Customs officer at the Philadelphia International Airport. Photo courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Personal disclaimer alert – This article will reflect the personal opinion of the writer and not necessarily the opinions of those employed or associated with BreakThru Radio as an entity. Although they may, and why shouldn’t they? The writer is a Canadian living in the United States and has traveled to more than 55 other nations outside of Canada and the U.S.
It is fair to assume that the majority of BreakThru’s traffic comes from within the United States (I say this because I haven’t actually seen the data myself, but I am pretty sure this is the case). It is also fair to assume then, that most of our listeners and visitors are American citizens who travel on U.S. passports. When I saw the opportunity to write an article on what it is like to pass through some of the toughest borders in the world, I couldn’t help but take advantage of the chance to share with BreakThru’s largely American audience an angle to this story that they most likely have never thought of before: What is it like to get through our border patrol?
Trust me when I tell you—as a non-American coming into the United States in a post-9/11, post-Patriot Act world, U.S. Border Patrol Agents can be the most intimidating sons-of-bitches you never want to come across. Armed with nothing more than a U.S. driver’s license, citizenship, and proof of passing the “CBP Border Patrol Entrance Examination” (something akin to the LSAT for 5th Graders. Seriously, look at these questions as an example), this group of condescending and falsely superior dunderheads withholds a power over individual lives akin to that of a King. How is that possible, let alone permissible? (For more on the qualifications, or lack thereof, it takes to be eligible for employment with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Services – “CBP” – click here.)
As it was stated in the disclaimer at the beginning of this article, I have done my fair share of border crossing. After graduating college I spent a good chunk of five years traveling through many different corners of the world. A few Pacific Islands, seven or eight countries in Southeast Asia, another ten or so in Europe, five in the Middle East, and a fistful in South America, and to this day the most intimidated and mind-numbing fear I have ever experienced with a customs agent has come at the mercy of the Americans — once when crossing from New Brunswick into Maine, the other at Newark International Airport. I like to think of myself as getting a bit of a break because I am Canadian, just one of those overly friendly and ever-apologetic hockey-lovin’ hooligans just 30 minutes north of Buffalo, you know? Man, I would hate to be traveling on a passport from Senegal or Yemen.
The first awful experience arose at the suspicion of drug trafficking. It was with two female border patrol officers, one looked like a 1992 Billy Ray Cyrus and the other resembled Rosie O’Donnell’s slightly uglier twin Tricia. They suspected that my driving companion and I were smuggling some of our nation’s greatest export through the back roads of Maine. When asked the purpose of our trip to Massachusetts, we replied in earnest, “We are looking to buy a scooter we can’t get in Canada.” (This was the days before the dawn of Amazon.) It was the truth and it was as straightforward as that.
Our response was enough to send the diesel duo into a frenzy. Next thing I know, we are being escorted into a “waiting area” (read, “holding cell”) while the wonder woman team took to our car like Tasmanian devils along with their trusty companion, a German Shepherd named “Butch”. Forty minutes later, they still hadn’t found anything. Why? Because there was nothing to find (unless Tim Horton’s is illegal in the U.S.). Not only that, they were pissed about it too. They were not only unable to pin any sort of criminal activity on us, they also knew they had to come to terms with granting us access to their country. Just a couple of Canadians on their way to a shopping spree in Boston, reason enough to tear the car apart I suppose.
The second incident came years later and held much more gravity for me. I have been living in the U.S. for almost four years now and am very proud to call the city of New York (and by default, America) my home. Following a weekend trip to visit my family I was held at Newark International Airport by an Asian-American patrol officer who felt the time remaining on my visa was too short to permit me back into the country. His reasoning was that, with such little time left as a sponsored alien (I was on an F1 visa at the time), I must be coming into the country to remain forever illegally with no intention of seeking new sponsorship or other means of residency under the law.
From the windowed cubicle at the end of the “non U.S. passport” queue I was escorted into a questioning room. As I sat there being peppered with questions about my employment status, current eligibility, future intentions, legal action, and many other risk-assessing inquiries on behalf of the greater security of the nation (thanks, Patriot Act) I did my best to remain focused and answer honestly. Yet, the entire time I couldn’t help but think of my entire world that was rooted in New York. It was all about to disintegrate into the Hudson, untouched and unaccounted for, while I was to be shuttled back to the airplane equipped with government subsidized airfare back to Toronto. I felt as if I had been kicked in the guts. After a U.S. college tuition paid for on Canadian loans, taxes fully paid and up to date, thousands upon thousands of dollars in legal and immigration processing fees — I had followed the law to perfection. All of my possessions, job, friends, and girlfriend were in New York. They were about to be a memory, just like that, all because Officer #1130 in Jersey had a hunch. I was only trying to come into America. I was only trying to come home. Have any of you ever seen Like Crazy?
For so many non-Americans, entering the United States is one of the most anxious and fear-ridden moments of their entire travels, if not lives. The intimidation practiced by the officers, the unwarranted doubt, and the predetermined suspicion that everyone entering the U.S. intends to harm their country and therefore must be interrogated is all so horrific. For a nation that prides itself on its history, a history built on the backs of immigrants, it never ceases to amaze me how quick it is to turn down the opportunity to so many others. And for what? A threat? Fear?
Scribed on the bottom of the Statue of Liberty are the words:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
For reality’s sake, I prefer the Lou Reed version:
“Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on ’em
That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death
And get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard.”