The Paranoia at U.S. Border Control Puts a Lot of Power in Poorly Trained Hands
A recent trip to the U.S. took me through Border and Customs Security in Toronto, Canada. I was curious to see if things had changed.
Ever since 9/11 I’ve watched with fascination the exaggerated security measures adopted in all seriousness, against the least plausible threats, and found it even funny to what extent certain security measures were enforced, and others omitted. I’ve had to spray my deodorant, take a picture on my camera, drink out of bottles of water, all just to make sure no malice could be done with the items I was carrying.
What amazed me were not only the items the security found "suspicious," but also the way they treated everyone like a potential killer. Not even a grandma carrying her grandchild was spared the interrogative tone:
"What’s the purpose of your trip ma’am? How long do you plan to stay in the U.S.? Where will you be staying?" I once saw an entire family taken "aside" for further questioning, because their passports revealed that they had been to Egypt.
But I had gotten used to it, so as I was standing in line with my visa waiver filled out, I anticipated nothing more than another sweet anecdote. Then it was my turn. I was to be housed by a student’s family, but I hadn’t met them yet so I couldn’t fully answer the "where I was staying" part. Without any delay I got:
"Well, then I can’t let you into the country, Sir."
I tried to explain: I’m being picked up at the airport and driven to my hotel, there is absolutely no way for me to get hold of these people at this moment. He doesn’t back off.
"If you can’t tell me a street and a number, I won’t let you through, Sir."
Ok, I have to admit this guy really agitated me. Just how did he think I should get hold of that information at this point in time, I queried, irritated? "Call them," he said curtly, "or find out some other way."
Then I really snapped: "How should I go about that, if you don’t provide an alternative?" There was neither an internet terminal nor public phone in the area. Yes, I did cut him off in mid-sentence and the tone was harsh, and I turned my back on him, as he began ranting about my manners, and that I should watch out who I was talking to. I then went through great lengths (and high costs) on my cell phone, and eventually found out the address of my hotel. I got back into the hour-long line, relieved that I had a four hour stop-over in Toronto.
So it was my turn to be first in line again when suddenly he pointed a couple of officers in my direction:
"Sir, could we have a word with you?"
"What’s your justification for using such foul language to a U.S. Border Police officer?"
(Just imagine my surprise)
"Excuse me, what kind of foul language did I supposedly use?"
The officer looks me dead in the eyes and says:
Of course I burst out laughing, and begin to explain that I don’t use that kind of language ever, whether to a close friend or a complete stranger. This time he interrupted me in mid-sentence:
"Sir you know that if we feel you demonstrate that kind of short temperedness, we can deny you entry into the U.S. of America?"
I realised that this wasn’t about what I said or did, it was about a police officer’s ego, and the fact that a long day lay behind him. I contemplated whether to take these officers with me to confront him with his obvious lie. I chose instead to repeat my words clearly and slowly:
"I don’t use that kind of language. With anybody. And if he misunderstood my words, I’m not the one to blame."
It must have been the sincerity in my voice, or my sudden calmness, but he directed me to another counter where I was let through after a short glimpse at my papers.
The incident made me think about the ripple effects of assigning someone to a job comparable to that of a U-Bahn ticket inspector, but giving him the power to deny someone access to an entire nation. The security craze at U.S. Border Control has put people under a lot of pressure, but also put a lot of power into the hands of people who might have never received the training, nor the mental preparation to handle this responsibility. If Customs security is of such high priority to the U.S., why not invest a little time and money into the people who stand on the Front Line?