The courtship of Hannah and Roger is a story that Thoreau would value for its philosophical interest, raising questions as it does about whether one is bound to follow the laws of man or those of a higher order. Novelist Tom Robbins would savor the story for its practical appeal, as a concrete example of two young outlaw lovers giving the Bronx cheer to authority. What the couple did was, they committed a crime in order to remain together. They scorned the authority of the most powerful agencies in the American government by sneaking Norwegian-born Hannah into the United States, then bending the truth — well, lying — in order to get her a visa that would allow the young couple to marry in this country and live in San Diego. Both Thoreau and Robbins would approve of such action. Thoreau would argue that the sublime imperatives of the heart supersede the mundane concerns of mortal law. Robbins would say that a love driven by the bandit spirit of romance, particularly one strong and cavalier enough to take on the most powerful bureaucracy in the world, was no doubt scribbled into God’s eternal plan.
The two met when Hannah visited San Diego in 1983. (For reasons that will become obvious, Hannah and Roger didn’t want their real names used in this story.) Though there was immediate chemistry between them, it was nothing that would blow up a lab. Roger was a tall, broad, rusty-haired Californian of twenty-seven years — single, self-motivated, from a good family. Hannah was two years younger, with long, blond hair, milky skin, a sense of adventure, and a boyfriend named Sven who was good company but potentially a bad sport should Roger and Hannah’s friendship have become a bit too snug. The American behaved himself, however, and Sven left the United States after one year, returning to Norway with his coveted blond beauty.
In the spring of 1985, Roger traveled to Europe, where he stayed in a chateau on the cliffs of Henqueville in Normandy, France. One day Hannah, during an indolent moment up in Oslo, received a phone call. “Hi, this is Roger. I’m sort of in the area....’’ Next morning he was on a train heading for the fjords. The following day (Roger wasted no time), he was embracing the object of a two-year-long fantasy. After three lusty weeks — during which an inchoate infatuation evolved into a precipitous melding of souls, one that neither trusted entirely at first — Roger left Oslo and flew to New York wondering if he’d ever see Hannah again. While waiting there to find a drive-away car to California, Roger received a transatlantic phone call from Hannah. It assured him that the meld was sure: “If you love me, come and get me,” she said. Roger’s heart nearly burst. He crossed the United States at breakneck speed, tended to some business in San Diego, then caught the next flight to Oslo.
As he sat in the plane, Roger marveled at how he’d been surpassed by events, how this thing called love could conspire with circumstance and mold his fate like a slab of clay. He pondered the landscape of his own passion and saw towering oaks and redwoods where only weeks before there had been mere sprouts. The truth was in the travel, he thought. If miles were the measure of passion, his two round trips to Europe, the last leg traveled (he hoped) in the company of his mate, were testimony to the bigness of his love. When Hannah met Roger at the Oslo airport, they were both intensely and awkwardly aware that this was a “moment” and that — unlike most significant events in one’s life, such as accidents, deaths, chance encounters, events over which we have little control — they were willfully making this one happen together. The two lovers kissed long and hard, at once overjoyed and deathly afraid.
During the two weeks Roger stayed with Hannah in Oslo, it became clear that the young couple was destined to marry. So it was no surprise to Hannah when one day Roger spoke the words that have shaped the fortunes of millions before him throughout history: “Hannah, will you leave your native Europe and come with me to the new world, the land where purple mountains meet fruited plains, and where love will flourish and make us free — if, that is, the State Department, the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Border Patrol, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service agree to let you in?”
“Yes,” she replied, her eyes ill with love, having not even heard the prosaic qualifier at the end of Roger’s ever-so-poetic proposal.
But only days later, when Hannah and Roger went to the American Embassy in Oslo, they discovered that the qualifier had a capital Q, that there were cynical forces dedicated to keeping them apart. A State Department official at the embassy refused in one crisp sentence Hannah’s request for a tourist visa to the United States. The reason: she’d spent that year in San Diego in 1983, which made her a high-risk candidate to do something pernicious such as marry an American and seek “permanent resident status.” Hannah’s high-risk profile was enhanced by the fact that she had no job in Norway at the time, that she owned no land, that she had very little money, and that she’d wandered into the embassy with a big, broad, rusty-haired American who appeared capable of mating with a lovely Norwegian blonde.
The obvious solution would have been to marry in Norway, but immigration laws are such that the alien spouse must wait six months before he or she is permitted to return to the United States after marriage in a foreign country. Six months apart? Just when the relationship was sprouting its first buds? Only a bureaucrat could contrive such punishment. The man at the embassy had said it was a question of “policy,” which, in conventional warfare, will always drive love into the dirt. So Roger and Hannah turned to guerrilla tactics.
They flew together to Toronto, then took a Greyhound to Montreal, a mere ninety-minute drive from the state of New York. They then traveled to St. Bernard de la Colle, a city in Quebec near the border, where they fully intended to penetrate the United States clandestinely, slipping through the woods a short distance from the main road. Roger figured that in this sparsely populated northern forest, it would be no trick to hike over the border undetected. But just to make sure, he crossed into the United States alone, checked into a hotel in Champlain, the New York town nearest the border, and took off on foot down an east-west highway. After about a mile’s walk, he came to a small dirt road heading due north toward the Canadian border, which couldn’t have been more than a few hundred yards away. There was no one around. The crossing would be a piece of cake.
Roger walked down the road, stepping through brush, breathing the crisp spring air of upstate New York, thinking about what he might do in this lonely woods with his blond-haired Norwegian import if she were there at that moment. He heard a sound. A strange and distant swoosh swoosh. He heard another sound. The engine of a car. A border patrol car, driving down the dirt road right toward him. The mysterious swoosh became increasingly less mysterious as a helicopter appeared in the sky high above the towering trees. After examining his ID and finding all in order, the border patrol agent told Roger to stay away from the border. Back at a truck stop near Champlain, Roger got to talking with a driver who said he had a similar experience while hunting. “The border patrol agents told me they have motion detectors and cameras hidden in the trees,” he said. “Up in Idaho and Montana, they can tell if someone crosses the border 200 miles from the nearest road.”
With great sadness, Roger returned to St. Bernard de la Colle, where Hannah waited restlessly at the Hotel du Repos. This is not the place to smuggle conjugal contraband into the United States, he told her. We must go to Tijuana, the floodgate of Mexico. We must join the human tide of brown faces, thousands strong, that pour into Southern California each day. Roger returned with Hannah to Toronto on a Greyhound. He had just enough money for one plane ticket, so he flew People’s Express to San Diego alone, and then he immediately drew enough money from his bank account to buy Hannah a ticket from Toronto to Acapulco. After one night in the Mexican resort, she caught a plane to Tijuana.
How, how to get her across the border into San Diego? Option number one was to go to the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana and try to obtain a visa. They went to the austere edifice between the Agua Caliente Racetrack and the Tijuana Country Club and asked to apply for the necessary papers. They were intercepted, however, by a consulate employee who screens people before they join the line. She took one look at Hannah’s passport, shook her head, and uttered a terse verdict: “It’s a lost cause.’’ A one-year stay in the United States in 1983. A stop in Toronto. A mysteriously brief stop in Acapulco. Then, the next day, arrival in Tijuana. “You’d think you two intended to get married or something,” the consulate staffer said. Just for the sake of form, she asked if Hannah had a significant amount of money, if she had a job, and if she owned land back in Norway. Three no’s later, Hannah and Roger were in the streets plotting strategies.
Option number two was to drive right through the border inspection station. When the man in the booth asked, “What citizenship are you?” they could both say “U.S.” and hope the inspector would just wave them through. Risky, though. Sometimes they ask you, “What city are you from?” or “What kind of work do you do?” The inspectors know a foreign accent when they hear one, and they’re trained to detect nervousness. Hannah’s accent and the fact that she was scared silly ruled out option number two. If apprehended, one is charged with a crime called “making false statements to a federal officer.” Roger would find himself in federal court facing a felony count for every false statement made. Hannah would be on the next plane to Norway and would probably lose forever her chance to immigrate to the United States.
For one month, Hannah stayed in a friend’s house in Rosarito. Roger had a job in San Diego, and he would cross into Mexico each evening to be with his fiancee. They clearly lacked the courage to pursue option number three, which was to join the massing aliens on the border and attempt a midnight crossing. A Norwegian blonde and a fair-skinned American would stand out among the Mexicans and might be a prime target for thieves and other border low-life. Besides, what did they know about scurrying through chaparral, playing the lines and shadows, and otherwise dodging border patrol agents? Then Roger had an idea. There was a genteel solution to this problem, a way to get Hannah into San Diego with no smudge on her sleeve, no briars in her boots, no danger of thieves. Using his plan, they would drive right by the border patrol without a single question asked. The agents might even smile and wave.
One day last July, accompanied by a friend named Carol and a Welsh Cardigan dog named Rogue, Roger drove down Interstate 5 in a borrowed 1984 Chevrolet Malibu (an inconspicuous American car) to Dairy Mart Road, just a couple of miles north of the San Ysidro border crossing. Carol wore a pair of green khaki shorts, tennis shoes, a white T-shirt, and a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses. A very distinctive wide-brimmed hat covered her shoulder-length blond hair. The trio turned south on Dairy Mart Road, following it westward as it became Monument Road. They continued along the winding, nearly deserted road, hoping to drive until it dead-ended at Border Field State Bark. Unfortunately, a chain barred the way before they got there, so they had to continue on foot. A mile’s walk later, they came to the park entrance, where there is a small parking lot and a booth in which rangers normally collect the three-dollar park fee. The booth was empty. A few days earlier, Roger had come to the park with a former border patrol agent (a family friend), who told him that the beach at Playas de Tijuana was the best place to bring someone over the border. Near the rather affluent oceanside village, the chain-link fence separating Mexico and the U.S. is full of holes. Little Mexican kids run over the border all the time, and families picnic at the grassy park overlooking the ocean. If aliens get too far up the beach, however, border patrol vans pick them up and send them back.
Border Field State Park had few visitors that day. From the parking lot by the tollbooth, Roger and Carol could see the ocean about a half mile away. To the southwest, they could make out the Tijuana bullring standing on a lonely chunk of sand just south of the border. It was strangely quiet. No aliens. No border patrol agents in sight. Only a few gringo strollers here and there. Roger and Carol followed a sandy trail westward through head-high brush to the ocean, then turned south to the border, just a few hundred yards away. All along they played with the dog, having him fetch a tennis ball time and again. If anyone were watching them through binoculars or a secret camera, this was to look like a casual stroll on the beach, no more. When you cross into Mexico at this, the most extreme southwesterly point in the continental United States, you see the huge bull-ring directly ahead and, off to the right by the water, a small, abandoned building that used to be a restaurant. Before half of it fell into the sea, that is. It’s the kind of curiosity two beach strollers with a dog might go and investigate on a sunny summer afternoon.
So, if indeed there was a border patrol agent watching them through binoculars or a hidden camera, he would think nothing strange about the dog, the rusty-haired guy, and the blonde with the wide-brimmed hat and the Ray-Bans ducking into the building for a few minutes. Nor would he find it strange when they emerged and headed north over the border and began their stroll back up the beach and then inland toward the park entrance. But there was something very strange that neither binoculars nor cameras would likely pick up. The woman who emerged from the building was not the same woman who went in. Hannah, wearing green khaki shorts, tennis shoes, and a white T-shirt, had been waiting in the building. And after Carol handed over to her the wide-brimmed hat and the Ray-Bans, Hannah tucked her long, blond hair into her T-shirt, stepped out of the building with Roger and Rogue at her side, and walked into the United States.
They threw the tennis ball to the dog, ran up and down the beach, looked like two lovers in a movie who wanted only one thing in the world: not to be bothered. And they weren’t. Back in the car, Hannah put Rogue on her lap. Roger headed east on Monument Road, drove by the Spurling thoroughbred farm, through a small creek that crossed the road, past numerous people riding horseback. When they came to a roadside pulloff where several border patrol agents were packing Mexicans into vans, Hannah stuck both her blond head and the dog’s snout out of the window, smiled broadly at the agents, and waved. They waved back.
Roger dropped off Hannah at a Denny’s in Chula Vista and backtracked down to the San Ysidro border and into Tijuana, where he picked up Carol, who had been waiting patiently near the bullring. Just to be safe, he came back to San Diego via the Otay Mesa border crossing, then picked up Hannah at the restaurant. The operation was a complete success; after a mere three hours, Hannah was safely across the border and speeding north on I-5 in a 1984 Chevrolet Malibu. Welcome to America.
Finally the couple was together, living in the United States in the same house, which was just a short drive from where Roger worked. But now what? Since Hannah was in the country without a visa, she couldn’t work legally, and she was ineligible to apply for resident alien status. So Roger resorted once again to subterfuge. For three months, he worked through a circuitous network of contacts and managed to obtain a visa for Hannah through the U.S. embassy in Mexico City. The two lovers flew from Tijuana to the Mexican capitol last September, waited two days to obtain a visa stamp, and returned to Tijuana immediately. As they taxied to the San Ysidro border, it seemed as though a long ordeal was nearly over. After a perfunctory perusal, the inspector would wave them through, and they would be unimpeachably legal. They could marry the follow ing week, then apply for resident alien status immediately thereafter, and their lives together could begin.
The precious visa — the key to their futures, the red, white, and blue stamp without which their happiness was impossible — seemed to emit a warm, reassuring glow in Hannah’s passport while they were approaching the counter at the border inspection station. As they waited in the short line, Roger's mind was one step ahead of reality. He envisioned a smiling inspector glancing down at the visa stamp, leafing through the pages of the passport, making a little joke, then nodding his head as if to say, “Everything's in order. The United States government wishes you all the best.” But the man looking at Hannah's passport wasn't smiling. He was a bureaucrat with a crust, the kind of guy Thoreau would condemn to six months in the bean fields and that Tom Robbins would lock in a room with a band of horny cowgirls. “Where have you been?” he asked Hannah. She told him she’d been traveling in Mexico for three months. When he demanded to know why she was coming to the United States, Hannah said, “To visit friends.” The inspector flipped through the passport some more and frowned, then looked up at Roger and said, “Is this your boyfriend? Your fiance?” Hannah assured him that Roger was just a friend.
This was not going according to plan at all. What Roger and Hannah were discovering was that the stamp they received in Mexico City was merely permission to apply for a tourist visa. The actual visa is issued at the port of entry. In sum, they were right back at square one as far as the customs inspector was concerned. “I don’t believe you,” he said. “Let me see your purse.” Hannah handed it over and he began searching through it. In Hannah's wallet he found two appointment slips from physicians. One, from a gynecologist, had the date “Thursday, August 8” written on it. The other, from a San Diego clinic, had no date. “Did you see a doctor last month?” the agent asked. At that moment, Roger and Hannah — who had never lost faith that their love would triumph over bureaucracy — saw destiny with a knife poised at their throats. The man had in his hands proof that Hannah had been in the United States illegally only one month before, which was more than sufficient grounds to deny her entry. Hannah would be catching the next plane to Norway, and Roger would be facing a felony charge for providing false information to a federal officer.
Hannah thought quickly. “Oh, that appointment was from when I was in San Diego in 1983,” she said. The inspector scoffed at the claim, as well he should have. The card was in pristine shape and obviously hadn’t been stashed in a wallet for two years. Had he thought of it, the inspector could have merely looked at a calendar and seen that August 8 fell on Thursday in 1985, not in 1983 — irrefutable proof that Hannah was lying. But he didn’t think of it. Instead his mind, as if shifting from first gear to fifth in one go, missed the obvious and jumped to the misbegotten conclusion that since Hannah had been to a gynecologist, she must be pregnant. “Move back from the counter and lift up your shirt,” he said to Hannah. She did so, but her flat stomach cleared her of conspiracy to procreate.
Stumped for the moment, the inspector asked Roger and Hannah to “go upstairs.” On the second floor was a room full of people sitting and waiting their turn to be farther interrogated by customs agents. The couple went to the back of the room and settled down for what would be a ninety-minute wait. Roger had heard enough about customs inspections to know that agents have tremendous power and that those who venture into this borderline no man’s land have virtually no rights. Searches of everything from purses to arcane body cavities are not only sanctioned but quite frequent. Roger pulled his bank book out of his pocket and opened to the check register. “Holy shit,” he said as he looked at several checks written to Hannah in the past four months. “Hannah, give me everything you’ve got that shows you’ve been in the U.S.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a letter she’d written to a friend in Mexico a few days before but never mailed. She handed it to Roger, who opened it and read the first line: “Having a great time in San Diego.” Roger nearly choked on his chewing gum. “Anything else?” he asked nervously. Hannah searched discreetly through her purse and pulled out a prescription for birth control pills dated in mid-August, prescribed by the same gynecologist whose name was on the appointment card. Roger stashed the letter, the prescription, and the check register into his pocket, then went to the restroom, where he tore the incriminating evidence into tiny bits and flushed it down the toilet.
For an eternity they waited. The customs inspectors had held on to the appointment cards, as well as Hannah’s passport and the California driver’s license that she had obtained during her one-year stay in 1983. Finally a lumpy, bull-necked woman of about fifty summoned Hannah to the counter. “We didn’t call your name,” she said sharply to Roger, who had followed Hannah.
“Well, her English isn’t too good; I thought I could help,” Roger replied. The bull-necked inspector curtly stated that Hannah spoke English well enough to pass a driver’s license exam and suggested that Roger go sit down. During the next five minutes, the inspector asked Hannah three times whether Roger was her boyfriend. She denied it, each time with greater conviction. The woman also asked repeatedly what vHannah meant to do in the United States, and Hannah replied that she merely wanted to visit friends. It all seemed highly suspicious, what with the unusual travel itinerary, the fact that Hannah had no job, no money, no land — just a big, red-haired fellow who looked nervous enough to be in love. “I don’t believe you,” said the customs woman, folding her arms as if to declare a stand-off.
Hours later Hannah would contemplate the sudden change that overcame her. She felt it on the skin. She felt it deep in the cavity of her chest. She felt it flush blood into her face. It was indignation. Behind her was Roger, the man she’d traveled halfway around the world to marry. She thought about how hard it is to find a good man in this world. She thought about how many women spend a lifetime searching, while others settle for some witless, insensitive drone. And here is this cretinous bureaucrat, this would-be thief of hearts who probably hasn’t been kissed in forty years, trying to separate lovers whose names were scribbled one next to the other in the divine plan. Lady, if you don’t let us through, Cupid’s going to fire a .44 Magnum through your heart. Spare yourself this vengeance from the higher order of Love. Just stamp the goddamn passport!
Hannah didn’t actually say that. Instead, she cried out, “What do you want from me?” in an accented voice ringing with the same righteous indignation that filled her heart. “I want only to visit your country. I do not smuggle drugs. I do not smuggle aliens. Why are you doing this to me?” Seconds before, she had felt small and afraid, but now, as if filled with the grace of God, she felt, for that one brief moment, fearless and strong. That brief moment was all she needed. The customs inspector had lost interest in the fight; there were as many battles to come as there were people in the waiting room, and perhaps they would be easier than this one. “Calm down,” she said. “We’re going to give you your visa, but we have to go through this.” She then handed back the passport, the driver’s license, and the appointment cards. These latter two documents seemed to burn as they passed into Hannah’s hands. It was as if the Gestapo were handing back a bar mitzvah certificate to a Jew and saying, “Go free, my friend. We know a Gentile when we see one.”
This story ends happily, of course. As we knew it would all along, love triumphed over bureaucracy — though not without a push from bureaucracy’s closest ally, stupidity. Roger and Hannah married soon after their return, they filed for permanent residency status with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and three months later, Hannah was accorded a green card, which gives her the right to live, work, and procreate in the United States as she pleases. Their tumultuous courtship behind them, Roger and Hannah have settled into cozy married life. Love is still strong in their hearts, but they ponder frequently the truism that Love (with a capital L) is at its best when fighting battles against forces great and evil. Love defeated the American government. Now, can it pull them through the mundane skirmishes of the daily grind?