Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Crossing the Border

Yesterday I returned from Worldcon to real life. Worldcon was more exciting.

Alysse and I drove home in about six hours. When we crossed the border from Canada to the United States, the experience was pretty much the same as crossing into Canada. Going in, we sat in Alysse's very low car. The customs/immigration official sat in a high, enclosed booth. I could not see him from the passenger seat, and he could not see me. I never spoke. We passed him both passports, which he glanced at and returned to Alysse. I suppose there might have been a surveillance camera I did not notice which looked into the car, but otherwise I could have been Osama bin Laden riding unobserved and silent in the passenger seat. Much the same thing happened coming back, although then at least the U.S. official could see me. One perfunctory question about what we were bringing back (one bottle of duty-free vanilla vodka and one literary award), and on we went.

The whole notion of passports to cross between Canada and the USA is wildly unpopular here. My congresswoman, Louise Slaughter, fought claw and incisor to derail it. For one thing, there are places in Minnesota, Montana, and Washington State where you can stroll across the border. The roads sometimes feature an unmanned kiosk where you're supposed to stop, call the nearest town, and scan in your passport -- something terrorists are probably not going to do. For another thing, the related changes in tariffs and taxes are not helping either economy. Several people told me that the reason the dealers' room in Montreal was so small was that American book sellers, jewelry artisans, etc. were required to deposit at the border the projected sales tax on all their goods before bringing them into Canada. The deposit on the unsold portion would of course be refunded, but small dealers operating on a narrow profit margin could not meet the requirement.

I grew up in Buffalo, NY. My family crossed the border constantly -- to go to Niagara Falls, to the Canadian beaches (cleaner then than ours), to go to the big amusement park called Crystal Beach, to see relatives. I can't think that the present system is better. It probably will not catch terrorists, and it's a pain in the ass.


TheOFloinn said...

Over the past 25 years I have sometimes had consulting gigs in Canada. Some time back, well before 9/11, it began to grow more difficult to enter Canada. Suddenly, I had to purchase a work permit. The first time, I was taken by surprise -- and learned that Canada does not accept American Express for this purpose, so I was turned away. I was persona non grata! Shazaam! But the auto assembly plant was expecting me the next morning; not to mention my hotel. So, I drove around to the Niagara Falls crossing, told them I was going to attend a meeting and do some sight-seeing (both true statements) and they let me in. The irony was that I was going up there to train our Canadian guy in some materials.

Someone must have eventually cross-referenced the data, for every time since then I have been pulled aside the Canadians and closely questioned as to my purposes upon entering Canada. Much less hassle entering Austria, India, and Australia.

Back in my storied youth, crossing into New Brunswick from Maine on the way to Cape Breton Island for some camping, one hardly even noticed that a border had been crossed.

Of course, the best border-crossing story belongs to my colleague Hank.

Nancy Kress said...

Well, are you going to tell us Hank's story? No fair leaving us dangling!

TheOFloinn said...

You have to imagine Hank with the deepest possible Texas drawl.

Hank opens his pouch to show his passport to the customs dude at US incoming. Customs dude sees three passports. He reaches out and grabs them. What are you doing with three passports?

Well, sez Hank, the red one is a UN passport. I use that when I'm traveling on UN business. This US passport is for when I travel to Israel. The other US passport is for when I travel anywhere else, especially any country that doesn't like seeing Israeli stamps in my passport.

Customs dude sez: You can't have three passports!

Hank sez: Sure I can.

I'm afraid you'll have to come with me.

Can I make a phone call?


So Hank calls his brother. Who was head of customs for the east coast.
+ + +
Then there was the Homelander, the dog and the old lady with the knitting.

Mark said...

Yes, tell us of Hank's experience!

Having lived in the southwest for over half my life I can tell you that it's much more strenuous crossing back into the USSA from the Estados Unidos de Mexico. How much a traveller gets poked at does also depend on the cultural, legal, and, of course, political differences between the lands being crossed. Going from a land of more freedom to less personal freedom (ie. Holland to US) will almost guarantee a probing. Also, going between countries that are economically similar is generally easy, but between disparate economies it will be more hassle to re-enter the more prosperous land.

But one of the biggest factors is still racial profiling. How often do Irish people get asked for their papieren when travelling by bus or train in the US? Tan skin and brown eyes is most definitely still a disadvantage.

TheOFloinn said...

between disparate economies it will be more hassle to re-enter the more prosperous land.

Not always: it was more of a hassle to cross from Austria into Hungary than it was to leave Hungary for Austria. My wife had a similar experience crossing from Austria into the Czech Republic and back. Some countries -- South Africa and Panama -- charged a fee to leave the country. Costa Rica did not. Years ago, during a Reisesommer, I crossed by train from West Germany into France to visit Strassburg. I was the only one in the compartment who had to open my luggage, once the French agent saw the US passport. "Oh, Americain....?"

But one of the biggest factors is still racial profiling. How often do Irish people get asked for their papieren when travelling by bus or train in the US? Tan skin and brown eyes is most definitely still a disadvantage.

When my daughter and her brood returned from Jordan, various folks told me she would be vigorously screened, maybe even prevented from entering. She was still wearing hijab at the time. However, she had no problem whatsoever, and a nice customs agent named Hassan helped her with her luggage. Her husband, Basheer likewise had no problem. The tan skin and brown eyes are as likely to be behind the customs counter as before it, from my observations.

As for the Irish, when my daughter lived in Yonkers she said the fastest way to get a seat in one of the Irish pubs on MacLean Ave. ("Irish Broadway") was to holler INS! when you walked in. Of course, the waitstaff would also vanish.... She said the INS (aka ICE) were frequently checking for Irish illegals along MacLean.

Mark said...

Come to think of it, Mike, it was usually fairly easy to cross from Warsaw Pact to Western Europe (my father did this, but not exactly through legal channels :-)).

I sit corrected!

With more brown people being hired by customs, etc. I could imaging that racial profiling may be lower, but in the southwest, where I spend much of my time, it is still there. Oh, well. Evolution is slow, even of a social pattern.

Nancy Kress said...

Mike -- That's a great story about Hank! You'd think a customs official would know you're allowed to have more than one passport. I know people with two.