The Line


There are more Moroccans than anyone else. There are Chinese and Africans from Senegal and probably Cameroon. There are Eastern Europeans, mostly Bulgarian it turns out.

There are South Americans with recognizable native Indian features-if I still lived in Los Angeles, I’d figure them for Salvadoran or Guatemalan. But this is Valencia, so they are probably from Ecuador.

And there’s us, a pair of U.S. citizens joining the line. It’s 5 a.m. and the doors to the Foreigner’s Office open at 9. A man sits in a chair by the door with a sign-up sheet so people won’t lose their place. We’re #59.

People try to grab some sleep in the seats of parked cars or sheets of cardboard laid out on the cold concrete sidewalk. A blues lyric I first heard from Albert King and then adapted in a Bob Marley tune-“Rocks was my pillow/The cold ground was my bed”-comes to mind. Walking over, it was the Kinks’ “Get Back In The Line” not the union man they sang about but “He’s the man who decides if I live or I die/If I starve or I eat” rings true for this line.

We’re here and they’re here at 5 a.m. because it’s the only way to be sure our Foreigners Office business will get taken care of today. Learned that the hard way yesterday when we hit the line at 8 a.m.-we were still outside in the line when the wooden doors swung shut for the day at 2 p.m. The Valencia line is just one front line of the new North-South dynamic. An International Herald Tribune piece called Spain the “soft underbelly” of a Europe looking for union but anxious to avoid the people pressing north from Africa or west from eastern Europe or the Middle East for a better life. Until, of course, the fields need to be picked to keep the markets flush with fresh produce, buildings need to be built cheaply, toilets or houses cleaned without breaking a family budget. Dirty work to be done dirt cheap.

In a Barcelona hotel room 10 years ago, I watched a TV documentary on Moroccans crossing the Strait of Gibraltar and being funneled into the underground economy of Madrid and said to myself, “Hey, I know this story. It’s just like Los Angeles, the whole Mexican-Central American migration pickers a generation or two ago. By 9 p.m., the line is formed-the-sign-up sheet worked but I’ve never seen many problems with the line. People are pretty conscientious about maintaining places and holding them if you need to go to the bathroom or grab a coffee. The problem is that every single bit of information comes out, and every single person is funneled in, that one door. It’s an arrangement (or lack of one) that only rewards the pushiest and most aggressive. We’ve spotted the two African guys and the Bulgarians we became line friends with yesterday, all back for their second run-through. We’re pressed inside the first few rungs of the metal street barriers, a goon sign- usually if you’re inside them by noon, you’ll squeeze in. And some time between 10:30 and 11, we’re waved in to the row of plastic seats in the inner sanctum-more waiting but a welcome relief after standing crushed together for hours.

Suddenly there’s a fufor- a young African guy has wedged his way into the front of the line after getting a question answered and can’t see the logic of having to go back outside to the end of the line. At this hour, that’s a sure guarantee of having to come back another day. He’s intransigent, the guardia civils were called in and usher him to the front door to cool down while three other guys take advantage and slip under the railing into our line. They’re doing the logical thing, what anyone with any sense wants to do to avoid another stretch in the line. But damned if I’m going to let them go ahead of me after waiting behind the Ecuadorean man for 6 hours and counting.

Finally, we reach one of the five or six frontline workers who handle the blizzard of paperwork each day. There aren’t enough people, which is basically how you suspect the powers-that-be must like it-the Foreigners’ Office tucked tidily away at the end of a near cul-de-sac by the police station, well out of sight of all but a handful of Valencians going about their work.

Swept out of sight, kept out of mind, this daily business of the line. The only time people will hear of it is when there’s some media notice of a disturbance or an inordinate number of foreigners storming the gates demanding admission to the beloved homeland.

She read the letter that had forced us back into the line, looked at our originals, found what she needed, took the copy and stamped the letter. Over and done with in all of one minute-we looked at each other, almost wanting to linger and prolong the moment with small talk after working so hard to get there. You know “Todo bien? Hey, how’s the husband and kids?” 12 hours of waiting for one minute of face time, all to verify an official stamp registering our Gibraltar wedding as valid in the U.S. Two days burned and most of third to recuperate and any semblance of regular work down the tubes. It’s an exhausting business, this business of the line, filled with people who suffer through it and get stigmatized when they don’t deserve to. People who know if they have one little question or miss any minor detail in the application, it’s time to get back in the line. That was a view of the line a year ago, when we were trying to straighten out a family reagrupacion application that got lost in the shuffle. Maybe this seems like old hat to Euro-vets of the bureaucratic wars and endless queues. Maybe the system is better organized now. Maybe it’s worse since I ran into Felipe, one of our Senegalese street vendor friends, en route to keeping a friend company in the line at 3 a.m. a few months back. But I wouldn’t know. Our residency visa renewals came up this month and we decided to pay the price and hit a gestor. Anything to avoid the line.

Alto Gringo

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