04/27/2011 06:43 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2012

I Become an Illegal Immigrant for International Worker's Day

May 1 is International Workers' Day. Marches are being organized throughout the U.S. to support of immigrant and workers rights. Meanwhile, according to an email sent by the event's organizers, the Bay Area Tea Party Patriots are planning a counter-rally:

As you know, for the past five years, Illegal Aliens along with their liberal and communist supporters have used May Day to push for (illegal) "immigrant workers rights," which of course they don't possess in the first place.

Living illegally in America is incredibly difficult and involves working in fear, always hiding, and not being able to go back to your home country to visit your family. Throughout our nation's history, immigrants have come to America to make a better life for themselves.

I wanted to get a better understanding in this quest for the American dream, so for my book, The American Dream, I ventured to deep in the heart of Mexico to a tourist attraction where every Saturday night people can pay roughly $20 to simulate what it would be like to be an illegal immigrant sneaking over the U.S. border while being chased by fake border guards who fire fake bullets.

Parque Eco Alberto is a nature reserve near the town of Ixmiquilpan in Hildago, roughly 700 miles from the U.S. border -- the site of my make-believe, nighttime illegal alien border crossing experience, three hours from Mexico City. Funded by the Mexican government, the fake border-crossing experience has been Parque Eco Alberto's main moneymaking attraction since 2004, drawing in mostly tourists from Mexico City.

"Do I need to fill out any forms?" I question Yuri, one of the three coyotes on our evening's journey, wondering if being chased in the dark in the Mexican wilderness by fake border guards requires a heavy insurance waiver.

The answer: no insurance waiver needed, just two hundred pesos, payable in cash.

Forty jubilant people gathered for tonight's border crossing; a good mix of young and old people, some little kids, and a pregnant woman. (Is she planning to have her baby across the fake U.S. border to mooch off our fake social security system?)

"How close is this to the real thing?" I ask.

"This is the real thing!" Yuri exclaims.

"Will we get chased?" I gleam with enthusiasm.


"What if they catch us? Do we get deported from the park?"

"We won't get caught, because we're smart. If we do, we'll walk away," she assures, once again restating, "Cuz we're smart."

Big smiles of anticipation, are plastered on everyone's faces. On instruction, my border-crossing compadres and I pile into four pickup trucks. We're driven down a darkened road into the unknown.

"If it's about anything, it's about our culture." Yuri explains as we squat in the back of the moving vehicle under the clear star-filled night.

"What do people think of the experience?" I ask, adjusting my cramped, crouched position.

"We don't tell them anything," she says, staring in my eyes. "We want them to discover it for themselves!"

The pickup trucks park in front of a small isolated church. Upon arrival everyone mills about in the dark not knowing what to expect. Suddenly, all the lights go off. Silhouetted by the moonlight, the church steeple now resembles an ominous giant at the gateway to the new land. When the lights come back on, three men in black ski masks appear. (I hope they're part of this.) The leader, wearing a straw hat on top of his black ski mask, commands the group in Spanish.

"What's he saying?" I ask Yuri, as we gather in a circle under a tree dripping moss. She leans in close and puts her hand on my shoulder.

"He crossed the border twenty-five years ago, cuz he had no home, no family, no food. There were no cars, no roads, no schools. But now things are better! You can work here; there's a lot of things you can do here." Unlike those who think this is a training camp for illegal aliens, the main purpose is to pay homage to the path immigrants have beaten across the desert. Yuri continues to translate, "The desert has claimed many lives, but tonight we will make it across the border!"

"We are no aliens, we are humans too. We are good workers!"

People look ready to go. A little kid starts crying. We're then given twenty seconds to think about why we want to cross the fake American border. Closing our eyes and holding hands, I imagine living in the land of Tom Cruise, coked-up Lindsey Lohan, and Mountain Dew.
A flag is unfolded. The Mexican National Anthem is sung.

Then: "Stylistos!"


My coyote squeezes my hand real tight. "Remember, run! Are your shoes tied?"

"Yes!" I say with confidence. "My shoes are tied!"

There're shouts of "Rapido!" There're shouts of "Vamos!" We take off running, directed to first circle the church. "Be real quiet and stay close." Within five minutes, the sirens start. They are onto us! More shouts of "Vamos!" and "Rapido!" A speeding vehicle with police lights careens in our direction. All forty of us are running. I'm running while laughing. (Who doesn't enjoy being chased in the dark!)

"Shut off the light; they're coming. Fast! Fast!"

The headlights draw near. "Rapido! Rapido!" We're directed to duck into a building site. Red police lights dot the dark, barren landscape. This is purely mental. I'm now crouched behind a building wall with forty others, giggling like a schoolgirl. The simulated border patrol truck stops in front of the building site with its searchlight traversing the landscape in our direction. Simulated tension is in the air.

"Get down. Get down." Someone warns me in broken English.

We huddle in a corner. Can the simulated border patrol officer hear my schoolgirl giggling? One question though, if we're still in simulated Mexico (real Mexico, actually) then why are we running? Technically, on simulated-legal paper, we really haven't done anything wrong other than a public display of nighttime running.

For some reason the fake border patrol didn't detect us (or hear my schoolgirl giggling). They drive off. There's a collective sigh of relief. If that's all it takes to ward off the border patrol, then so far sneaking into the U.S. is pretty easy. In fact, it's kind of fun. It's like capture the flag. Is it wrong that it's fun?

Like an irate high school gym teacher, as soon as the fake border patrol departs, the ski-masked leader instructs us to run and run fast (no slackers in border crossing).
"Rapido! Rapido!"

In groups of four we're again made to run down the darkened, deserted road. Women and children go first. Yes, forty people running as if it were a nocturnal Running of the Bulls. I soon find myself in a full sprint, still laughing my head off. My lungs puff like a six-packs-a-day smoker. My sides ache. My muscles are stiff from driving all day in a dented rental car. Fortunately, we slow to a trot and follow a muddy path near a beautiful rushing-river gorge lit by the moon and stars and surrounded by mountains dotted with cactus and sharp, rocky bluffs.

"Rapido! Rapido!"

Apparently we didn't give the actors portraying fake border guards the slip. Just as we catch our breath, they're back with sirens blasting, parked on the roadway right above the canyon. Made to huddle bunched together in the thick, thorny bushes, the flashing red lights illuminate the mountains. Searchlights traverse across the foliage, hitting all areas but ours.

This time the uniformed fake-border-patrol actors stretch their thespian prowess. They send a message via bullhorn, taunting us in both English and Spanish, echoing throughout the wilderness, "Don't try and cross the border; you have family here. You have a life here. Don't trust the coyote; he will take your money and desert you!"

The searchlight steers toward our general, thicket-hiding direction. We're signaled to crouch lower. A thorny bush goes up my ass. A little kid starts crying. "Will you shut that damn child up!" I feel like screaming. "Do you want to ruin this for us!"

Then gunshots. Blam! Blam! Shots are fired out. I'm pretty sure the fake border guards are only firing fake bullets (then again, we didn't sign an insurance waiver). Regardless, I'm being shot at in my quest for the American Dream!

"We know where you're going. Give up now!"

Unlike last time, the fake border guards exit their white pickup trucks and set out on foot with flashlights in hand, roaming the bushes, still taunting us in both Spanish and English.

"Don't trust the coyote; he will take your money and desert you!"

There are only three of them and there are forty of us. I think we can take them. I'm pretty damn sure they're only firing blanks as well.

A bonding camaraderie develops among the border-crossing participants. Someone lifts a fence for me to duck under. Another holds a branch out of my way. We form a line and traverse a narrow rock ledge, where improper footing would land one from the elevated bluff into the rushing river. (Good thing we didn't sign an insurance waiver). I hold on to the shoulder of the person in front of me. The person behind me does the same.

Like a wilderness haunted house, one of the ski-masked assistants hide in a bush, grabbing people's feet as they pass while making monster noises. Someone loses a shoe in the mud. Another child starts crying. Then, there's a body. Lying in the path, one of the guides is face down on the ground, unmoved.

"Man down! Man down!" I cry, stepping around him as the group keeps moving.
Is he really hurt or, through the art of acting, simulating being a dead person?

"He got drunk," someone shares with a laugh.

Regardless, we walk by, assuming the latter. There's nothing we can do anyway. The fake border patrol is hot on our ass-he'll have to be left behind! A tree branch hits me in the face.

By the river, at a picturesque clearing, rumors fly that we have crossed the border. Have we crossed the border? Is that it? Are we now in the fake U.S.? That wasn't hard.

"The stars are really bright tonight," says Yuri as the rush of the water reverberates in the air.
We're told to hold hands, as the leader gives what I assume is a congratulation speech. (If there's hand holding, surely we must be in the fake U.S.?) Our ski-masked leader instructs everyone to throw a rock into the rushing river. We pick up stones and toss them. A series of splashes. We're throwing rocks in celebration, right, cuz that's what one does when they cross a fake border?

"Now we climb," whispers Yuri.

"Climb? What? Didn't we just cross the border?"


"Then why the rock throwing?"

"Now we climb," Yuri says again with a smile. I must climb!

And climb we do. We scale up the mountain bluff. Loose rocks slip from under my tired feet. More effort is needed not to fall down. I grab a tree branch for support. "Aaaaah!" It turns out to be a prickly cactus. I'm starving from not eating dinner. We've been hiking for three hours, let alone for days on end across a desert with no water, and I've already had enough.

"We need to go into the tunnel," Yuri says, gesturing to a tiny entrance underneath a roadway.


"You have to trust the leader. Otherwise, what do you do if you're left on your own?"
The group walks tightly together through a small, echoing, dark tunnel. Suddenly, the border patrol resurfaces on the road directly above us. Swirling red lights greatly contrast the still darkness, from our cavernous tunnel vantage point.

"Mas poquito" quietly, but firmly stresses the leader (I know from seven Spanish lessons on CD, it translates to "more smaller"). Hellishly claustrophobic, I'm stuck directly in the middle, as we're made to move tightly packed together inside the tunnel.

"Are you okay?" asks Yuri, noting the momentary panic-stricken expression across my face.

"Um... sure," I say, contemplating turning myself in and surrendering to the fake border patrol, except I'm unable to move.

"We know where you're going. You have a life here," once again taunts the border patrol actors with their bullhorn. And then, "Forget about the American Dream!"

Shit, I've come this far, there's no way I'm going to forget about my American Dream.
As claustrophobia increases, the border patrol sticks around much longer than the previous time. My schoolgirl giggling has permanently ceased. This isn't as funny as before, as my mind now thinks about all those immigrants who pack themselves in the back of trailer trucks, in brutal, desperate, inhumane conditions. For those who think this is an illegal-alien training course, think again. It's more like Scared Straight.

After they depart, more running, more loose rocks, more tripping, more branches in the face, etc...

It's well past midnight. Arrests have been made. For some reason, four teenage boys jump out from the bushes when they hear the patrol sirens and try to make a run for it down the middle of the road. They don't make it very far. Futilely caught directly in the vehicle searchlights, the culprits are frisked by the fake border guards, slightly manhandled, handcuffed, and then thrown in the back of their pickup trucks. They then speed off, satisfied with their catch. The rest of the group watches from a bluff a safe distance away (at least I'm given a chance to momentarily sit down), as the border guards scream, "Stop right there!' with their (hopefully) fake guns drawn.

Something is slightly fishy, though. Those who are arrested weren't with the rest of the group prior to the point of being arrested. I think they are also merely "actors." If so, this demonstration has somehow become like the Illegal Alien Batman Forever Stunt Show at 6 Flags Magic Mountain. Once again, the group is instructed to get in the back of one of four waiting pickup trucks.

"Put this on!"

Blindfolds are handed out. Instructions are made not to peek. Too tired to disagree, I wrap the piece of cloth around my eyes. The pickup trucks take off. Around hilly terrain and windy roads we drive in complete, utter silence and darkness. Is this a trap? Will our fake border-crossing end with us getting faux executed by drug lord impersonators? I should have listened to the fake border patrol's stern warning and not trusted the coyotes.

Coming to a stop, we're guided from the vehicles to a grassy area, once again made to hold hands. Surely we must be across the fake U.S. border. As the ski-masked leader lectures the group in Spanish, I'm left imagining what the fake U.S.A. looks like. Will we take off our blindfolds to find our leader now drinking a Coca-Cola while wearing an Uncle Sam outfit as firecrackers shoot out of his ass to the tune of "God Bless America"?

A countdown begins:

". . . 4-3-2-1!"

Slowly the cloth is removed from my eyes. I can see. We're welcomed to the Promised Land. The entire mountainside is lit up. Thousands and thousands of candles placed on the large bluff and are logistically situated to form the outline of the country of Mexico. Faces glow from the light. A random guy hugs me. I hug him back. It's an amazing site, though I feel slightly lonely, unable to verbally communicate to everyone here; for the first time this evening, feeling very, very foreign.

"We've made it!" exclaims Yuri, with a huge, brightly illuminated smile.

"Yes, we made it," I reply. "We truly are here."

Check out Harmon's book, The American Dream, on Amazon.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?