Sunday, July 6, 2008

Almost busted by Canadian border cuties

One would think that crossing the border from the United States to Canada is the most trivial of exercises. Especially if you're an Austrian citizen in possession of a United States A-2 visa (which you receive when "traveling to the United States on behalf of your national government to engage solely in official activities for that government") who had previously crossed Peruvian, Bolivian, Chinese, Mongolian and Russian (among others) borders without any issues. Think again, because on Wednesday I spent almost 2 hours considering the fact that I would

(a) be escorted to the nearest airport and put into the next plane going to Austria
(b) have to spend the next weeks living on the bridge close to the Niagara Falls which marks the border between the USA and Canada with neither country allowing me in -- but what a fantastic view (as my travel companion A.H. puts it;-)

Luckily neither of these things really happened however I do have to admit that I was a bit nervous and above mentioned possibilities did cross my mind.

What happened was that when approaching the border I wasn't sure whether the US or Canadian border officers would take care of my I-94 arrival/departure record since normally this is handled at the airport and it was my first time crossing a US border on land. So we stopped at the US Customs and Border Protection office to ask about that. After waiting inside the office for 10min without anyone being at the front desk I decided to try my luck with one of the officers on the parking lot outside. Especially since sitting in there made me slightly nervous as various people who had been pulled out of cars or trains (with one guy speaking on his cell-phone and saying "something came up in the computer about a thing I did back in '72"). The US CBP officers were friendly and explained to me that the Canadians would take care of my record once I entered the country. So we happily got back into our car, paid our $3.5 bridge-toll and approached the Canadian border through no-man's land.

Arriving on the other side the Canadian border officer looked at our passports and started his routine of asking us questions about our purpose visit, our destination, duration of stay, travel plans, etc. Asked about my plans I explained to that I was visiting A.H.'s parents close to Toronto before moving over to see some friends in Vancouver and then going back into the United States before returning to Austria. He was obviously concerned when he heard the word "moving", especially when followed by me saying that "yes, I do have all my belongings with me in those two suitcases". A word and a sentence so innocent in my head but probably setting off the alarm in the officer's head. We were kindly asked to pull over for a more detailed examination.

We had previously talked about border crossings and A.H. told me to prepare myself for some serious beauties in uniforms. But I certainly wasn't prepared for that. Seriously, I'm not really into someone going through my car, backpack and suitcase and asking me questions about my belongs, but man, she was cute. And so was her partner. The first question I had to answer was obviously what the hell my OLPC XO-laptop was? (I should start counting how often I've been asked that.) Then, when opening my suitcase the little box of impeachmints that I had bought back in DC fell out and I earned an odd look from our officers. Funnily enough I had bought those mints together with an "I love my country. It's the government I'm afraid of." t-shirt, so go figure...

Anyway, after the examination we were sent into the office to what I expected would be the routine of showing them our slip of paper and then being allowed to drive on. Of course that didn't happen. I was told that considering that my US visa was to expire on that day Canada couldn't be sure that I would be able to leave the country again and obviously they didn't want me stuck there. I explained them that I would re-enter the US under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) which allows citizens of 20-some countries to enter the United States for up to 90 days when traveling for tourism or business. However the Canadian Border Protection officer (yes, she was also good-looking) asked for us to return to the US border-station and obtain a guarantee (in the form of a filled out I-94 form) that I would be able to re-enter the United States.

So we went back across the bridge to the US CBP station where our passports (even A.'s, although he really didn't have anything to do with the whole thing except for travelling with me) were taken at the entry booth and we were sent inside the office to await our fate. So while we were reading magazines from 2005/2006 (saw an interesting article about I was slowly starting to sketch out my alternatives. Even though my visa was technically expiring that day my A2 status allowed me 30 extra days to leave the US without committing a visa-overstay. Thankfully no living on the bridge!

After some 15 minutes the US officer called our names and handed us the passports, basically asking why we had bothered to stop by. We once again explained my situation and the Canadian demand for a visa-guarantee. He promptly replied that there's no such thing as a guarantee for being allowed to enter the country unless you're a US citizen. A. had the smart idea of asking the officer to call his Canadian counterpart to explain this to them since they obviously didn't understand the situation. Additionally I managed to convince him to give me an I-94 form even though they're normally only handed out upon entering the United States.

After another $3.5 toll, another drive across the bridge, another set of explanations at the Canadian border booth we were back in the border office, this time talking to another officer. I was much relieved when she told me that our dear friend M., the US border officer, had in fact called her to explain the situation. Plus me being able to show a completed I-94, even though it was in fact totally useless, seemed to satisfy her. After some more waiting she called me over again to say that yes, I would in fact be allowed into Canada. When walking out the door I realized that she hadn't removed the previous I-94 slip from my passport. This could have caused some serious issues when re-entering the US since I officially wouldn't have left the country and then things could have gotten really complicated.

As you can imagine I was much relieved when finally driving away from the border station and repeatedly looking at my Canadian visa which, as it turns out, now lasts until January 1, 2009.

The absurdity of the situation is still beyond me. Had I entered Canada via any other way, nobody would have bothered to even ask me about my travel plans yet alone ask for proof that I could enter whatever place I would be travelling to afterwards. Seriously, I don't see the connection. Even assuming that the United States wouldn't let me into the country, the only difference that it would make to Canada is that I would leave the country flying out to Europe instead of heading to the United States. So what's the point of even considering my status upon entering the United States? Also, and this is what's really bothering me, when someone like me - European, well educated, fluent in English, having a diplomatic visa in his passport and being lucky enough to deal with a great US CBP officer - has these kinds of issues entering the country, how difficult must it be for everyone else?

In the end it's really as they say: Never judge a country by its border protection staff. Even when they're Canadian cuties.


Anonymous said...

The answer is unfortunately 'very difficult'. I'm currently embroiled in an equally ridiculous back-and-forth with CIC over an arbitrary decision made by a single officer, contradicting previous determinations by numerous previous officers. I'm effectively 'stuck' in Canada until they sort it out (I am an American citizen) and have had to cancel business trips as a result. Like you, I am an upstanding member of society with full vested interests in my home country and no intent to remain in Canada past my visit whatsoever, and yet I've been caught in an inconsistency loop in Canadian border policy, enforced by a couple of overzealous individuals who have been granted far too much enforcement latitude without sufficient capacity for rational judgment. I intend to write my congressman when this is all over, and any newspaper that will take an interest, but not until I am back in the US. And my border guards weren't even cute!

ChristophD said...

I'm very sorry to hear about your issues, sounds like I got away easy compared to what you're going through. I wish you all the best, hope it all works out well for you in the end!