Zen & Dharma

Flagged at the border

Interrogation2I breeze into Vancouver Pacific Station an easy 20 min. before my 6:30am train time, all stoked for a little Amtrak adventure. A simple weekend trip, to visit Daniel in Pt Townsend. Snacks in my daypack, passport and train ticket in hand. Where you going, whatcha doing, who you visiting—nothing but the truth. My wallet is emptied onto the kiosk desk: bus tickets, credit cards, yoga pass. Please explain these. A second Homeland Security officer arrives at the gate. Problem here?, he asks. First officer replies: Possible 7A— but probably not. Sweat rises at the back of my neck. The questions get stranger, the air grows thinner. I am invited to follow the second officer into the back room—please, take a seat. Say nothing. Ask nothing. Over my shoulder I watch the last few passengers trickle easily through the gate. Not me.

A monk without ties or equities, I am flagged at the border. For once and forever.

This border game is deeply bizarre. Assumed to be criminals, we act like criminals. I have to remind myself that in fact I have done nothing wrong and intend to do nothing wrong, in this, or any other country. I’m innocent. But Homeland Security is not a court of law. In a court of law we are presumed innocent unless proven guilty, but at the border, the opposite applies. I am assumed guilty and the onus is on me to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that not only have I not committed a crime, but that I have no intention of committing a crime—in this case, the crime of overstaying my visit to the United States, which as a tourist is limited to six months. I have not the slightest reason or desire to linger in America for six months. I’m going for the weekend, and have never overstayed my visit in the past. Yet because I am flagged—which is to say, because I’ve been put through this funhouse before, for no particular reason (and cleared)—I am presumed guilty unless I can prove otherwise. I must prove I am innocent, not only of having offended, but innocent of any crime I might commit in the future. Security does not need to provide any plausible motive for my imaginary potential crime. It’s like putting someone on trial and forcing them to demonstrate that they will not ever murder someone in the future, and then sending them to prison if they can’t provide an alibi for the motiveless crime that has not yet happened. It is truly Kafkaesque.

The officer disappears with my passport. I sit on a vinyl chair in the tiny back room for a short eternity, heart pounding in my ears, just breathing. On the next chair beside me sits a man holding a foreign passport in his hands. His body is slumped in resignation—he’s not getting on that train and he knows it. Not turning toward him, I wish him silent comfort. The train engine is huffing. At last, the officer stalks back in and tells me that I should be carrying a lease agreement and bank statements. Yes, of course, I agree. I will have those next time. He stamps my passport with a six-month visa and shoves it at me, sending me scrambling down the platform. I am the last passenger to board the train. Innocent. Welcome to America, home of the free.

3 Comments on “Flagged at the border

  1. Hi Carmen

    Ah, crossing the border. Something about the whole process that can make even the totally innocent feel paranoid. Or maybe it is just accurately understanding the situation.

    In any event I have done the Port Townsend trip by many modes, but the best approach (local buses) took me from Blaine to the Whidbey Island ferry slip for
    $ 3.00 and was really quite quick. No need to deal with Amtrak, and you can take your bike for no cost and no hassle at all.

    Want to know more? Shoot me an email and I can give you the details.

  2. Yes, I remember being grilled in that rather attractive station. As the departure time got closer a very conventional family showed up and was turned away as they were a minute late. They were an American family returning home and I wondered what they must have felt about their Homeland Security.

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