An over the border encounter in the USA

Pulling up to the border crossing between Ontario and Buffalo (The Peace Bridge), my husband and I both held our breaths. We don’t travel south very often and the last few times we have, it’s been by air. The last time we crossed on the ground was two years ago when, for the first time, we experienced the wrath of the American border control – unfortunately, this time was no different.

We should have seen it coming. We’d prepped our passports, we’d turned the music off and we’d put on the friendliest of faces, only to be welcomed at the crossing booth with the straight face of the American guard, who looked as if he’d spent hours contemplating his existence (and come to the conclusion that life really isn’t worth living) or had just walked out of a brawl and lost. He was mad. Or, at least, he looked mad.

Unlike the friendly canucks who at least greet you with a “Hello”, the first thing that came out of this guy’s mouth, was “Take your sunglasses off.”, directed to me, seating with a smile on my face in the passenger seat. Whoa, simmer down. And while you’re at it, why don’t you take your sunglasses off, you jackass?

He then proceeded with  “Nationalities?”. Okay then, straight down to business. “I’m German, and my wife is Canadian” said my husband. The guard then took our passports – and didn’t return them. My husband and I glanced at each other. This happened the first time we pulled up as well, as did what was to follow. “Put on your hazards and head on over to door #2.” First of all, please takes all of an extra two seconds to spit out of your mouth and may make us feel a bit more comfortable about the process. Second of all, where the hell are our passports? As a foreigner, or wife of a foreigner, having someone march off with your passports without telling you where they’re going while you sit in a country where you have absolutely no rights as an outsider is a tad worrying. All of a sudden you are literally stranded, with no documented proof that you had passports in the first place. We were given a slip of what looked like torn off white paper with a hand written number 2 on it and sent over to the interrogation area. Awesome. You’ve just added an extra two hours onto our five hour road trip for absolutely nothing, you schmuck.

Now, I’m sure you’re all wondering why we would get pulled over if our documents were in check? Here’s why. Every 60 days, the authorities will pull you over if you’re a foreigner (outside of N.A) driving into the States. This guard however, was so thick, that he neglected to check for air crossings, one of which my husband had done half a month earlier on a visit to Boston. As a result of his laziness, or perhaps illiteracy, we were flagged and pulled over into “the room”. The room is a place where the doors are locked behind you. Where you sit, without any documents or passports, awaiting your fate at he hands of a foreign power. Where tens to hundreds of people gather one one site of the counter while guards chit-chat and sip their coffee, on the other. And so, we entered and found our seats on the far side of the room. Behind us, there was a glass wall where a swipe card would allow you to enter and exit. On either side of the glass divide, people were seated, waiting for their name to be called by one of the few guards actually working.

While contemplating our potential fate  – and eyeing that glass wall from behind which few people seemed to emerge – we scoped out our surroundings (and possible escape routes). It started out alright; there were windows, that was nice. Of course, the windows had panes that opened upwards to prevent escape – drat, there goes option number one. When I moved closer to examine the outskirts,  I noticed he barbed wire lining the back yard. Well, there goes that plan. Not to mention the armed troop behind the counter. They may be able to pin us down before we could crawl through the upward facing panes. Oh, well. So, we made ourselves comfortable and waited. And waited. And… waited. Just over an hour later, our names were finally called. We sauntered up to the desk (after I’d been subconsciously staring down multiple guards, one by one) and were processed. For what? For the mistake of the guard who had decided to rush us through to processing before verifying the stamps in my husband’s passport. Sweet. That makes the hour and a half we’ve wasted en route to celebrate our one year anniversary totally worth it. When asked how this could be avoided in the future, we learned of the 60 day rule (which, at this point, wasn’t applicable) and vowed to avoid ground travel into the states from hereon.

As we approached the end of the process (for which we had to pay a transaction fee upon exit), I decided it was time for some customer feedback. After all, this woman had been relatively friendly and had even (hold your breath) wished us a happy anniversary after examining our documents.  “You’re a little nicer than your counterpart outside”, I said apprehensively. At this point, the woman beside her (twice her age) popped up with, “well, he only has thirty seconds to make a decision”, to which I responded “but it’s a lot different on the Canadian side…” Her answer? “Yeah, well.” Enough said?

As we paid for the pleasure of having been pulled over, we nearly ran to the car, passports in hand. As we began the second leg of our journey, we thought about how lucky we are to live in Canada, where the flack our guards get is for being a little “too” polite. Admittedly, there’s always the exception, but in general, living in a country where even government workers extend a courtesy during interrogation really has it’s benefits. The one time we did get pulled over in Canada, we were directed to a room that didn’t lock; welcomed with a smile, a “hello”; and shown where the washrooms were in case we needed them. In essence, we were treated like human beings, innocent of any wrong doing and present merely because one of the two had a foreign passport that needed double checking. Does it make the process less inconvenient? No. Does it make it more humane and honestly, more tolerable? Absolutely. The kicker was when we asked who we should speak with; the answer was “take your pick”, as guards stood at their posts waiting to take the next person in line.

During our processing at the Canadian border, we asked one of the guards about their American counterparts, recalling the troublesome experience we had had the first time around. “Yeah, those guys are scared of their own shadows.” Ah, Canada. We may be “overly” polite but we also treat people like human beings and not numbers, threats or fugitives. Having gone through this experience twice, I decided to blog about it, but don’t expect a follow up – we’ll be sticking to the skies from now on.

4 thoughts on “An over the border encounter in the USA

    1. Hey Nin! We were told that if you’re out of the country [the U.S.] for 60 days, they’ll pull you over (for non-Canadians). Unfortunately, the American guards weren’t so into explanations so we never really discovered why we were pulled over when my husband had flown from Toronto to Boston the month before! Always an adventure!

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