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?