Passport privilege

Touchdown at more than a hundred miles per hour.

Almost home

Almost home

I shoot a tired smile at my seat-neighbor; after a short flight, we are almost home.

His eyes are red, but they look relieved. His journey started much earlier mine; up since 2 am, Maynor had been traveling for almost a full day.

He started his day in a rural Guatemalan village. There, he boarded a public micro-bus that bumped and curved across the western highlands. Several hours later, he arrived in the capital city. Two flights and a six hour layover later, he looked about ready to keel over.

He sleepily but sheepishly says to me: “This is nothing like when I crossed for the first time.”

And then he beings to divulge a story that I have heard more than one hundred times before. The details are nuanced, but the struggle is always the same.


Before living in Mexico, I had always considered crossing international borders as a slight nuisance in an otherwise exciting moment: one in which you are on the precipice of discovering a new country or field-testing a language learned in the classroom.

Swimming holes like this make the border check-points worth the wait

Swimming holes like this make the border check-points worth the wait

I seem to have good luck at border check-points. I flash my navy blue book emblazoned with the flashy eagle emblem in gold and exchange pleasant banter with passport agents. This time is no different: the 30-something Asian-American thanks me for my Peace Corps service and suggests that I apply for a job in his agency.

Stamp. “Next person in line!” It is as simple as that.

I was born on the north side of a formerly invisible line. If I had been born a century earlier in the same town, I would have been born on the south side of the line: I would have been born in Mexico.

Instead, as chance would have it, I became citizen of one of the most wealthy and powerful nations in the world. One that allows me the benefit of traveling to almost any country with ease.

We are only a few weeks apart in age. We were born in neighboring countries. So why is it that I can travel to her country with such ease and the reverse is not true for her?

We were born only weeks apart, but in neighboring countries. Why is it that I can travel to her country anytime and the reverse is not true for her?

You have likely heard of racial or gender privilege, but have you ever heard of passport privilege?


When I was born, Maynor was eleven years old. This was when his entire family packed up, bringing only what they could carry in their hands and on their backs.

For eleven days they traveled:

  • they took public transit to the edge of Guatemala and then used a small raft to cross the river that marks the divide between his home country and Mexico;
  • from there, they drove almost all the way to El Paso, Texas. This is approximately the same distance as from Los Angeles to Atlanta, only without major highways and chock full of potholes, speed-bumps, and street-side taco stands;
  • next, they paid a man to bring them safely across the US border just outside of El Paso via a hole that had been cut in the wire fence that marked the border to the USA.

They arrived safely, but I would be safe to assume that this trip cost them their life savings. They had left almost everything behind and entered the precarious world of the undocumented immigrant, trying to make it in California.

By the time he is finished telling his story, the airplane is almost at the gate.

I am immersed in the story. “The border sure is different now, huh?” is all that I manage to say. I am still humbled by these stories, and the right words are hard to find.

Bastante,” he says with wide eyes. It is completely different.

He no longer has to worry about crossing in such a manner. His American passport peeks subtly out of his front shirt pocket. He is now able to travel freely, just like me.


This is a story that I have heard more than one hundred times before because I lived in a state with one of the highest emigration rates in Mexico. Some towns are almost completely bereft of adult males. I was told: Se fueron pa’l norte. They all moved up north.

Later, I read a quote from a migrant worker: “Aunque quisiera, no puedo quedarme.” Even if I wanted, I cannot stay here.

Monumento al Migrante: a statue of a migrant waving goodbye to his community, located in the central plaza of a small pueblo. (Source: Ellen McElfish)

Monumento al Migrante: a statue of a migrant waving goodbye to his community, located in the central plaza of a small pueblo. (Source: Ellen McElfish)

In so many towns across Mexico, some homes remain vacant for years while others homes have expensive additions constructed with money earned in el norte. In one town, 70% of all deposits made to the bank were remittances from the United States. These are partial ghost-towns, home to mothers, children, grandparents and during the Christmas holidays, men.

Times are changing though. NPR reports that Mexican migration to the United States has reached an equilibrium, with about as many Mexicans moving north as those returning south between 2005 and 2010. This is due to a slowing economy in the USA, growing opportunity in Mexico, and ingenuity of the people who prefer to stay as long as they can earn a living.

One pueblo situated in the high desert near my city is fighting for their citizens to stay. To combat the northern pull, they started a collective business that provides jobs for many residents. The staff at the popular radio show This American Life produced a story about the town’s Caminata Nocturna, their tourist attraction where locals simulate an illegal crossing for middle-class and wealthy Mexicans.

A neighboring town to the Caminata Nocturna

A neighboring town to the Caminata Nocturna


The details of each story are nuanced, but the struggle is always the same. Crossing – legally or illegally – involves leaving everything in a familia es todo culture. It involves risk, frustration and discomfort, and puts into perspective my twenty minute wait at Dulles International passport control. When I lived in Mexico, I heard stories about:

  • Stowing away in the luggage compartment of a bus, hidden for hours
  • Walking across the desert for days, fearing dehydration, robbery, rape, arrest, and death
  • Paying two full months salary for a visa and waiting almost a year for the proper paperwork to be processed- the fee is non-refundable if rejected

These stories are so commonplace, they have entered into the soundscape of Latin music. Here are two examples of popular songs about crossing the border:

Los Tigres del Norte: Tres veces Mojado
A norteño song that tells the story of a Salvadorian emigrant crossing through Guatemala and Mexico, and finally arriving in the United States

Calle 13: Pa’l Norte
A latin hop hop fusion song about walking across the desert with no map, and putting faith in the saints to protect their safety


Every story that was told to me was recounted by someone who had returned to Mexico. Some had been deported, but the majority had returned on their own accord, having saved enough to justify coming back.

It seems like I met such people about every week. They longed to speak American English with me. My accent made them smile, and my experience of living as a foreigner spoke to their memories of living in the USA.

They asked if I had ever been to Georgia. To Tennessee. To Texas. To Arizona. They asked if I liked eating at the Olive Garden; at the Cracker Barrel. They grasped for that connection to their former life. I was a connection to their past, and I sometimes understood their experience better than their families.

Sometimes, being a foreigner can feel like you are wearing a mask, or a second skin

Sometimes, being a foreigner can feel like you are wearing a mask, or a second skin


After hearing Maynor’s story and adding it to the bank of so many similar ones, I watched the passengers grow restless for the “fasten seat-belt” light to be turned off. My own desire to stand up and stretch my legs had suddenly lessened. I was aware of how lucky I am.

My thoughts fixated on passport privilege. This was my eighth time crossing the Mexico-USA border. I have walked across, driven past, and flown above. Every time was easy.

I looked back at Maynor one last time. I was happy that his long journey was almost over, and I was honored that he could cross the border with me. After all of these years, he is a fellow holder of passport privilege. Then I sighed while thinking of all of the people who could not be with us on that airplane. These were the people that I carried across the border in memory.


To learn more about the border and migration, consider checking out:

NPRs Borderland series, which includes:

Amor and Exile, a non-fiction book about love across America’s borders by Nathaniel Hoffman and my friend Nicole Salgado

Aqui y Alla, a film about a migrant’s return to his family after years of working in the United States


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