Life of Carmen, Politics & Activism

Escape! Imagine, no borders

I was in shock after being bounced from the border. I sat still, felt my heart beating and my breath going in and out. That was all I could do to stop my body from shaking. Then it would start again.

I ran through every possible escape scenario in my head, by train boat or plane, in the trunk of a car. Every story I could tell. But the fact was I had been denied and told not to return, and they would know that the moment they swiped my passport. I knew there were risks involved in even trying to appeal. I read a legal advice website that scared the shit out of me, warning that simply by approaching the border again I could be fined, banned for years, or arrested. It is all so arbitrary, chance and fate being no small measure. I am not a gambler by nature and above all I knew for certain was that I wanted to come back to Upaya in future. I began to accept that I was in Vancouver now, and that is where I would most likely remain. And that was not so bad either.

But also I am stubborn. I could not rest in acceptance until I felt like I had tried every reasonable option. Roshi wrote to me: we love a bit of determination. I knew that everyone at Upaya was pulling for me, and also that I hadn’t done anything wrong. The whole border routine is designed to make you feel and act like a criminal even though you’re not. So I determined I would at least stand in my integrity and not go down without a fight.

The morning after a terrible night’s sleep I met for coffee with Obinine. The sun broke through the soggy grey clouds at last, and he offered to bike with me down to the train station to try to talk to the US Immigration people. They weren’t there, so we rode around town, trying to find an Immigration office. No luck anywhere. I ate a maple-dip donut from Tim Hortons to get grounded. Finally I decided to go to the airport, figuring that there would certainly be Immigration officers there. I packed my meager stuff and my letter from Roshi printed out on fancy paper and said goodbye once again to Terry, on whose inflatable mattress I  had been crashing for a week. I jumped on the SkyTrain and headed for the airport.

It turned out that there was no Immigration office at the airport either. The only way to get an audience with Immigration was to buy a plane ticket and try to get on a plane. I sat down in the concourse and looked at plane tickets online but I couldn’t t get one with cancellation insurance, and the thought of blowing off yet another airfare if I got denied was scary. I was ready to spend money but not to waste it. I shut my computer, closed my eyes, and breathed.

When I opened my eyes I was looking at the Air Canada ticket counter. A solid-looking Indian woman named Norinda was at the counter. I told her my story, and asked if she could get me to Albuquerque—soon, cheap, and refundable. In minutes she found me a plane ticket for $600, leaving next morning. Non-refundable. But Norinda put a note on the reservation, saying that if I was denied entry I could get my money back. It is worth a try, she said with a warm lilt. I bought the ticket and she wished me good luck.

I remember, i vow to remember, how one kind word or even one glance of encouragement and love can change a person’s life.

I went back to Terry’s and re-ensconced myself once again on his inflatable mattress. I had yet another freakout and almost changed my mind. And then I decided my strategy would be one of radical honesty and respect. I would go to the airport and proceed in faith.

I arrived at the airport just before 6am, which was 7am Upaya time. I waited until 6, and then in my head the three bells rang to begin morning zazen. I took a deep breath and walked into the security line.

I passed through the ritual humiliation of belt and shoes and body scan. I arrived at Customs and Immigration and faced the long row of booths. In every booth I could see a beefy man in black uniform with military demeanor and hairdo. I swept the row with my eyes and directed a thought to them, “you are good people, you are doing your best.” I was pointed to a booth and, surprise! The officer was slight and boyish, with red hair. I stood in front of him with my passport and letter from Roshi and I said, “Before I give this to you I want you to know: I was denied at the border two days ago. It was a misunderstanding and I now have this letter to prove it. I am not trying to scam you, this is the truth.”

He reached out and took the letter in his hand. He read it carefully. Then he sent me into the back room.

The next officer was a good-looking black man who I had seen the night before in a brief and tattered dream. He asked me some questions, took my passport and letter, and directed me to the waiting area where I joined a couple dozen detainees in varying degrees of distress. Beyond the waiting area was a row of desks staffed by officers.  A small child whined and started crying loudly and the man who had my papers kept glancing at the mother with annoyance. I sat facing inward, directing respect and trust to each officer, and trying to breathe the spaciousness and calm of the zendo into the room. Trying to stay present and not fantasize possible outcomes.

Finally the man directed me to a third officer—a blond woman no taller than me, whose tag said Bishop. She was terse and seemed to be new to the job. She asked me many many questions, first about Upaya and my role there. Determined to be truthful, I told her what we do all day and what we study. She asked me what are Upaya’s expectations of me, and I told her what I tell everyone: that the only real expectation is that I devote myself to practice, and that I carry that practice forward into the world. She perused the Upaya website at length. She found the phrase “residents on Path of Service work 30 hrs/wk in exchange for room and board”, and then I thought that I was cooked, as the “volunteering” issue was, to my understanding, the nub of the problem — but I told her we actually work much less than that (it is true), and that our ‘samu’ is part of our mindfulness training. She asked me what I would get from my program—certificate,  accreditation, what?—and finally she wrote on the paper, “self-development program.” Inwardly I thought, more like self-annihilation program. But she seemed satisfied with that, so I let it go.

The other major issue was, they seemed convinced that I intended to overstay my legal six-month visitation period. Why, I couldn’t say. But I had to convince Bishop that I would return home to Vancouver. This required showing my return train ticket online, her phoning my friend Erik to confirm that I have been offered to coordinate the Crazy 8’s party in March, proving that i actually have an apartment (I found a postcard addressed to me in the bottom of my computer bag—luckily she didn’t notice that it was from Earth First), and many many more questions. I had to explain to her what Crazy 8’s is all about, the purpose of Arcosanti (good luck with that), what i was doing in 2004 (as if i know), and more. She would ask me questions, and then send me back to the waiting area while she consulted with other officers and made phone calls. This wide-ranging metaphysical discussion and pop quiz went on for over two hours.

Finally, with a half hour left to my plane departure, she called me up to the desk. She wrote February 15 on a slip of paper, stamped it, and stapled it into my passport. She told me to present the paper when I returned to Canada no later than that date and handed me my passport and boarding pass.

I bowed, thanked her and said she should come to the Crazy 8’s party if she likes to dance. I grabbed the passport and boarding pass and sprinted like mad through terminals and corridors to the farthest departure gate on the edge of the universe, across a tarmac and onto a Dash-8 painted in red maple leafs. An hour later i was in Portland, then San Francisco, then Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and home to the zendo and all the beautiful people therein.

I am back at the Zen center in the New Mexico desert. The big sky, the red dust, the magpies, the sparkling volcanic sand. Every grain a tiny miracle. I am exhausted. Elated. Not ever, taking anything, for granted.





14 Comments on “Escape! Imagine, no borders

  1. Wow – you’ve seen the Back Room now. I can’t believe they did what amounts to a Life Audit on you. Keep in mind that further such audits might turn this blog up too!

    I’m mailing you your toothbrush, mouth guard & such today -see you next month!

  2. Way to go Carmen! You’re a trooper and an inspiration. Many many good wishes for you on your retreat. Come visit after you get home! Much love, Janet

  3. Carmen, Testing is extreme, it is the greatest form of grace to be tested in practice, to maintain compassion, to see each one as a living human doing ‘whatever” in the fear realm “bardo” and then being the one who simply without concern blesses each and let the great process determine the outcome. You have passed the test. Compassion manifested the intention and all whom you touched learned a small lesson by such grace without fully knowing that. > Your brother SkyMuch praise to UPAYA<

  4. You gamed the system, cyclechick! That ain’t easy. Your approach works better than my natural surly resentment.

    Seriously, though, our American sisters and brothers are going through a difficult time. Tempting as it is to rail against them (and their particular brand of the human condition), we’re all here together on this world and things will go far better if we strive to get along. Well done, C. Hope Harper doesn’t give you grief on the trip back in. (Okay, STOP IT with the cynicism already.)

  5. I’m so glad to hear your trip worked out! Nice to know that honesty at the border can pay off. That’s a pretty incredible story. The resources they spend on border control must be phenomenal!

  6. Well ya know everyone’s experience at the border is different, and ultimately i think it is just totally arbitrary – they have the power to admit you or deny you on a whim, if they want to. There’s a huge element of luck and fate. So really the best way to hedge your own bet is to be respectful and honest and have faith that it will be returned. The way to bust through the border is to break it down, break down the border between them and you.

    I also fantasize, that maybe if that power-tripping border dude’s wife had spoken to him that morning with the same kind of care and encouragement Norinda directed to me, he would never have pulled me off that damn bus.

  7. Wow! I feel lighter having read your experience and knowing that not all borderguards are as bad as I thought. I think it was the open-ness in your heart that got you through, and that makes me really hopeful for humanity.
    I was denied entry at the border in 2009. I had been in Portland for 2 months after dropping out of grad school. I was living with my boyfriend (American) while figuring out what to do next and looking into transferring to other grad schools in Oregon. Heading back to Portland after a holiday visit with my family, we drove through an empty border crossing in Montana. 3 hours of interrogation later I was directed to go join my boyfriend back in his car and turn around and head back to Canada (my other option was to stay in a cell overnight to appeal the case) and they hadn’t told him anything! They told me didn’t have provable permanent residential ties to Canada…didn’t own property, car, wasn’t enrolled in school (I’d just dropped out), didn’t have a job, and so they suspected I was intending to illegally immigrate. The borderguard there told me I needed to provide a lease, a return ticket and much more documentation. So I got this stuff together and decided to take the train from Vancouver. The borderguard at the Amtrak immediately denied me – and I basically had to beg for him to look at the documentation and plead my case. Eventually I was still denied. Over the next few (awful!) weeks, I tried to appeal or fight the system and then eventually gave up. I was out of money, and luckily have wonderful parents who took me in, and then became resigned to stay in Canada. Three and half months later (trying to maintain the long distance relationship despite great uncertainty) I got the opportunity to work in the States and because I’d worked at Arcosanti on a TN Visa – thought I would try this type of visa again. I showed up at the border ready to go either way – not sure what would happen. I had to wait about 2 hours but no interrogation this time- and then finally the borderguard called me up and proceeded to lecture me about how the job I was applying for wasn’t applicable to this visa and that my previous Visa shouldn’t ever have been granted…blah blah blah and THEN right before I was about to tell him off for lecturing me, he said: BUT, I’m going to give you a break today… and I got my Visa!! Oh they love their power, don’t they??
    Anyway, I liked reading other people’s stories so I thought I’d share mine too. It’s not easy when you don’t fit the norm and they definitely target those of us with less ‘ties.’ I never really thought much about the border except that it would take an extra 1/2 hour or so, but now I think about it really differently and try to avoid it as much as possible. I have since traveled to the states on the ferries, present all my documentation – and not had any problems. You remain flagged indefinitely, and the last border guard said for the next couple of years at least, if I’m allowed entry, I’ll get a limited stay visa granted just like you did, with a specified end date.

  8. Glad you got in Carmen. You are stubborn and honest that’s for sure. I also found the reference to the donut confusing. See you in February.

  9. wow!!! now that’s a story! thanks!

    i would say that honesty was your best strategy in this case, and often is. though i would argue that radical honesty at the border is not always the best strategy depending on the person’s situation.

    i’m so happy for you!!! many many blessings!

  10. Update to my situation: i got hooked up with a Homeland Security mole in Texas who checked my file, and she says there is NO REASON STATED for my denial at the border. However she also looked at my surveillance cam picture (!!) and says i should smile more. Of course i am still “flagged” and odds are now higher that i will be hassled next time i try to cross, but maybe smiling will help.

  11. Awesome story! Hope the flag doesn’t cause future denials. Wish there was some way to get flagged for “honest and good-intentioned”!

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