“PSST: Can you notarize an affidavit of citizenship so I can get an ID and get back in the country?” the hand whispered. Well, the voice seemed to come from the hand, which was behind the fence. It was at the border–the border between Mexico and the United States, and the hand was waving at me and snapping its fingers through the rough poles. Somewhere near San Diego I will never forget. San Ysidro.
I happened to be there as a notary. I had been called by someone I knew from San Diego State University, and was enjoying a three-day vacation at the home of this friend, in exchange for notarizing a loan document for her family. They were happy to have my help, and I was happy to leave Los Angles for a few days. I had never seen the border, so I went to see it. I was shocked that here I was, and that someone could gesture and speak right through the fence– and beg me this way to do something that I felt might be wrong, illegal, and personally dangerous. If I thought living near downtown Los Angeles was scary, this area was 100 times more frightening. The land to the North of the fence seemed peaceful…like a room where everything is in its place…a place where everything good was possible, guarded by officers who made tried to protect us from harm. The side of the fence to the South seemed like another world–smog, cigarettes, noise, and many many people who were obviously poor or looked desperate. There was nothing that even pretended to be glamorous. It was as if the real world I believed in disappeared here, and behind that fence lay a counterfeit world that was a cheap, sordid copy of the worst aspects of the world I knew, all thrown together and somehow waiting to suck the life out of my world. The man behind the fence tried to look me in the eye and hold my glance. But I didn’t walk away.
He held a black satchel in his right hand. With his left, he pushed at the fence and motioned for me to come. A citizenship affidavit? Was that all he really wanted?
“Wait–please–” he pleaded, sounding less suspicious, more emotional. “I lost my passport. I need to get back into the U.S. to go help my family in Compton. My mom is real sick…” he began. “I need a notary…Can you help me find one?”
“Do you have the paperwork?” I asked suspiciously, annoyed. I didn’t mind notarizing some documents for my friend’s family, but who was this guy–and how was he going to pay me? How was I going to find proof that he was who he was? What information would he be able to provide–and was he really someone I ought to be dealing with anyway? There was a sickening feeling in my stomach. I suddenly realized it was hot. I wanted to throw up.
Instead of walking away, I said, “I am a notary. Do you have any ID?”
The man’s face changed. There was something in his eyes that made me sorry I had told him I was a notary. Something ugly. Something frightening. Like he was going to jump out and grab everything in his way. But there was no going back now. I was a notary.
“I have a California driver’s license. I lived in Palo Also. I am from Palo Alto, California” he said, as if he had memorized that. “My family is in Compton. I have money to pay you.” He reached in his pocket, took out a roll of bills, and pushed a one-hundred dollar bill through the fence. I just looked at it.
“Show me your ID,” I told him grimly. He almost immediately pushed a driver’s license through the fence–carefully holding on to one corner tightly, as if he believed I might try to steal it. His eyes looked evil. His ID seemed real. It did say Palo Alto. “You need a second ID, ” I told him. “What else do you have?”
“I have a resident alien card, but I do not have it here. I can get it and come back whenever you say. Later today.”
“Can you get front and back copies of the two IDs? Can you do this and come back in a few hours? I can get the document printed out and meet you at the border gate.”
“Ok. I will be waiting there by 1 pm. I will bring my IDs. My name is Malo.” Great, I thought. Just great.
I wanted to just disappear and not return, but I had given my word. I printed the affidavit of citizenship–the “citizen affidavit page” as it was called on the form–and came back with my friend’s brother. What had I expected to happen at the border? This was what the border was about– getting in, getting across. Then what?
“Malo” was waiting at the guard station. I filled out all of the paperwork, and the section that says, “Subscribed and sworn before me on this day…” I applied my stamp. Then I told Malo, “Look, you need to follow the instructions on the form. You need to email this or mail it as soon as possible. Follow the instructions on this page…” In the meantime, the guards let him in with his two forms of ID and the notarized citizenship affidavit… I took the $100 and handed him $50. The words “Blood Money” flashed in my mind. “Idiot” I heard my father say. I had the feeling this had been a bad, bad choice on my part.
A few weeks later, the newspapers and Internet exploded with pictures of this man, who apparently murdered a family with three children in Compton. He had used an ax. The pictures were horrible. Only three weeks after I had notarized the affidavit of citizenship. I didn’t sleep for about a week. I felt I had used my power as notary improperly, without good judgment–just because I had been asked to, because I was frightened…not because it was right.
How is anyone to know what someone will do after the documents are notarized?