“Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania.
Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania:
trucks loaded down with weapons
crossing over every night,
moon yellow and bright.”
-The Mountain Goats – “International Small Arms Traffic Blues”
I’ve only crossed the border once. Well, twice. It was almost only once. We were visiting my grandparents in Corpus Christi, Texas, down along the gulf. I was around eight years old, maybe older, maybe younger. This might have been before September 11th, but likely the summer after. The details are fuzzy and I haven’t been able corroborate the story with any parties present at the time; they deny it ever happened. My parents were always bad with money, and maybe they still are to some degree. Back then, it was pretty bad. Jumping from house to house and apartment to apartment every few months, bouncing checks, burning through credit cards, avoiding taxes, playing it fast and loose. My brother and I didn’t know any better. This was how life worked, this constant state of change, this uneasiness. Before either of us was ten years old, we’d already been homeless for a time. It’s just how things were.
Texas had always been something of a sacred place for us. We’d moved there for a period of a year or so just after my brother was born, and my father always wanted to return. He felt something down there for him in the Body of Christ, that holiest of cities. It was a way out. He knew he was trapped in a life he didn’t want, and he was grasping at straws. My mother would never agree to moving ever again but acquiesced to yearly vacations southward. On one of these vacations, someone suggested taking a day trip down to Mexico, and so we did, my parents, my brother, my father’s parents, and me. I recall getting into the city of Reynosa, just across the border, fairly easily. It seemed easy and fun, like something you could do on the weekends for kicks. We spent the day there, milling around shops, walking through the streets, gawking at locals the way only ignorant white Hoosiers can. I remember having a Coke that purportedly was sweetened with cane sugar. It tasted great. Clean and sharp.
Before evening rolled around, we decided that it was high time to go home. My brother and I were both young, and the drive back to Corpus would take a good three hours on top of how long it would take to get through the border. Here is where the details get sketchy. I don’t recall any of us having passports in the first place. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe it was my parent’s tax evasion, something that landed my mother in prison for a while a few months after this. Maybe we just looked funny. In any case, the six of us were removed from the queue and shoved deep inside a cold, metallic office building, down into the end of a long hallway. It seems impossibly long in my memory. There no were windows, no plants, no sign of life outside our shivering family, huddled together onto a tiny bench alongside one wall. They interrogated my father for a while, and then my mother. I can’t tell you how long my mother was gone. The one time I was able to pry it out of my father, he said he didn’t know and guessed it to be around five hours. That seems preposterous. In my head it felt longer. My brother, then around five years old, kept falling asleep and would wake up crying. Eventually I must have dozed off too, as I awoke to my father grabbing my hand and yanking me to my feet as we hurriedly exited the building and out into the night. We must have been inside for quite some time, as when we came outside it was pitch black out, the sort of sheer dark you’re only able to see in the middle of the night in the south Texas summer. I recall driving home to Corpus in silence. I recall looking out the window in the back seat of the minivan. I couldn’t see anything.
International borders are a curious thing. Necessary, of course, at least in this current facet of civilization, but often inorganic and cruel as well. The delineation between patches of dirt and the ownership between them is a strange process, yet it hearkens back to our territorial, animalistic instincts. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me, then, when these borders bring out the worst in our fellow man. The Mexico-United States border has been a point of contention for some two hundred years at the very least, dating back to New Spain and the Louisiana Purchase, and its issues are well-documented. Far more interesting and peculiar, perhaps, is the Canada-United States border. To end the Revolutionary War, British and American leaders came to terms with the Treaty of Paris in 1783 that established boundaries, if rough ones, between British North America and the fledgling United States. Ironically enough, the two parties deliberated over maps, designed by John Mitchell, whose original intent was to diminish French and Spanish claims on the land in favor of Britain retaining control over the continent. Since then, and since the Treaty of 1818 which more thoroughly defined the perimeters of each nation, the Canada-United States border has remained a fairly peaceful, if bizarre and sometimes malleable, border.
But hey, enough about maps (which pains me greatly to say); let’s get down to wrestling. If you thought that there was no way all this boring nerd talk about borders could relate to wrestling, you’d be wrong. As you might be aware, Canadian independent wrestler Josh Alexander has recently had some trouble at the US border, leading to him signing “paperwork saying [he] would not cross [the border] for the purpose of wrestling without a work visa ever again”. Alexander is far from the first Canadian wrestler to have such issues, as Michael Elgin, Seleziya Sparx, the Super Smash Bros, and “Speedball” Mike Bailey have all had similar problems in recent years.
The crux of the problem here is simple: these people are crossing into the United States to wrestle and be paid for their work, which is illegal without a valid employment authorization document, known more commonly as a work permit (in the case of professional wrestling, usually this would entail an O-1 permit). From listening to a number of these people speak or reading their comments and responses online, the most common workaround to this problem, simply, is to lie. The Smash Bros indicated that they’d often claim that they were instead attending a wrestling seminar in the United States as opposed to being paid to wrestle themselves. More often than not, though, it seems that regardless of your method, your entry to the United States depends on what border agent you happen to run into. It would seem that experiences with these agents varies wildly, based on statements from both the previously mentioned wrestlers and from anecdotal evidence supplied by Canadian friends of mine (hi Scott, Dan, and Drew), ranging from painlessly simple crossings to lengthy interviews that eventually result in being turned away. In severe cases, such as with Mike Bailey, five year bans can be put in place, and with Josh Alexander, seemingly permanent ones. On the Kevin Steen Show, Player Uno of the Super Smash Bros described border agents, saying: “They have more power than a police officer or anything. They really have your life in their hands.” For these wrestlers, for whom wrestling is either a full-time job or an important part-time source of income, that’s no exaggeration.
However, it must be stated that these people are knowingly breaking the law. This law, based on the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, is essentially meant to protect potential American workers from losing their potential jobs to illegal immigrant workers. While one could argue that such a protection need not apply to professional wrestling, an increasingly niche industry that has an incredibly long history of international employees, and while one could argue that the IRCA is needlessly xenophobic and further stigmatizes immigrants and immigrant workers, especially those of Hispanic and Latino heritage, while all these complaints are valid, this is simply still the law for the time being. Willingly and knowingly breaking that law should result in legal punishment, regardless of whether that law should be in place to begin with. I sympathize with my Canadian friends who have been turned away from attending wrestling shows, comedy shows, and concerts. I sympathize with these Canadian wrestlers who are needlessly, detrimentally limited in their chosen profession. I know what it’s like, on some level, to experience that fear at the border, at not knowing what’s going to happen to you, at coming to the realization that your livelihood may be in the hands of a total stranger. Does that make the actions of these people lawful? No, of course not. Should empathetic morality and common knowledge rise above the law? Perhaps, but that’s a question for someone who spent more time pouring over philosophy, logic, and legal textbooks and less time looking at dumb maps, and so, all I can offer is my sympathy.
Aside from its effect on these Canadian workers themselves, though, the bizarre nature of the Canada-United States border has had a broader effect on independent wrestling in the United States as a whole. With less Canadian wrestlers working in high-profile US indie markets, they’ve necessarily been replaced, and not always by American workers. Recently we’ve seen an European wrestling renaissance of sorts, with promotions such as PROGRESS, wXw, Revolution Pro, OTT, and so many more rising to prominence, not only bringing American wrestlers and American fans to their respective nations but sending their own wrestlers to America. Seemingly, the same border issues that are preventing some Canadian wrestlers from entering the United States don’t appear to affect this influx of European wrestlers, or at least not to the same degree. Filling the void left behind by the likes of Super Smash Bros, Mike Bailey, and Josh Alexander, we’ve seen the likes of Zack Sabre Jr, Drew Galloway, Will Ospreay, Marty Scurll, and more appear semi-regularly in US indie mainstays such as PWG and EVOLVE as well as smaller promotions such as AAW and Beyond Wrestling. Correlation doesn’t exactly equal causation, and even if it did the numbers don’t quite add up correctly, but I can’t help but feel that there’s a link between these events.
What does this mean for independent wrestling? It’s hard to tell. At least at the moment, there’s no clear distinctly-European effect on how promotions are run or how matches are formulated. Essentially what is happening is the free market running its course, as popular talents are brought in to facilitate a demand to see good and fresh wrestling to the tune of tickets sold. Unless these workers are introducing promoters to the Austrian School of economics (and good luck to them, I may add), I can’t imagine that this will change the long-term manner in which independent wrestling operates, as trends and fads fall in and out of fashion constantly. What does this mean for independent wrestlers? That’s far more interesting, as well as complicated. For the available Canadian wrestlers, I think it forces them to play it safe, do their best to get a work permit ASAP, and perhaps emphasize their relatively smaller transportation fees in comparison to their European counterparts who actually still live in Europe. For the European wrestlers, I suppose the process is mostly the same, as who knows how long this run of good luck will last? Additionally, as more and more of independent wrestling becomes the same old shtick (count the number of reverse ranas and superkicks on the next PWG show you see, for example), and as the professional wrestling world becomes smaller and smaller (in the “it’s a small world after all” sense, and not the “oh god the industry is dying” sense), I feel that success will very much be dependent on individuality and supplying a different and superior product than your contemporaries. Similarly, I think it will force wrestlers and promotions outside the US to further hone their craft and make a name for themselves. As Kevin Steen said in his talk with the Super Smash Bros, “it’s so weird how if you’re not in some companies, you’re nowhere.” People (including me) don’t know about the work that Mike Bailey and Josh Alexander have been doing this year in C4, in IWS, in Alpha-1, in BATTLEWAR, because it’s a scene most people don’t know about. If these wrestlers and promoters are to survive, they’ll need to further differentiate themselves from the US independent scene they’re so tenuously connected to and they’ll need to make themselves more aware to these fans.
A lot of this is theoretical nonsense that takes itself much, much too seriously. This is professional wrestling we’re talking about, after all. Still, the writing is on the wall and these sorts of elements and ideas are in play, maybe more subconsciously than people would like to admit. The American independent wrestling train doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon, and fittingly enough, these tracks once again finds themselves laid down by the hands of talented immigrants. Whether or not this train will ever jump the tracks is anyone’s guess. Whether this trend of European wrestlers being the hot new thing can continue is also in question. Maybe the momentum will swing back to the Canadians, or to the Mexicans, or to the Australians (here’s looking at you, Izzac), or to any mixture thereof. Who knows what this will all mean in fifty years, if anything. In the meantime, I’m just enjoying the ride and keeping my eye on the horizon.