On a recent flight on a Central American airline, the magazine in the seat-back pocket carried an interview with the airline president. Emphasizing how his own travels as a young man had whetted his interest in learning as much as possible of other lands and cultures, he said he had one piece of advice for the youth of today's globalizing world: Travel as much as you can.
I thought of that counsel the other day when my plan to share a bit of my country, the United States, with a young Mexican friend was thwarted by my government.
Remembering my own quest to know something of the world, I agreed with the executive. But the sad reality is that travel, especially if it involves developed countries like the US, is only open to the world's wealthy youth. Either that, or it has to be undertaken illegally - a loss for the young people whose wings are clipped and for countries like mine.
The youths who are left out simply because they don't come from wealthy backgrounds understandably might feel hostility toward countries that have rejected them. And countries like the US, which profit from the spread of their culture and ideals as part of globalization, are disserved when that hostility builds up. This is especially true with the US and Mexico, which live daily with the consequences of the world's most complex relationship between developed and third-world countries.
What got me thinking about this was the recent refusal of the US consulate in Mexico City to grant my friend a visa to accompany me on a brief trip to Texas to sell my family's old car. I asked Sergio Macas, our housekeeper's 20-year-old son, to drive with me. Not only would this save me from driving through Mexico alone, but it would also allow Sergio, a serious college student with a typical curiosity about the world, to see a small piece of the US and form his own opinion. Clearly, from what he told me, his professors were set on leaving him with their negative views of the big neighbor to the north.
Pleased with the invitation, Sergio paid the $45 fee - two weeks' minimum wage in Mexico - to apply for a visa. He set off for his visa interview with his application and a letter from me, explaining the request. The consulate did not even give him the time of day.
"Your father doesn't make enough money for you to qualify for a visa," the visa officer said. I don't know what his father earns working in a museum library, but I do know it's enough, with what his mother earns in our home, to provide a comfortable house with a dog, TV, VCR, and achievable dreams for the future.
Unfortunately, where I saw a hard-working student interested in expanding his very-limited exposure to the world, the US government saw a potential illegal immigrant.
As one acquaintance in the US Embassy told me, "The problem is your friend is the very profile of the person they [the consulate] reject." Sergio is young, male, and to the US government, he is poor. Added to all that is the relevant, unmentioned, fact, that he is brown-skinned with Indian features. The word "profile" is clear enough: Just ask Hispanics targeted in the US by police for traffic checks under a practice called "profiling."
How else to explain that last summer two other Mexican friends of ours - brothers with the same living standards as Sergio and college students like him but who are tall and light-skinned - were easily granted visas?
When Sergio told me the consular official did not even read his application or my letter, I contacted the consulate myself. I was told a computer record showed Sergio's request had been turned down because he had simply said he wanted a visa to spend a week in a hotel in Texas. I knew this was not true because I had seen his application.
But the official I spoke with said Sergio could re-apply and a note would be placed in his record indicating officials were aware the request was accompanied by a letter.
For the second application, I paid the $45. But again the response was negative. Sergio was told there was no note in his computer file indicating any other consular officials had reviewed the case. He was told again: "Your father doesn't earn enough money."
Embassy officials will counter this tale by pointing to the large majority of visa requests that are granted. They will insist that suspicions of discrimination against a certain racial type of Mexican are unfounded. The truth is that many of the Sergios of Mexico learned long ago not to waste time with an expensive visa request. If you want to go to the US, you just go - illegally.
In five years in Mexico, I've lost a housekeeper and a son's haircutter to the US that way. Both were brown-skinned with Indian features.
Sergio is still going to drive north with me as far as the border. We'll stop somewhere to gaze across the Rio Grande to the land he wanted to learn something about but that turned him down. He'll return to the professors and newspaper columnists who say the US is only interested in exploiting poor Mexicans, is using a globalizing economy to spread its multinational corporations and export its own discriminatory vision of the world. And I'll feel regret. I wanted him to see something else.
*Howard LaFranchi is the Monitor's Latin America bureau chief, based in Mexico City.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society