. The port director nods in agreement, and Welsh continues, pointing further away. “And you see those ramps back over that way?” He indicates two bridges about a third of a mile away from us. "That’s maybe an hour wait. Anything backed up over that is more than an hour.” Things were backed up more than that last Memorial Day, when the wait was estimated to be more than two hours. The assistant director of the San Diego district, Fermin Cuza, was at the border checkpoint that day to observe the problem first-hand. He and McNally asked a driver nearing the number-two inspection station (the stations are numbered one through twenty-four, from east to west) how long he had been in line. “He told us ten minutes,” says Cuza. “A guy a couple of lanes over said he’d been waiting forty minutes, and another said thirty minutes. Who’s to say why that is? That’s why we keep records. ’’ The inspectors maintain logs as to the number of vehicles that pass by. This information is used not only to aid in staffing and shift scheduling but also to direct vehicles to the less-utilized inspection posts. But still there is the problem of monitoring the waiting time. “Sometimes the chief inspector will call three post inspectors and tell them to ask the driver how long he or she has been waiting,” Cuza says. “But there are a lot of discrepancies in that system. For example, if the lines are really long and the driver has waited for some time, he doesn’t always begin timing the wait until he becomes irritated.” Cuza admits that the method of questioning the drivers and the inspectors’ use of landmarks in estimating the waiting time to cross the border are not exactly scientific, but says delays of more than two hours are “an infrequent occurrence.”
In response to the increasing waiting time at the border, the Washington, D.C., Customs Service headquarters has authorized a new program which it hopes will limit waiting time to no more than fifteen minutes — a program called the “queuing model.” A team of customs investigators was sent to San Diego from Washington last summer to study ways in which the daily border crossings could be streamlined. The team studied the inspectors’ logs, traffic patterns, workload statistics, and aerial photographs. The results of their study include a chart detailing the ideal number of lanes that should be open at any given time. The queuing model was tested for thirty days last August and September, and the results, says Cuza. were very positive. Even so. he is still skeptical. “It’s nice.” he says, "and it’s progressive. Here’s a scientific approach to a problem we’ve had for some time now. But San Ysidro is the first port of entry on either the Mexican or Canadian border where this has been tried, and I think most of the inspectors are taking a wait-and-see attitude.” When the queuing model goes into effect July 13, no car. according to the Washington experts, should have to wait longer than a quarter of an hour. As a practical matter, though, there are a limited number of inspection lanes, and the waiting time has exceeded an hour even when all lanes were in operation. I mention this to Cuza. and say the the fifteen-minute waiting time predicted by the experts sounds almost too good to be true. Cuza raises his eyebrows and sighs, “I know. ”
Anyone who has spent any time in line — in the market, at a sporting event, at the border — probably at one time has had the feeling that the other lines were moving faster than their own. At the San Ysidro border crossing, it is not one’s imagination: some lines do move faster than others. McNally tells me as much, but only with great reluctance, as if the common knowledge just might ruin everything. Again, pointing out his office window, he motions to the four most easterly traffic lanes about a quarter of a mile south of the checkpoint, then shows me how they branch into eight lanes just before the border crossing. Most of the other approaches remain single-file lanes for half a mile before the checkpoint. Old Baja hands know which alternative routes out of Tijuana lead to the expansive lanes, while rookies at the game invariably drive to the slower lanes along with an abundance of hostile drivers, overheated radiators, and stalled cars.
The urge to pull out of these slow-moving lanes in favor of a faster-paced one is almost overpowering for some people, a fact to which McNally attributes a large number of problems on busy days. “One of the big causes of delays at the crossing,” he says, “are those drivers who pull out of line and drive along the side in a closed lane in the hope of cutting back into line before they reach the primary inspection. The trouble is that a lot of people in line see these people go racing by and figure another inspection booth has opened up, else why would that other guy have just gone speeding by. Before you know it, you have three or four of these fugitive lines clogging the works.”
It is another frustration of the northbound drivers trying to cross the border that these drivers who cut in line are almost always allowed to do so without reprimand by customs officials. That tacit approval, though, stems from the fact that the customs inspectors have no authority to regulate what occurs on the short stretch of highway south of the checkpoint — an area within the boundary of the United States — which the inspectors call no-man’s land. “People yell at our inspectors for allowing cars to cut in line,” says McNally, “but the inspector can’t do anything about it, even if he sees it, which he rarely does.” The incoming traffic lanes are part of the state highway system, according to McNally, and thus fall within the jurisdiction of the California Highway Patrol. “But it’s so awkward to get to it,” McNally says, “even the CHP doesn’t like to patrol it. And since we don’t have any authority to enforce out there, we don’t really have anyone who likes to go out there, either. Our people have gone out there in the past, on their own, but we don’t really tell them to. We’re federal customs inspectors; we’re not peace officers. But still, you’ll see some vicious fights out there over somebody cutting in front of someone else. Quite often, if an inspector sees someone getting the hell beat out of them, he’ll run out there and try to help the guy.”
The customs inspectors, McNally says, “know how to handle themselves.” Part of their ten-week training course at the Customs Service Academy in Glynco, Georgia, covers the use of firearms and other forms of self-defense, immigration laws, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, search techniques, customs laws, and other aspects of the service. After the Glynco instruction comes three days of in-house training at the San Ysidro port to familiarize the novice inspector with the peculiarities of that port of entry. Then there is an on-the-job learning period of two weeks — thirteen weeks training before a customs inspector is certified.
The would-be inspectors also learn to use the computer terminals called TECS — Treasury Enforcement Communications System (so-called because the Customs Service falls within the federal Treasury Department). The central memory banks for the system are located in the basement of the Federal Building in downtown San Diego. Each inspection post at the San Ysidro border is equipped with, in addition to video-tape cameras and microphones, a TECS terminal, the face of which has a keyboard and a printout screen. The inspectors punch into the computer the license plate number of every vehicle that crosses into the United States from Tijuana. Within seconds comes a simple response: yes or no. A negative answer means that there is no significant information on that vehicle in the main computer. A positive answer can mean a number of things, from unpaid parking fines to stolen car. All drivers who merit an affirmative response print-out from TECS are escorted to secondary. Inside the shift supervisor’s office, a full print-out is produced from the computer, detailing the reasons for the “yes” response. The only other indicator on the TECS screen in the inspection booth, besides yes and no. is a symbol which means “armed and dangerous.” When that symbol appears, a general alarm is given to customs officials, who then prepare for possible trouble. “We pick up a lot of fugitives through our TECS terminals,” says senior inspector Welsh.
But the pressure — from the verbal and (sometimes) physical abuse, from the constant traffic and attendant fumes, from the mandatory overtime — takes its toll on the customs force. The annual turnover rate at San Ysidro is twenty-five percent. “We’re kind of a training port in that respect,” McNally says. “An inspector will work here for a while, then ask to be transferred somewhere else. I don’t think there is any port in the United States that is more stressful or physically debilitating than the port of San Ysidro. So a lot of inspectors would rather get a job on the docks examining cargo, or at an international airport. We’re a twenty-four-hour operation here, and almost all our men have to work on Sundays. The men who work here consider it a challenge.”
That challenge, according to McNally, includes the often hectic pace. Because as many as 26.000 vehicles cross the San Ysidro border on any given weekday, and because up to 30,000 vehicles cross on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, the inspectors are stationed in the primary checkpoints for only half an hour at a time, in order to avoid a constant exposure to the noxious fumes of exhaust. From there they spend half an hour at the pedestrian checkpoint, then half an hour at secondary, completing a rotation every hour and half. The need for manpower is usually so great, McNally asserts, that the inspectors are not given a formal lunch or dinner break, but are forced to eat "on the run” while covering secondary, the slowest-paced portion of the rotating schedule.
But not every border crossing in the San Diego district, which covers the entire California-Mexico border, is as nerve-wracking as San Ysidro. Tecate, a case in point, is a sleepy, bucolic port of entry about forty miles east of San Ysidro. Tecate — the very name stirs fantasies of lazy days in a cantina and lacy ladies in the moonlight . . . and no waiting at the border. There are only two inspection booths at Tecate, and most of the time only one of them is manned. On the day recently when I walked across from Tecate, Mexico, to Tecate, U.S.A., the customs inspector on duty, who was inspecting both vehicular and pedestrian traffic, not only smiled at the woman and child ahead of me, but actually tipped his cap as they walked away. I approached him carrying a brown bag under my right arm. "What’s in the bag, young fella?” he asked. "A six-pack of Superior,” I said. "That’s good stuff,” he said with a wink. “You have a good day now.”
That episode is not recounted to imply that the inspectors are less professional at the customs port of Tecate; it’s just that they like to do things differently. And because of that, many drivers who might otherwise cross the border at Tijuana drive east to Tecate, cross there, then drive the extra forty miles back to San Diego. On a holiday in Tijuana, it often takes longer to wait in line at the San Ysidro border than it takes to drive the extra distance to Tecate, where there is generally no wait. “We get quite a bit of the Tijuana slopover,” says Joe Grammer, who has been the Tecate port director for six years and who for eleven years prior to that was an inspector at Tecate. "At times it adds a considerable amount of traffic. We’ve had backups because of the slopover as long as fifteen minutes.”
In his seventeen years at Tecate, Grammer has watched the communities on both sides of the border grow. Grammer describes the growth of the American side of Tecate as a "construction boom. Just in the last few years we’ve gotten a new post office, a bank, a restaurant, and a second grocery store. ” As Grammer relaxes in his spring-supported office chair that squeaks whenever he moves, he has the demeanor of a once-tough Wild West lawman whose small cowtown has settled awkwardly into respectability. “I’m a country boy,” he says, “so I like it out here. As far as I’m concerned, we’re not far enough away from the city, but I guess you could say we are a little isolated. Most of the people who work at this customs port do so by preference. And some of our inspectors come from as far away as Imperial Beach, La Mesa, and Pine Valley. Most of the crew has spent some time at the San Ysidro port, and none of them would go back. It’s a crazy doghouse over there.”
While the inspectors at Tecate may look with disdain at San Ysidro, they are not so sure that their home port is not following in the footsteps of the larger port. In the last year, for instance, traffic at the Tecate checkpoint has increased by twenty percent. “Most of that,” says Grammer, “is caused by the running of the bulls they have down here in August and the Tecate-to-Ensenada bicycle race. Last year, for that bike thing, there were two hours of solid southbound traffic just to follow those bikes — campers, vans, motorhomes, trailers. Of course, that affects Mexican customs more than us. All we do is lock up the bathrooms. Where we really get a traffic jam on this side is for the running of the bulls. It’s going to be a three-day event this year, and an awful lot of people going down this year will just park on this side of the border and hoof it over. But we’re just not equipped to handle a crowd of that size.”
In truth, the Tecate customs crew isn’t equipped to handle anything that might be called a crowd. There are only six inspectors, one classification and values inspector (for commercial imports), and the port director. The immigration service, which splits the primary-checkpoint duties with the Tecate customs inspectors, has four inspectors.
The Tecate inspectors must do the same job as their San Ysidro counterparts, just on a smaller scale. “We probably find the same type of things being smuggled here as they find at the San Ysidro port.” says Grammer. “But actually. I think we get a better class of people crossing here than they get from Tijuana. I don’t think your scum will drive clear out here to cross when they can crawl out of Tijuana at night. There are no nightclubs to speak of in Tecate. It’s a very family-oriented city. In fact, it’s probably the cleanest little town on the Mexican border. And even though Tecate caters to tourists, it's not a tourist trap. It's a place to take it easy. In Tijuana, my God, they try to take you to the nearest cathouse even when you’re with your wife. ”
There’s no doubt Tijuana offers more temptation to tourists than is offered in, say. Tecate or Mexicali; but the temptation faced by customs inspectors is not limited to any one port of entry in particular. In January of 1978, a customs inspector was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for accepting bribes in connection with a marijuana smuggling conspiracy. In June of 1978, a customs inspector was sentenced to ten years in prison for accepting bribes to allow illegal immigrants into the country. And in April of 1979. two customs inspectors at the San Ysidro border crossing were arrested and charged with taking money and sexual favors for allowing numerous vehicles loaded with illegal aliens to pass through their inspection gates.
“Anything like that is a shock to the organization.” says McNally. “I know when it happened last year, I put out a letter to the troops to tell them that they don’t have to hang their heads in shame. You have to put each event like that in perspective. After the initial shock wears off, it doesn’t hurt morale.” McNally says many instances of such corruption may have begun with some fairly innocent act. but that once an inspector becomes involved. it is difficult to back out. “This is covered in our code of conduct, and we send out reminders every year, but we’re dealing with human beings, and some of them arc going to succumb to temptation.”
Invariably, when speaking of his inspectors. McNally refers to the Mission; he even speaks the word as if it were written with a capital M. When an inspector succumbs to temptation, it is because he has forsaken the Mission. “We try to screen our applicants to find people who are motivated toward the Mission.” he says. "People who want more than a paycheck arc the ones we want. There’s a comradeship here because of the challenge of the job. You might liken it to the military in that the working conditions are horrible, but everyone you work with is going through the same thing. In their minds, there is something that pulls them together, and that’s the Mission.”
Defining the Mission in a phrase or two is impossible. It is more than simply checking an alien’s green card, and it is more than asking someone where they bought the painting on velvet. There is a Customs Service tourist pamphlet called “Know Before You Go,” which defines part of the Mission as “processing your immigration/customs clearance with a friendly smile and a Welcome Home.’ But it is more than that (in fact, that probably has very little to do with it). Perhaps a more exact feeling for the Mission can be gained from Radio 1600 AM, arguably one of the world’s weakest radio stations. The broadcasting tower atop a small hill near the San Ysidro customs checkpoint has a transmitting radius of about five miles, and even then the reception is weak and filled with static. The station broadcasts recorded messages from the Customs Service to the public, passing out information regarding customs procedures at the Califomia-Mexico frontier.
One such message says, “The United States Customs Service advises motorists that at the present time there is more than a one-hour wait at the customs examination area at the border crossing at San Ysidro, California. The reason for this is that the customs inspection area is one of the primary barriers to drug traffic into the United States.” But not only drug traffic, one assumes; the Customs Service acts as a barrier to smugglers of all sorts. The men in the Customs Service see themselves as protectors of a quality of life in the United States, a quality that is potentially threatened by every person crossing the border. The inspectors, as they see it, stand at the outer reaches of their nation, the first line of defense. And that is their Mission.