Ninety dollars. For that amount, we'd be allowed to keep the kids, get back in the car and drive away. But it had to be cash, no checks and no charge cards.
"How do I know these are your children? Do you have their birth certificates?" The border patrol officer was clearly irritated by something.
"Birth certificates," I thought, "Who goes on a family outing with their kids' birth certificates?" The tears were just below the surface.
"Oh, let them go," the other officer said.
"This is my case!"
And it all started with that one parking ticket in Astoria, Queens.
We'd paid the ticket but there was a $7 surcharge that we didn't know about. Obviously, we wouldn't have paid a $50 ticket and purposely tried to get away without paying that small surcharge. But that ended up resulting in a warrant for Nick's arrest, which we didn't find out about until he was pulled over by a state trooper for speeding. The officer told us about the warrant and confiscated Nick's license. He questioned us briefly and seemed satisfied with our answers. He was kind enough to allow Nick to remain with us, though I had to promise to do all the driving, which of course, I did.
So we continued to our destination—my brother Bob's house in Henrietta, NY. The next day, I don't remember why we went without my brother and his family, Nick and I decided to take the kids for the one hour drive to Niagara Falls, and we'd heard that the Canadian side was more scenic, so that is where we went. Mind you this the early 1990s and pre-911. The Canadian border was a simple pass-through and we were all still feeling blissfully safe.
On the way back over to the U.S. side, as we approached the border, Nick looked at me and said, "I don't have my green card. I left it at home." He wasn't a citizen yet. He just hadn't gotten around to it. Life kept getting in the way. But I didn't panic until I realized he had no identification at all. The state trooper had confiscated his driver's license.
I drove to the end of one of the long lines at the New York border. By the time it was my turn to drive through the patrol area, I was ready to hyperventilate and I felt like my forehead had the word "guilty" written across it. The officer asked Nick for identification, heard his thick accent and then directed us to park over and go into the immigration office.
They looked up the information Nick provided: how and when he had immigrated and gotten his green card. They saw that his story held up against the records they had. But my tears flooded the room and added to the drama when the one officer declared that she would have to take the children. She seemed satisfied with my reaction and told us that she believed that those were our children but we needed to pay the processing fee of ninety dollars, in cash.
"Can we write a check?" That was before debit cards and money was not accessible on weekends after the banks closed.
"How about a credit card?"
So, Nick counted it out into her palm. No receipt. Just fear. And then we got into the car and high-tailed it.
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