Monday, 8 April 2013

Ugly face of America on Border patrol

 I ran up against the obstinate paranoia of a world superpower on two separate occasions over the Easter holidays. Both times, I was amazed by the ugly bullying of smug American bureaucracy in the United States Department of Homeland Security.
The first encounter happened at the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit on 28 March. I was crossing from the Canadian side, having landed at Toronto airport after flying from Belfast via London. I was going to a conference at the University of Michigan, having been invited to deliver a paper the following day (Good Friday) on Northern Ireland 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement.
Shut up and sit down.
For the brief visit to Ann Arbor, Michigan, I was accompanied by my son, Ross, and daughter-in-law Serah, both naturalised Canadian citizens living in Hamilton, Ont. I also have Canadian citizenship since 1994 when I lived in Ontario. Yet because I now live back home, I travel on my Irish passport.
I handed over this and when asked for a US visa, I produced one I was issued in the mid-1980s, allowing ‘multiple’ entries to the United States and bearing a stamped ‘Indefinite’ for its time limit. 
I had not needed any visa while living in Canda when I made frequent crossings of the Border without incident. The officer remarked that my old visa was no long valid, having been issued almost before he was born. I would have to go ‘inside’. So watched over by armed guards, we pulled over, got out of the car and filed into the Border station.
A curt female officer of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) standing behind a podium handed me a card form and pen and instructed me to fill it in. I did so. I handed over the card to a male officer who had taken over the podium. I was told to sit down. Several people who came in after me were dealt with speedily, including some travelling on UK passports.
Ambassador bridge too far between Canada and United States
I waited, patiently at first. I looked for direction but failed to make eye contact with any of the officers who clearly were ignoring me. Finally, my name was called out brusquely, ‘MacDonald’. I went over to a stern male officer at the part of the L-shaped counter behind where we were sitting. He asked me why I was entering the United States. I told him about the conference. I was sent back to sit down. I was called up again, asked something else, told to sit down.
Ross and Serah were called up by the officer. I rose to accompany them. The young officer barked, ‘Sit down: I want to talk to the Canadian passport-holders.’ I did so, taken aback by the hostility. I could overhear his contemptuous tone as he asked Ross and Serah how did they ‘know him?’ 
And so it continued for about an hour, called up for curt, accusatory questions, including several about my financial position, the money I had on me and my creditworthiness, then sent back to the ‘naughty corner’. All the while, I got the feeling that this CBP officer was in constant communication with somebody elsewhere who was calling the shots. At one point I was called up and had my fingerprints taken and my eyes scanned.
Finally, with a Visa debit card payment of $6, I was issued a visa that would allow me enter and remain in the USA until ‘June 24, 2013’. Since it was 28 March and I only planned to be there until 30 March, I wondered but did not ask, if I would get a refund. I also felt it wise not to ask why I had been subjected to this treatment when I had a perfectly valid reason for entry. Instead, feeling like some ‘wetback’ caught wading across the Rio Grande, I slunk out of the Border checkpoint and showed up late for the conference in Ann Arbor, missing the initial registration and part of the keynote address by Professor Chantal Mouffrey of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster in London.
My subsequent experience of Michigan was wonderful, the university, the city, the inn we stayed at in Ann Arbor and especially the lounge bar performance of a Motown style soul band called ‘Soulstice’. On the way back we visited Detroit, a city rising from the ashes. Everyone we met there was the very essence of friendly welcome and showed a refreshing deferential pride in their journey from US riches to ruin and slowly back to reinvention of a modern post-industrial city.
Toronto skyline – back in Canada for enjoyable Easter.
Back in Canada, without any incident at the Border, I thoroughly enjoyed Easter with Ross and Serah and visits to old friends over the following days. Then on Thursday afternoon, 4 April, I turned up at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport to check in from my flights back home. Having come from Belfast City airport via London, I was booked (through the University of Ulster) to return to Belfast International via Newark, New Jersey. I presented my passport at check-in. The officer on duty, who turned out to be another agent of US Customs and Border Protection, told me I would not be allowed into the United States because I had no visa. My $6 visa from Detroit (stamped as valid up to June 24) had obviously expired because I was told it was no longer sufficient for ‘entry’ to the United States this time.
I explained that I did not wish to ‘enter’ the United States and would only be making a flight connection at Newark airport en route to Belfast. When this drew a contemptuous scolding from the young woman about my need to comply with US regulations, I observed that I was being ‘penalised’ for using an American airline . She almost lost it at that, saying that US Customs and Border Protection does not penalise anyone and I should just shut up and follow the rules without comment. I shut up and was told I would have to apply for a new online visa approval. Then I would have to get back into one of the most achingly slow queues I have ever encountered in my life.
So with Serah’s help and iPhone, I filled in the online application form for the second time in a week, answering the same questions and queries about communicable diseases, previous convictions and political leanings, paid $16 this time, and was ‘approved’ for entry.
'Penalised' for choosing American airline for flight home.
I got back into the check-in line, which comprised only two others now. Both were almost as frustrated by the slow pace and the line of unstaffed check-in points. We waited without movement. The young Canadian woman in front was vocal in her criticism; the man behind me less agitated, but he hadn’t invested as much time so far. Meanwhile, as we stood and stared, and were pointedly ignored by the CBP officers chatting to each other on duty, those travelling on some preferential scheme were called up and processed immediately.
Finally, my turn came. I presented myself to the same officious young woman as before. She keyed in my details and seemed almost surprised I had been approved. After a stamp and a corrected scrawl, I was told I could ‘remain in the United States until 25 June’ an extra day beyond the visa I had been issued at the Ambassador Bridge a week earlier. I was then shunted through – with my suitcase still in tow – to join a separate line. Here I had my fingerprints taken and eyes scanned once more, went through the usual airport security rigmarole and made it to the flight gate without time for the coffee and duty-free browsing I had factored into my schedule.
By the time I got on board, I was in no mood for the moaning Joe in the adjoining seat who turned out to be from some Wall Street bank. He was leafing through USA Today, making insulting remarks about Ireland and the EU, along with the fiscal management of every other economy on Earth. It was too much. When he accused China and India of stealing American jobs though protectionism and cheating on subsidies, I let him have an earful. I told him about the American economic bullying I had witnessed and especially the US manipulation of the NAFTA trade deal which ‘stole’ jobs from Canada and Mexico. US capitalists wanted globalisation, I remarked, and like his Wall Street masters they had no loyalty beyond themselves, so the American jobs he lamented losing would not be coming back. He shut up for the remainder of the flight.
I barely touched the ground at Newark airport.
In the end, I barely touched the ground in Newark, landing at 7.50pm and taking off again for Belfast at 9.15pm, although I did manage to get that espresso coffee and a much-needed beer at the boarding gate. I did not have to go through passport control, where I would probably have been shaken down for another few bucks as an unwelcome interloper on American soil.
So I only bounced through America on my unwanted and unneeded second visa. It remains valid for another eleven weeks or so. At least that’s what it says in the scrawl inside the passport stamp, but I’ll not be putting that to the test. 


  1. That's the way it is now Darach - no leeway with any of these people. The magic word "security" makes all rules and manners disappear.
    Same applies when journalists try to access anything here.
    Arguing with these bureaucrats or complaining about your coffee being cold to airline crew merits a criminal arrest!

  2. Naive in the extreme to attempt to use a 1980s visa. I agree border staff can be rude, brusque etc but you should have obtained a valid visa in advance of travel. It's not the same as strolling from Lifford to Strabane.

  3. Incidentally my own border crossing issues involve the Immigration Bureau cops at Dublin Airport who in stark contrast to their UK counterparts were threatening, rude, and patronising to an Irish citizen merely attempting to travel in the Common Travel Area without a passport - its very raison d'etre.