In Which I Am Detained By US Customs and Nearly Denied Entry Into The US
I don’t even know where to begin with this story. It is one of the most unbelievable things I have ever endured. At some point, I’ll probably end up laughing about it and file it under one of many, “Only in the life of Jules” stories. Right now, I’m still trying to process the nightmare. Once that is done and my brain has finished decompressing all the data, I may cry for a bit. Few things are more terrifying than being interrogated for 2+ hours by two US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, having your passport seized and being told, “This does not look promising. At the moment, it looks like you will be denied entry.” Especially when you have a brain like mine that creates terrible panic and anxiety whenever you have to talk with someone with whom you are not intimately familiar.
When I tweeted about being held in Customs and posted about it on Google+, there were a few jokes making reference to that one time with the orange. Considering past episodes crossing the border, I was expecting that. But that one time with the orange was nothing compared to what happened when I went through US Customs on Canada Day.
There were also a few assumptions made that it was the TSA I had issues with. The TSA was a breeze. They even apologised for the inconvenience of having to scan me with the wand and pat my hips, even though there was nothing intrusive about it at all. Going through Canadian airport security was more intrusive, as they had to swab a good portion of my body and my carry-on luggage for bomb residue, or some such thing, cos my slacks set off the metal detector. But in both of those occurrences, the officials did it with a smile and an apology for having to do their job.
Then, it was time to check-in with the CBP agents. I gave them my passport, boarding pass, checked luggage tag and declaration statement — which was filled out correctly. I told them why I was going into the US for such an extended period of time. The guy was very grumpy and scary, but I think that is in their job description; to be as intimidating as possible. That is when the first CBP person told me that my luggage had been held because of an issue, and informed that I had to go stand against the wall. Dumbfounded, I said, “Pardon me? My luggage is held? What? Why?” Angrily, he responded, “Go stand against the wall,” and he took my boarding pass, passport, luggage tag and declaration form with him into another section of the building.
I was told when I checked into my flight in Nanaimo, that Customs would be searching my bag when it arrives at Montreal, before it crosses into the US. Apparently, it is some new procedure. When I reach Customs, I was told I will have to present them with my luggage tag. If my bag clears Customs, then I’ll be good to go. There wasn’t a single moment where I thought my bag wouldn’t clear Customs as my bag, in my mind, had nothing suspicious contained within it. I was not at all mentally prepared for what was going to happen next.
About 5 minutes later, he returned from the other part of the building, and told me to follow him. He led to me the interrogation holding area, told me to take a seat and wait to be called by another CBP official. It took all of my energy to not completely fall apart right then and there. But I knew if I did not keep my shit together and remain calm, I would say something really stupid — something I think is quite funny — in an effort to cope with the stress of being detained and having my passport seized, and I would probably end up in some sort of jail cell. So, like a good Canadian, I waited and tried my best not to look guilty. Guilty of what, I had no idea. All I knew was that my plane was scheduled for take-off in just over 2 hours and I had no idea if I was going to be on that plane.
Not long after, I saw my checked bag make its way up the belt and into this holding/questioning area. The next CBP official called my name and thus began the longest 2ish hours of my life.
At this moment, there is a good part of me that wants to TL;DR what happened next, as every time I think or talk about this, I have to relive the nightmare. This day is something I want to forget ever happened. However, I will try my best to tell the story. The story is long and I’m sure I’ll forget some aspect of it. Even immediately after it happened and I was telling Andrew the story, I forgot a lot of it, cos there was a lot that happened. The more I decompress the data, the more details I recollect.
Again, I was asked how long I was planning to stay in the US. I responded, “Just under 5 weeks.” Again, a comment was made about how long my stay was and I was asked what I was planning to do that required a 5 week stay. I responded, “I’m visiting friends, going to NASA, seeing the space shuttle Discovery, visiting a few museums, and spending some time with my future in-laws.” The CBP official raised an eyebrow and asked me what hotel I was planning to stay at. I, once again, stated that, as I indicated when booking my flight and as I indicated on my declaration form, I was not staying at a hotel; I was staying at a residence just outside of Washington, D.C. Another raised eyebrow, followed by, “Who’s residence are you planning to stay at?” I responded, “My fiancé’s.” This was followed by a suspicious, “Mmmhmm,” as he proceeded to unpack the contents from my checked bag.
Looking at the stack of five books I packed, he said, “Are you planning to do a lot of reading while you are at… did you say your fiancé’s?” I replied, “Yes. On average, I read one book every Saturday.” This was followed by another, “Mmmhmmm.” Next he examined and asked me about my Bluetooth earbuds. I told him those were in my checked bags because Bluetooth devices are banned from carry-0n luggage. He then examined and took apart my ring box, asking what it was. With a little bit of “duh” in my tone, I said, “My ring box.” At this time, I was getting very impatient with the questions about objects where the reason for packing them should be plainly obvious. He asked, “Why would you pack a ring box?” I said, again with a bit of “isn’t it obvious” in my tone, “In case I have to take off my ring so that it doesn’t get lost or misplaced.” He then questioned me about my Bluetooth iPad keyboard. Now, beyond dumbfounded, terrified and impatient, I gave the obvious answer. He grabbed the external hard drive I checked and asked, “Why did you pack this if you are visiting your… fiancé’s?” I explained how if I’m going to be away from Canada for 5 weeks, I need to have access to my media, music, files, etc.; these are not things I can do without and that I pack them for any visit where I’ll be away from my house for more than 24 hours.
He then asked me, “So… what is your fiancé’s name?” I responded, “Andrew.” He said, “Mmmhmmm. Andrew…” as he proceeded to continue to ask me about every single object found in my checked bag. In between his questions about the intent behind why I packed each object, he asked, “So this Andrew, does he have a last name?” I said, “Yes. It is Edgar.” He said, “Edgars?” I said, “No. Edgar. His name is Andrew Edgar.” There was another, “Mmmhmm.” Again, in between questions about the contents of my luggage he asked, “So… what is… Andrew Edgar is it?… What is Andrew Edgar’s birthday?” I answered. He responded, “So… you’ve memorised Andrew Edgar’s birthday, have you?” I responded, “Of course I remember his birthday! He is my fiancé! You kinda remember your fiancé’s birthday!” He smiled and said, “Okay… okay… fair enough… Would you please write his name on the back of your declaration statement.” So I did. He asked if I was bringing any gifts for my fiancé. I said no. Again, a suspicious, “Mmmhmmm,” as he finished looking through all the items in my luggage.
He finished asking my about all the contents of my checked luggage and then asked me where my clothes were. I told him they were in my carry-on luggage. So he grabbed that and proceeded to look through it. He then asked, “How long are you staying in the US for?” I responded, “Just under 5 weeks. 33 days to be exact.” He said, “But you only have a week’s worth of clothes in this bag, if that?” I said, “Well, I am staying at my fiancé’s. There is a washer and dryer at my fiancé’s. I don’t need more than a week’s worth of clothes because, just like at home, I’ll be doing laundry. I am a practical packer and traveller. It only makes sense to pack only what I need and nothing more.” I also wanted to add, “Dude! I’m visiting my fiancé. There will not be much wearing of the clothes.” But I didn’t cos I had already given him enough snark. I didn’t think more was needed. He said, “Oh, that is very logical and makes sense, but you have to see it from our end. You do understand, don’t you?” Very bewildered, I responded, “No, actually. I do not understand.” He said, “You are a Canadian woman who is coming into the US for, what, 5 weeks? And you only pack one week’s of clothes, no extra shoes, and you have more personal items and electronics than clothes. You must see why that is suspicious. How do you think normal Canadian women pack for a 5 week trip. Even for a week visit, you don’t really have enough packed.” Now very angry because my vagina has been brought into this discussion, I responded, “I don’t know how a woman packs. How am I suppose to know? I only know how I pack. I’m a very practical and logical person and this is how I travel. And I only own one pair of shoes. What do I need with more than one pair of shoes? Are you telling me next time I come into the US, I should jam my checked luggage with frivilous things, such as changes of clothing that I will never wear? Should I purchase extra pairs of shoes that won’t get worn until the pair I’m currently wearing are damaged?” He smiled and said, “Ma’am. I’m not saying anything or suggesting anything *wink*. Just giving you a little perspective on how things are viewed.”
I was then asked about my university degree and all sorts of questions that I could not understand. He’d make comments about norms and what is typical, such as, “In Canada, the norm is that all Canadian graduate from High School. So if you didn’t graduate from High School, that would be suspicious?” In return, I’d say, “So, are you suggesting that next time I [insert whatever the thing may be].” He’d smile, wink and say, “That isn’t what I’m saying… just giving you some insight.” I actually need to give the guy some praise here. As terrifying as this whole ordeal was, he never used a threatening tone. He was very cheerful and he would laugh at all the stupid sarcastic jokes and comments I made in an effort to stop myself from giving into my panic attack and collapsing into a rocking pile of tears.
He then proceeded to look through my personal bag. He asked, “So you are bringing a tablet to your fiancé’s?” I said, “Yes.” He opened the middle compartment and asked, “And your laptop? Why are you bringing your laptop to your fiancé’s?” I responded, “So that I can check my e-mail, talk with my kids, do the normal things I do in my day-to-day life when I’m home.” He responded, “Okay. Okay. I get it… go sit back down. I’ll call you back over in a few minutes.”
So I did.
About 2 minutes later, he called me to a different counter. It was time for the second part of the interrogation. Questions about how long I’ve known Andrew for, how did we meet, when did we get engaged, etc. He asked, “Is he an American citizen?” I responded, “Yes, he is. His dad is a former Congressman. You can’t get anymore American than that… I don’t know why I told you about his dad. What his dad does, doesn’t really matter. I’m just really confused by all of this at the moment.” He smiled and said, “Actually, it does matter. So what does this Andrew Edgar (?) do for a living?” I responded, “He develops procurement software and apps for your federal government.” He asked, “When is his birthday?” I, again, gave him Andrew’s birthday. He responded, “That isn’t what you said the first time.” I said, “Yes it is. You asked, what is Andrew Edgar’s birthday?’ I said, ‘[Insert birthday]‘. You said, ‘So… you’ve memorised Andrew Edgar’s birthday, have you?’ I said, “Of course I remember his birthday! He is my fiancé! You kinda remember your fiancé’s birthday!’ We laughed. It was good times.” He tried to hold back his laugh.
He then asked when we had planned to get married. I said, “Next July.” He asked, “When next July?” I said, “We have the date booked either next July 6 or 7. At this moment, I can’t remember the exact date. All I remember is that we are getting married the first Saturday in July.” He raised his eyebrow and said, “You are planning to get married and you don’t even remember the date? I don’t find that very likely.” I said, “The wedding isn’t important to me. I’d happily elope.” In disbelief, he responded, “If a wedding isn’t important to you, what is important to you?” I responded, “Trust.” Not sure what to make of that, he smiled and said, “Okay… okay… a girl who doesn’t remember what day she is getting married on… okay…” I said, “At this very moment, the last thing on my mind is my wedding date.”
He then started to ask me all kinds of questions about where I live, why I didn’t have a lease, why there were no utilities in my name. I explained to him that in British Columbia, leases are not the norm. Renting is done month-t0-month. I live in a duplex with my landlady living upstairs. The house is in her name. Because it is a single residence duplex, utilities are included. This whole idea about no lease and utilities being included he found very suspect, like it was something that never happens in the US. I explained to him that British Columbia is a very different place than what he may be accustomed to living in the US.
He then had all sorts of questions about why I didn’t have a driver’s license. I explained that after my stroke, I didn’t renew it as I have neurological issues because of my Lupus that make driving a not safe thing for me to do. He said, “So, you didn’t have your license revoked? You just let it expire?” I said, “Yes. I don’t need a driver’s license. I have my passport for picture ID. That is all I need.” Again, more “Mmmhmmms” and “Okay… okay…”
He then asked me, “So where is Thompson? It says you were born in Thompson.” I responded, “Manitoba. Northern Manitoba to be exact.” He said, “And you now live in Montreal?” Very perplexed I said, “Ummm, no. I live in British Columbia…” He said, “Oh, that’s right. Then why are you in Montreal today?” My brain was doing the, “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?! IS THIS A SERIOUS QUESTION?!” I responded, “Because that is how my flights worked. I flew from Nanaimo to Vancouver. Vancouver to Montreal. And now my flight is suppose to go from Montreal to Dulles.”
He then had all sorts of questions about what Andrew and I had planned for after we were married. I told him that Andrew was going to be moving to Canada next Spring. Well, I may as well have told him to fuck off at that point. He asked, “Has he told you that he is going to move there?” I said, “Yes. Long before we got engaged, this was one of the things we negotiated as part of our relationship agreement.” I could see the bewilderment in his head when I said the words “relationship agreement,” but he pressed forward, “Why would he choose to move to Canada instead of continuing to live in the US?” I responded, “It is pretty simple actually. My kids and my health. If I were to move to the US, my medical bills would be, at a minimum, $10, 000 a month. My health would be at serious risk living full-time in the US, so it is not at all an option for me to move to the US. And with the kids, that also takes me moving to the US off the table.”
He then proceeded to give me some lecture about how Canada is a very rich country, richer than the US. About how Canada is filled with diamonds, and oil, and gas, and minerals, and trees; about how we even export these things to the US, but Canada only has 10% of the US population and this GREAT BIG HUGE land without any inhabitants in it. I said, “Of course we have a smaller population. Most of Canada is inhabitable because of the climate. Our resources have nothing to do with our population. Our climate does.” He said, “Say what you will. Canada has a big problem being able to keep its citizens. They all keep leaving.” And he then repeated the same garbage about riches and treasures found in Canada but no-one wants to stay, and he finds it very suspect that Andrew would choose to move to Canada instead of staying in the US, and the story about healthcare and kids just doesn’t fit. At this point, it was all I could do to keep my anger under control. Of all the pompous, stereotypical American “FUCK YEAH AMERICA IS THE MOST AWESOME PLACE ON THE PLANET! EVERY ONE WANTS TO LIVE HERE!! THEY ARE STUPID IF THEY DON’T!” things to say. As politely as possible, I responded, “Well, believe whatever you want. That is the situation.” He then asked me what Andrew plans to do for a job “if” he moves to Canada as I claimed he was doing. I told him how Andrew works from home and he’ll continue to do the same job, just in a different capacity once he moves.
He then asked me if I ever had any trouble with law enforcement. I said, “Nope. I’m a model citizen. Well, except for the one time with the orange that now is one my permanent Customs record.” He looked through my record and said, “Tell me about this.” So I told him the story, laced with profanity — I am so glad that overall, he was a very jocular and laid back guy who didn’t turn into an asshole every time I said something sarcastic and stupid in an effort to cope with the stress of the situation — and about how I forgot that I still had leftover lunch in my briefcase, and how the border guy said, “People ‘forget’ all the time,” like I was lying and trying to smuggle an object that I’m not allowed to say while in this part of the airport or I’ll be arrested. He laughed and said, “Yes. People use the forgetting excuse all the time. But after talking with you for so long, I don’t think you are capable of telling stories and that you were being overly honest… which isn’t always a good thing… but you have to see that from his point of view, as well.” I said, “Oh, I see it from his point of view and can now laugh about it, but at the time, I nearly shit my pants as it was happening.”
He then asked me more questions about how we plan on living for the next year until Andrew moves here. I told him about our tentative visiting schedule. When we were planning to make the final move. He asked, “And when and where are you planning to get married?” I responded, “I already answered this. We are getting married next July in Duncan, where I live. We’ve already booked the place and paid the deposit and all of that. It is a done deal. The purpose of this trip is to mainly let his parents know that we are getting married and to spend some time with him. As a bonus, we are doing a little bit of sightseeing, plus visiting a pal of mine who works at NASA’s Goddard.”
There was a whole other series of questions that followed and of course, as soon as I went to type about them, my brain decided it was going to have a toaster moment. If I remember what the next set of questions were about, I’ll update this post later. Right now, I think my brain is trying to tell me that I’ve relived this ordeal too many times now, and I need to finish telling my story.
After he was done with all these questions, he told me that it really was not looking good for me. At that moment, I was still detained. I stuttered as I said, “But my plane is scheduled to leave in 45 minutes. I can’t be detained. Andrew will be waiting for me at the airport, and as I’m not allowed to use my cell phone in here, I have no way of letting him know. How much longer is this going to take?” He said, “That isn’t up to me. Please follow me.”
He led me to another holding area and told me to sit down. He said, “I am now passing this case on to another CBP official. But I am going to let you know, that it isn’t looking good at all. However, I’m not going to make the call on this one. I’ll leave it up to a higher official. It shouldn’t be too much longer. We will try and get this finished up as quickly as possible. In the future, please keep in mind every thing I had to say to you today.” I said, “Yeah… like packing more clothes and that I should lie about why I’m going to the US and not wear my ring.” He smiled and said, “I didn’t say any of that *wink.* Just giving you some insight.”
So I sat as I watched him walk into another office with all of my papers and talk to some other dude behind a desk.
About 5 minutes later, I was called into the office. I was asked once again about Andrew and the intent of my visit. I answered again. Then he said, “I should be denying you entry. You need to have a fiancé visa to enter the US. The fact you don’t have a lease and a few other things are very suspicious. But I will let you in today. We find you to be a very honest person.” My brain was still stuck on the whole fiancé visa thing. I asked, “I need a fiancé visa now that we are engaged, instead of having the label “boyfriend/girlfriend? We don’t have that in Canada.” He said, “Yes. You do. Because you don’t have one, it could be viewed that you are trying to enter the US illegally with the intent of staying here illegally.” I sat there with my mouth wide open. He then proceeded, “Also, next time you come into the US, it is a very good idea that you bring in proof of residence. Get your landlady to draft up a lease or something. You won’t need to present it immediately, but from now on, you will have issues entering the US, and it will be a good thing to have on hand. Especially as we will be very suspicious that you are visiting your husband but not intending to move here.” I responded, “But, he isn’t my husband. How much longer is this going to be? My plane is scheduled to leave any minute” Ignoring that, he asked, “What is your visiting schedule again? Also, we are aware of when your flight is scheduled to leave and are doing what we can to accommodate.” I told him that I had planned to return for the month of October, and that Andrew was coming up to Canada in January for my birthday, and that we were planning the final relocation for April or May of next year. He said, “Right. So because of that, and in the US it is abnormal for a husband and wife to not live together, you will need to make sure you have proof of residence on you.” Again I said, “But he isn’t my husband. He won’t be my husband for another year. So I don’t understand why I would have to do such a thing when we aren’t even married yet and won’t be for some time.” He said, “So you are not getting married next weekend?” I said, “No! We are getting married the first weekend of July in 2013! I’ve answered this question at least 5 times now. I’m sorry for my tone, but this is all rather terrifying and frustrating!” He said, “Oh.. well you will still need to get the visa now that you are engaged and bring as much proof that you have roots to return to — I guess two children and the necessary healthcare isn’t enough — and pack smarter next time — which he meant, pack like you are a stereotypical female and not a practical person. Also, the only reason why I’ve decided to grant you entry this time is because you already have your return flight booked. So make sure you do that next time as well. I am also going to let you know that from now on, you will be detained when you try and cross the border into the US. You are too much of a risk to say here. So, please, to make this process quicker for you and less stressful, keep in mind every thing we told you today. It is rather unfortunate this had to happen because we know that you meant no harm and are being extremely honest with us.”
With that, he told me to follow him to yet another area. I followed. We scanned my boarding pass to clear me from Customs, handed it back to me, along with my luggage tag and passport, and asked, with a tone of sadness in his voice that I had to endure all of this, if I had any more questions. I responded, “No. I don’t. You have been very helpful. Also, thank you for not being overly intimidating and making sure that when this happens again next time, I’m properly prepared. You didn’t have to do that. Thank you for allowing me into the US even though I’m apparently missing the appropriate paperwork. You have been very helpful, and I appreciate that.” He smiled and I got out of Customs as quickly as I could, while I tried my best to not collapse in a heap of nerves, panic and anxiety.
Thankfully, my flight was delayed by an hour, otherwise I would have not made that flight.
So, yeah, that is that. I’m probably missing some details, but seriously, A LOT happened. More than I want to remember. After what happened on this trip, and what is now going to happen every time I try and cross into the US, after Andrew and I get married next summer, I will no longer visit the US. It is a shame. I have many friends south of border and know many great Americans. Unfortunately, the institution that is the US can do things that I probably shouldn’t repeat cos last time I said these words, I offended people and that was not my intent. As much as I adore many Americans, the stress is not worth it. And I imagine once Andrew and I are married, it will only be worse when I try to cross the border. The only way I can see myself ever entering the US again after next summer is if I’m paid a minimum of $10, 000.00 and even that doesn’t seem like enough money to make going through this ordeal worth it.
Also, since my arrival I looked into this whole fiancé visa thing. According the US State Department’s website, I only need one if I’m planning to get married in the US and that even with one, CBP can deny me entry. I am not planning to get married in the US. I’m getting married in BC, so I don’t understand why I was told I need to get one. I will have to phone the State Department while I’m here to get more information.
And now that I’ve had to relive this nightmare yet again, I need to spend more time decompressing. As a result, I’ll probably not be social for some period of time. Also, Americans, before you tell me, “I’ve never had this happen when I’ve packed similarly while trying to enter the US,” or other such things, please remember, you are an American citizen. America isn’t worried about you turning into an illegal immigrant. Also, before I hear another, “Well, I travelled to Europe for X number of days with only this” (I’ve had a number of people tell me this now), remember that in Europe, it is normal that people backpack across Europe, with very little belongings. Also, you probably were not engaged to a European, and therefor, the concern you’d stay there illegally wasn’t as great.
I am also so very happy that for Andrew to move here, it is a very simple process.