CBP: Protecting America against simple questions since 2003

Protecting America against simple questions since 2003Perhaps I might raise a stink about habeas corpus, or pop off about professionalism. But, no, I’ll take the high road (right!) and ask a simple question:

    Why are the folks at U.S. Customs and Border Protection so afraid of a simple question that they require armed backup?

No, really. I want to know. Of course, that’s just the sort of question that apparently frightens the hell out of them.

The story so far (and hopefully all there is to it): While entering Canada on a flight from England, I was required to pass through U.S. Customs.

Right. It actually does make sense. Really. It has to do with the “fight them over there instead of at home” idea. You know, if they screen me in Canada, before I get on the flight home to Seattle, it reduces the chances that I might find a pair of nail clippers in Vancouver International Airport with which to hijack a small twin turboprop and crash it into Hoquiam Castle, or something like that.

Anyway, yeah. There is a small complex inside the airport that is apparently sovereign American territory.

So after getting off the plane, we waited in line for twenty minutes so that we could wait in line for forty minutes. This was so that we could wait in line another five minutes so that our boarding passes could be checked no less than four times in the passing of fifteen feet as we passed through security. Having done so, we then had to line up to have our boarding passes checked again so that we could then wait another fifteen minutes to tell U.S. Customs and Border Protection that no, we weren’t smuggling any fruit into Canada from London. Apparently, I wasn’t convincing enough.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I must have done something to piss them off. Sure, whatever. Answering their questions without objection is just the kind of thing that will make a Border Protection agent suspicious, I guess. Really, after two weeks among exceptionally polite and wonderful people in England, Scotland, and Ireland, I just didn’t have it in me to be a prig about anything.

Instead of being waved through, I’m asked to divert to another room for a secondary inspection. This doesn’t bother me at all; I’m in too good of a mood after having gotten out of all those damn lines. Eventually, Officer Hill calls me over and asks me a bunch of silly questions about my life. Then he opts to inspect my bag and then fails to insert it properly into the x-ray machine. Then he types some lengthy notes into his computer and asks me if I have any questions at this time.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m curious as to the purpose of this detention.”

Wrong thing to say, apparently.

“You’re not being detained,” Officer Hill replied. Wow, had I known that at the outset, I would have passed on the invitation and just moved on past the, “Welcome to the United States”, sign and into Canada with my travel companions.

“I see,” I said. “Then what was the purpose of searching my bag?”

“I didn’t search your bag,” said Officer Hill.

Now, let me just be simple and specific, in case you happen to work for the Border Patrol, or know someone in that particular service. It’s not really that tough of a question. All he had to say was, “Random selection.”

Or expressed probable cause.

Or even, “This is the first time you’ve re-entered the country on this Passport; it’s a routine inquiry.”

Any of those would have sufficed.

Instead, he simply said, “It’s our right.”

I really, really don’t think it was that hard a question.

“So that’s how you’re going to be,” I observed.

Officer Hill advised me I could file a complaint if I felt I was treated unprofessionally. I asked him for his business card so that I might properly identify him in my complaint. He refused. His name was Hill. “That’s all you’re going to get,” he advised, smirking.

“I see how this goes,” I told him.

He asked if I wanted to talk to his supervisor. I told him yes. I also asked for my Passport back, but he refused. He told me to take a seat, which I did, smiling politely.

A white-haired man came out from his regal throne behind the desks. His name—I swear—was Officer Busto.

Really, I’m not making that up. His tag read, “Busto”.

“My name is Busto,” he told me.

“I don’t appreciate your officers lying to me,” I explained.

“How do you know you were lied to?”

I explained that Officer Hill said I wasn’t being detained, which was false, and that he said he hadn’t searched my bag, which was also false.

“I can see you’re visibly angry,” Busto said.

“Frustrated, yes,” I told him. “It’s a simple question. I mean, it’s either random selection or probable cause.”

“Seems like you already know the answer,” he said. By this time, as I sat there, speaking in an even voice, with my back to the wall, I found myself surrounded by three armed officers.

“Well,” I explained, “yes and no are answers, but sometimes you want to know which it is.”

“I can see your mind is already made up,” said Busto. His armed backup stood ready, glowering.

And, I can face it. I know when I’m defeated. I took my Passport back from Busto, told him he was disgusting, and walked out.

Welcome to the United States, indeed. The land of the free—you’re not being detained—and the home of the brave—where they need armed thugs to protect them from (gasp!) questions.

Ironically, I found out later that a couple days before, my father had a run-in with Homeland Security (the parent Department of U.S. Customs and Border Protection) that had them threatening to jail him over a small paperwork issue easily corrected.

But that’s another issue entirely, I suppose. I haven’t heard the details. Meanwhile, I stalked along, muttering about the irony of being detained by U.S. Border Protection so I could enter Canada. From London.

Welcome to the United States. It’s no wonder so many people around the world think we’re assholes.

But not the English, of course. They’re a delightful people with enviable beer, beautiful scenery, and more pomp than Officer Busto has shit between his ears.

Simple questions. Who ever guessed they could be so dangerous?

Sci-Fi writer vs. U.S. government … hmm ….

A not so fun little story to keep an eye on. Carolyn Kellogg explains that earlier this month,

Peter Watts; photo by Dan BrooksHugo Award-nominated Canadian author Peter Watts was returning home from a trip to Nebraska when he encountered U.S. customs agents at the border between Michigan and Ontario. His rental car was stopped, and then something happened — Watts says he was pepper-sprayed and attacked, while agents say he became aggressive. Watts was arrested and charged with assault.

Turns out that even a former marine biologist turned science fiction writer can have friends in the right places. Cory Doctorow, who writes science fiction in addition to contributing to BoingBoing, and science fiction writer John Scalzi, who maintains the popular blog Whatever, blogged about Watts’ troubles, encouraging people to contribute to Watts’ legal defense fund.

Canadian publishing magazine Quill & Quire notes that Doctorow is not the only one in Watts’ corner. Toronto bookstore Bakka-Phoenix is not only accepting contributions on the author’s behalf, it’s selling out of his books. And author David Nickle was integral to spreading the word and bailing Watts out of jail.

Certainly there is more to come of this sad tale.

From the great Northland

Meanwhile, north of the border—and south, such as it is:

A senior Mexican senator and former foreign affairs minister yesterday called Canada’s visa controls on Mexico a humiliation and questioned whether Canadian-Mexican relations will improve as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister.

In a blunt speech to a Toronto business and academic gathering, Senator Rosario Green Macias detailed the information she was required to provide to the Canadian government to enter Canada – proof of property ownership, her last six bank statements, a letter from the Mexican senate stating she is a senator and personal information about other members of her family.

“That has to stop,” said Ms. Green, who is president of the external relations commission of Mexico’s senate, an academic, a former secretary-general of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and a one-time senior United Nations official as well as diplomat and cabinet minister.

She wore a silk scarf with a Mountie emblem, a gift from her daughter who attended private school in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.

She repeatedly told her audience that the Mexican-Canada relationship is troubled. Twice she used the word “humiliating” to describe Canada’s visa controls, linking them to the wall – which she also called a humiliation – that the United States is building along the U.S.-Mexican border to keep out illegal migrant Mexicans.

Later, talking to journalists, she said the relationship will improve “when you change prime ministers,” then realized what she’d said and asked not to be quoted.

No, really. Imagine someone doing that—any of that—in the United States. And don’t give me that shit about how it’s coming. Yes, yes, whatever. But really. Proof of property ownership? Bank statements? A letter from home? From the Senate?

Yeah. And Barack Obama’s the goddamn Devil.

Okay, I got nothin’. Obviously. But … what about that story even sounds right?

Leading the way … straight to Hell?

Right now it’s a lazy theory; I’ll give it some more thought tomorrow. Or later today. Or, just … later.

But it’s not just the economy. Something about what’s happening seems almost spiritually—or, if you prefer, mass psychologically—apropos the American decline.

But how is it that as we Americans prepare to rally behind a new president and (here’s an ill-fated phrase) a new hope, other parts of the world are falling apart?

No, I’m not talking about Thailand, where, as one scholar I heard discussing the situation described it, there are no good guys in the current political turmoil. But think about it: Canada’s Parliament is dissolved in order to stave off a no-confidence vote, the British Parliament is in an uproar over the nine-hour arrest of a Tory MP suspected of leaking sensitive information, and in Greece several days of youth riots are being followed by a general strike protesting government economic policies.

I can’t figure it out, but there is a note of irony echoing in my brain that I can’t get rid of. On the one hand, I’m sure it’s all connected insofar as everything in the Universe is. But gravity doesn’t explain this, so … yeah.

Obviously, I need sleep.

A Canadian judge says what?

Um … okay.


Just work with me here for a moment, okay?

If … if, if, if …. If things ever managed to get so bad in the United States that there was no sensible recourse but to flee, Canada just got scratched from the list. Okay, I don’t speak French, so Quebec wasn’t high on the list to begin with, but try to wrap your head around Jenny Wagler’s report for the National Post:

A 12-year-old Quebec girl who felt so strongly about her end-of-year school trip that she took her father to court after he forbade her from going is at the centre of a case that challenges the authority of parental discipline.

The extreme measure of taking the case to court, which the girl’s lawyer defended as a necessary move to ensure the child was not denied a significant rite of passage, was upheld by the judge in a surprise ruling last week.

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