Thursday, October 20, 2005

Crossing the US Border

It would be only a matter of time at any event or social gathering before one of the bespectacled gentlemen would slowly arise and announce, "Ah but, you won't believe what a hassle I went through the other day to cross The Border ..."

The Border, ofcourse, is the US-Canada border, and crossing is usually going from the Canadian to the US side. Living in Canada, trips to the US are a regular part of life. I mean the first time I asked one of my coworkers and a long time Canadian are there any good cities nearby Toronto for a weekend trip? and he answered, Ya! The US!

I don't think most people face too many undue hassles crossing the border. If everything is on the level, and you co-operate and help the officials who are only doing their duty, you are unlikely to face trouble. But that does not mean there are not some, er, amusing incidents.

Once I was crossing with our university group. Our group included a black Jamaican-Canadian with dreadlocks, a red-headed Irishman, his blonde Swiss girlfriend, our Russian instructor, and me, the token South Asian guy. The official looks at us, and barks, "Are you all family?"

And he was quite serious.

This other time, December 2002, four of us friends crossed at the Windsor-Detroit border, on the way to Florida. The official indicated to us to park the car and go inside for 'deeper' interrogation. It was a year and few months since 9/11, and the Iraq war was just being sold to the Americans. And here I was, with three Pakistani friends (all born in Karachi) and me, a Bangladeshi.

[15 minutes before the border, inside the car]

Allright, everyone, do we have our answers ready? As we rehearsed, okay?.

Remember we have nothing to fear, we are all legally here and nothing's fishy. No I am not shivering, it's just cold.

Don't speak unless spoken to, and answer only what is asked.

Maq, dude! Why the hell did you bring your Pakistani passport? Where is the Canadian one? Why do you still have that Pakistani passport?

[I will leave out the rather colourful details of what our driver friend told Maq he could do to his Pakistani passport]

Once inside, the immigration office was daunting. There, in English, French and Spanish, were written the words, "We, are the guardians of the United States, serving our country and our President with pride, ... yada yada."

Then, right underneath, in Arabic, was "Why are you being detained?"

Then an immigration officer comes in, with this really huuuuuge gun. He cocks it, and then yells, "Hey Mike, this thing f****** works!"

Then he comes over, looks at Maq's (short for Maqbool) brother Omar (what a name, at that time) and said, "So you guys want to enter US. Have you ever been arrested, convicted, or charged with assault?"

Omar, the reliable friend he is, replied, "Not me!"

Translation: I don't know the rest of these creeps, but not me.

Needless to say, the official burst out laughing. He was really cordial after that.

Another time, when I was with family, this officer asked me, "so why are you born in ..., and your parents born in ..., and your sister in ... and your brother in ...?"

As if I had any choice in where I was born!

Needless to say, even though at times they may be vexing, I understand they have a tough job. Their country's been attacked. And I know, most terrorists look like us, so we get 'special attention'. I understand that. However, it is also not right to harrass people just because they are of a certain ethnicity. There's a fine line there.

What about the way back? I can honestly say Canadian officials are the least bit worried about you if you are coming back from the US and riding a car with Canadian plates. My theory is, they figure you have already been vetted going into the States, so why bother.

Most of the time they will ask us: "So did you buy anything in the US over your prescribed allowed tax limit so we can charge duty on that? Did you?"

One time we were returning late into the night (2 am) via the Niagara border. The girl only person at the Canadian counter was asleep. We had to honk our horn (loudly) to wake her up.

And the reaction from the Canadians returning is even better. The same guys who are rehearsing on the way in will be like, "You know, if that guy asks too many questions, I am going to let him hear it."

One thing though, a few days into the States, the heart longs for Canada. It is a cherished sight to see the 'Welcome to Canada' or 'Bienvenue Vers Le Canada'. Many times we have burst into a rendering of 'O Canada' after crossing the border.

I would be interested to hear other people's experiences at The Border. I bet they would be equally colourful.


Shabina said...

Man, I've hated Canadians since 11th grade (blame my physics teacher). It's a feeling I've been working on over the years, but my border experience definitely did not help.

I agree with you, it's usually much harder to get into the U.S. than it is to get into Canadia. But for some reason (yes, my mom and I are both scarfheads, and yes, it was shortly after 9/11), we got pulled over and hassled for like 30 minutes on our way to Sarnia once.

I was going to yell, I don't want to get into your country anyway! But I kept my cool. Oh, and the only other people who were stopped were a young, identifiably moz couple. Boo.

mezba said...

Shill alert.

My post has been posted on Global Voices Online.

Thanks Neha.

mezba said...

Wow Shabina this is the first time I heard of someone being checked thoroughly on entering Canada. Usually it's the other way around. Here they even allow you to take your OHIP, driver's license and other pictures with scarves on (your kind - as long as the face is seen it's fine).

One time on entering Canada with some cousins (some with scarves, others without), the car behind us (a white Portugese couple - they had that flag on the car and it was Euro 2004), was stopped for a full 'random' check. They were so mad, as specially as they saw us - a moz filled car - driving away without hassle.

BSOfan said...

I live in New Brunswick and used to take violin lessons from a teacher in ME. Mom and I used to go to the States all the time. Now I basically stay home.

A couple of incidents: The Time We Brought Our Canoe Over--the guy (who became known as Mr. Canoe though we've since learned his real name) didn't even notice the canoe that was perched on top of Mom's 1990 Toyota Corolla.

One of the Times Mom Brought Christmas Presents Over--the guy asked if she was bringing anything over and she was a bit nervous about saying what she WAS bringing over since I was in the seat beside her and he said that it was ok--"we don't want to spoil the surprise".

There have been many, many incidents in my family's history of crossing the border but those are the only ones that come to mind right now.

Nora said...

I went down to Seattle by bus (never again) from Vancouver. Going into the States, I was hassled because I had an orange (I could keep the apple). Everyone got through.

Returning, Canada turned down 3 drunks, someone from Africa without a visa, 2 drug mules, and 6 with guns. Only 7 were permitted to cross into Canada.

I have always enjoyed returning home to Vancouver. After Seattle's bus depot, I *almost* kissed the floor at the Vancouver station. What a difference.

ALJ said...

"What about the way back? I can honestly say Canadian officials are the least bit worried about you if you are coming back from the US and riding a car with Canadian plates. "

That's funny. I had some friends who were playing in Canada and they were turned down at the border. In fact a lot of Americans especially in Milwauke and Minnesota I've met have said Canadains are really rude when you're entering the country and are worried you're trying to illegaly immigrate from the U.S.

a sane voice in a mad world said...

Many, many moons ago, much before the 9/11 thing, I crossed the border from Canada into the US with some friends. I had a British passport, and I was checking if immigrating to Canada would suit me, while my friends already were Canadian nationals.

Guess what, they didn't ask me any question, not even my passport. They just pulled the others over and questioned them at length.

Brittanic said...

I was studying at UBC (Vancouver) for a semester on exchange from the UK.

Since I wanted another stamp on my passport (and the idea of crossing a land border is strange to me) we decided to take a coach (sorry bus) to Seattle.

Except we waited 2.5 hours to cross, much of that inside the building. For Europeans the Visa Waiver program involves picture taking, form filling and fingerprinting. I got a sneery look from the border patrol agent as I foolishly put UK instead of United Kingdom...

After that treatment one wonders, if that's how they treat their closest (and only) allies, how do they treat their enemies?

Anyways, coming back I was clad to see the Canadian officials, 2.5 seconds later I was back in BC.

As part of my travels, I also crossed the bridge in Niagara falls, less hassle that time since I'd already entered the US. Still, US immigration really needs to stop being so anal.

Em said...

Ah delightful to have the cheerful, funny Mezba back. I enjoyed the thoroughly enjoyable read.