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V. Border Crossing Documents and Procedures for Indigenous Community Members in Mexico

According to WHTI, Mexican citizens are required to present a Mexican passport with a visa, or a Border Crossing Card. In order to qualify for a renewable laser visa for short stays in the United States, Mexican citizens must first have a Mexican passport.  In order to obtain a passport, Mexican citizens must have photo identification and proof of residence with documentation such as utility bills and pay stubs. Mexican citizens must also prove economic solvency—financial capacity for travel and reason to return to one’s country—to qualify for a laser visa. To prove economic solvency, a Mexican citizen must have a minimum of around 2,500 pesos in a bank account. Many Indigenous individuals in Mexico, however, are subsistence farmers or piece together cash incomes through a variety of non-wage earning activities. Many also lack access to public utilities and do not possess photo identification. Indigenous persons in Mexico may, therefore, find it difficult to prove their residence or identities as Mexican citizens according to Consulate requirements. The cost of both the passport and laser visa is also prohibitive for most Indigenous persons existing in subsistence economies. 

Some U.S. tribal governments, and groups like the Alianza Indígena Sin Fronteras and the Kumeyaay Border Task Force, have been able to work with Mexican and U.S. Consular officials to have certain of the requirements waived for Mexican Indigenous relatives applying for laser visas needed to participate in ceremonial and cultural events held in the United States. In 2002, for example, Mexico’s Indigenous affairs agency, Instituto Nacional Indigenista (INI), assisted Kumeyaay cross-border efforts by issuing photo identification cards to Kumeyaay in Mexico. Through informal agreements with the Mexican Consulate in San Diego, Kumeyaay were able to obtain Mexican passports for Kumeyaay in Mexico as well as members of another neighboring Yuman community, the Pai Pai. The Border Task Force then worked with U.S. immigration officials in San Diego to obtain laser visas for these members. The Kumeyaay transported busloads of Mexican Indigenous community members, 50 at a time, to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico to obtain the necessary documents. By 2006, the Border Task Force had acquired laser visas for 680 Mexican Kumeyaay and Pai Pai, and about 1,000 laser visas by 2007. Currently, about 1,900 Kumiai in Mexico hold laser visas. Letters from both appropriate Indigenous community leaders in Mexico and the affiliated U.S. tribal government are typically used to identify specific Indigenous persons and their residence in Mexico.  Such letters also state the specific purpose(s) of the person’s visit to the U.S., thus allowing for the waiving of economic solvency requirements.

Indigenous ceremonial or cultural event participants from Mexico may also apply for temporary, non-renewable border crossing permits that have shorter validity periods of a few days to several weeks. These permits are granted in a process similar to the processing of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) humanitarian parole program permits.  This program allows non-U.S. citizens to temporarily enter the U.S. for an “urgent humanitarian reason,” such as to receive emergency medical care or to see a dying relative, or because temporary entry by the individual into the U.S. will provide significant benefit to the public. In addition to the application for the border crossing permit and an affidavit of support with documentation supporting the applicant’s temporary entry into the U.S., parole entries must be approved by a CBP official on a case-by-case basis at the port of entry. Letters from the appropriate Indigenous community and tribal officials are used in the border crossing permit application process as the individual’s proof of identification as well as documentation for the affidavit of support to cross the border. Such letters are typically referred to as letters of invitation.  The CBP-derived language and documentation requirement seem to draw from the documentation requirement language in place for the J1 Exchange Visa, a visa which allows foreign visitors temporary stays in the U.S. for educational and cultural exchange. Unlike J1 visa approvals, however, approval of “paroled” entries into the U.S. for Indigenous cultural reasons remains at the discretion of CBP officials at the time of entry.  Letters of invitation to Mexican Indigenous community members applying for a border crossing permit should be written by a tribal official or otherwise certified as coming from a U.S. tribal nation and should:

  • establish the member’s membership in, or cultural affiliation with a U.S. tribal nation in the U.S.-Mexico border region;

  • certify that the individual resides in Mexico, if the applicant cannot produce other evidence of residence;

  • confirm that the community member will be provided for in the United States during their visit, if not in possession of sufficient funds for the proposed visit; and

  • state the reasons for the applicant’s stay in the United States


When possible, a member of the U.S. host tribal nation should escort or meet a Mexican citizen Indigenous community member at the port of entry. Although there is no official set of guidelines for the border crossing permit application process, it is advisable that both the Mexican citizen Indigenous community member applying for the permit and a U.S. host tribal nation member have a physical copy of the letter(s) of invitation.  Border officials may also sometimes request photo identification for the applicant. If the Indigenous community member does not have a photo identification card, it is advisable for the host tribal nation to create some form of photo identification for the individual. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe, for example, creates photo identification cards similar to their tribal identification cards for Mexican citizen Yaqui individuals who frequently visit their communities in the United States. Although a member of the U.S. host tribal nation may be present to escort or greet an Indigenous community member who is applying for a border crossing permit, U.S. host tribal nation members are not allowed to accompany the applicant during the application interview and paperwork process. For this reason, it is also advised that the applicant have details such as physical address of where they will stay and phone contact information in the United States on hand during the application process.  When asked for the reasons for their visit to the U.S., Indigenous community members from Mexico applying for a temporary border crossing permit should only list the reasons stated in the letter of invitation. Expressed desire for recreational travel or desire to someday work in the United States, for example, may be misinterpreted by border officials and result in a denial of the permit. If proficiency in Spanish may be an issue for the applicant, the U.S. tribal host nation should consider consulting with port of entry officials to see if it would be possible to have a translator for the applicant’s Indigenous language present during the application process. Phone contact information for a tribal official who can be contacted and consulted by a border official during the permit application process is also advisable in case issues arise. To begin a border crossing permit application process, a U.S. host tribal nation should consult with the Tribal Liaison for their CBP sector and CBP officials at the port of entry where the application process will take place.

Due to the complications that may arise in the process of securing border crossing permits, the option to secure B1/B2 “Border Crossing Card” laser visas for Mexican Indigenous persons who frequently visit Indigenous relatives in the U.S. for social, cultural and ceremonial purposes is useful to Indigenous nations that seek to strengthen cross-border connections.  Border Crossing Cards are only issued to residents and citizens of Mexico and allow a limited travel range in the U.S.-Mexico border region (within 25 miles of border in California and Texas, 55 miles of border in New Mexico, and 75 miles of border in Arizona).

Title 8 U.S. Code § 1357 gives CBP officers significant powers to interrogate, search, seize, and arrest individuals without warrant at the U.S.-Mexico border. Although Indigenous border crossings often proceed without complications, both Mexican and U.S. citizen Indigenous individuals have reported experiencing harassment, detainments of up to several hours, and denials of entry when crossing into the United States from Mexico. U.S. citizen Indigenous community members accompanying Mexican Indigenous community members can be accused of and detained for attempted smuggling of unauthorized/undocumented persons into the U.S. The recommendations above should help avoid problems that can arise during a border crossing, but individuals crossing the border should be prepared to contact appropriate tribal officials and others (such as supportive Congressional representatives) who can provide support if problems should arise.

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