June 18, 2018: The line was rather short and my grandfather and I breezed up to the booth, greeted sternly by an officer marked “Sanchez”. It was a hot, sunny afternoon and I was blissfully unaware of the shit storm headed my way.
Looking back, I wish I had been a lot less cheerful and carefree. I had also been a bit rushed to leave and had no makeup on, hair slightly frizzy and dressed beach casual. Part of me even wishes I had lied at that juncture and said I was visiting a friend in Bellingham, because that would have been normal enough not to be flagged. Sanchez himself didn’t seem overly unpleasant but his eyebrow raised at the mention of going all the way to Oregon for my car. When he asked if the repairs were completed, I said not quite and that no doubt I’d probably have to help finish the job, laughing. Big mistake. It’s terrible to look back at a situation and wish you had just lied, but it definitely would have saved me the trouble I’m having now. The little yellow ticket was ripped, and we headed to what would be my doom.
I wasn’t at all worried at first. I’ve been flagged before, and have never had too much trouble. Once inside the building, my grandpa and I waited in a short (but rather long considering the lack of traffic) line and soon I was staring across a counter at a rather large and bullish looking man with an orange goatee. He did not say hello.
“What do you do for a living Ms. Marshall?”, he barked.
A bit taken aback, I replied rather too conversationally I’m an artist but my mother helps me out a lot with the living part. He wanted to know when was the last time I was in the States, and for how long, and why for so long, and then sat with an open look of distaste while I explained.
I had been making my way down to Mexico when my car began having trouble, so I stayed with friends in Oregon and paid a couple different people to work on it while helping with it myself. I won’t recount the whole interview because it’s mostly a horrific blur anyways, but a few of his statements are ingrained in my memory.
“You travel too much in my opinion. You should stay in your own country more…I don’t believe you have a car down there. I don’t even believe that you live in Canada. I think you live here…As far as I’m concerned, you have everything you need to make your living in my country and even if you aren’t, the United States of America isn’t your ‘personal playground’…Got a rental car booked? Cancel it.”
I was completely floored. I started to say,
“Listen, I realize I live sort of a blessed life and it’s a bit unusual, but…”
“Go live your blessed life somewhere else.”
With a look of what was, I’m sure, complete shock and disgust, I asked him what I can do about the situation. He replied,
“Go back to Canada, get a real job, and pay rent like everyone else.”
He then proceeded to turn away from me with a dismissive hand gesture, to his computer screen. I lost my patience a bit at that point and said,
“Hang on sir. I was asking a serious question. What do you require? You require proof that my vehicle is in the States?”
He said yes.
“You require proof that I live in Canada?”
Another terse yes.
“Ok, in that case I will get together a folder for you and come back.”
I walked away from the counter feeling numb. I was too shocked to even feel anger or indignation.
June 20, 2018: Back at the border. Rental car cancelled and rebooked. Not feeling my usual confident self but in a positive headspace nonetheless, clutching my precious folder containing my rental reservation, a receipt with my car listed for Napa parts in Oregon, the internet bill for the cabin with my info on it, and my BMO banking contact info. The line was a mile deep and creeping along painfully slow. There was a lot of confusion, and no small amount of impatience all around us. Suddenly, the line we had been waiting in forever was blocked as a yellow gate was pulled across, reducing regular traffic to two lanes. People struggling to merge at the last minute.
No smiles this time. Respectable attire. Hair and makeup, check. The guard at the post had a slightly pissed off, “I’m sick of everyone” kind of look. Totally normal. This time I didn’t say hello, just answered straight questions with straight answers. Right away he asked,
“Why can’t someone bring your car to you?”
With a sinking feeling I replied that it would be no small favour to ask. This time we got a small pylon plunked onto the hood and proceeded to the secondary inspection. Then the nightmare began in earnest.
The inspection building was full, the line pouring out past its roped off limits. All manner of people stood waiting. The long desk was half-manned by a few guards, although there were plenty of other staff walking around from place to place. Everyone seemed to be studiously ignoring the crowd.
By the time we got to the front of the line, I felt like a person who dreads seeing the dentist but has a horrible toothache: just eager to get it over with. The man who called me forward actually had a look of humanity about him, and I was encouraged. I began by saying that I think the guy I talked to on the 18th had been having a bad day, and that there had been a misunderstanding. He gave me a knowing look, and was actually listening as I explained what had happened, and presented my folder. Just as he reached to grab it and take a look, he was interrupted by an officer behind him who said he was needed at gate 5. He apologized, and said that I would probably have to re-explain my situation to the next available officer. I think I died inside a little as he walked away, and I think any chance I may have had to cross that day died too.
The next officer to wave me forward was a very irate man with the name tag “Woo”. I began with the same line I did with the other guy, saying,
“I think there was a misunderstanding the other day and someone was having a bad day, because…” and Woo exploded. He began ranting something like,
“You can just quit right now with the ‘someone was having a bad day’ line, because I’ll go ahead and ban you for 5 years right now…guess what? I am having a bad day too, and how do you like that? Because it’s people like you who make my job difficult, and you know what? I’m probably going to die an early death because of people like you. And you know why I have this job? Because I didn’t get a higher education. People come over this border and my taxes end up taking care of them, when I could be spending that money to take care of my sick father--but you don’t care about that do you? You have just created a mountain of paperwork for me, and I am not a fan of you right now!”
Then he practically yelled,
“Just tell me right now if you’re one of those people who think ‘there should be no borders and I should go wherever I want’ so I can turn you around right now!”
I stammered that I was not one of those people, and I’m terribly sorry, and I’m just trying to sort things out. He then proceeded with a very intense line of questioning involving my last stay in the states and exactly how long it was (a week less than 6 months). He then said,
“You have overstayed your welcome Ms. Marshall.”
When I said I hadn’t gone over the 6 month visa, he launched into a tirade about how there was no such thing as a visa in my case, and to quit calling it that. I asked what I had overstayed then, and he replied
“Your…stay! Your stay!”
He then grabbed two sheets of paper with the calendar year printed on them and viciously circled 7 months on it, from October to April (I had gone to the states in mid-October and returned near the beginning of April), and waved his supervisor over (who I noticed with dismay as he approached looked a bit like Dick Cheney). Woo said to him,
“What do you think sir? Does this look like an overstay to you?”
The guy chuckled like a schoolyard bully and replied,
“Yep, that sure looks like an overstay alright.”
Then they both looked at me and smiled, like it was some kind of victory for them. I had already been feeling like I was in the twilight zone for a while, so what happened next was almost anticlimactic.
I was standing there in total shock of their little performance and as the supervisor walked away, Woo snapped,
“Still don’t get it? Let me put this in a way that you will really understand.”
He then took one of the sheets and wrote on it, in tiny letters in the margin of the page,
He turned the sheet around to face me.
“You see this? You get it now?”
Before he sent me away to sit back down in the waiting area, Woo proceeded to go off again about how stressful his job was and how nobody understands or cares and we’re basically a bunch of idiots (not his words, just wanted to sum it up). He kept saying, as he shuffled papers on the desk and looked down,
“Do you understand? Do you understand?” like he was losing his mind, and I had been mumbling (like a chastised kid also losing their mind) that I did understand. Suddenly I snapped out of it and said a bit sharply,
Everything stopped. He didn’t move or look up he just said,
I said very slowly and clearly,
Still not looking up, he quietly said,
And I walked away wondering, just what the hell is going on in this place?...
4 o’clock rolled around, and there was a shift change as we sat waiting. Mr. Woo left the building quickly along with the other employees, as a fresh fleet of officers came in. It had been well before 1 o’clock when my grandpa and I first rolled into the border lineup. At this point nothing would have surprised me. Shit, I’d already witnessed what appeared to be a mental breakdown, what’s next? Papers being thrown in someone’s face? Mock wailing and crying?
The real shock was when I was called up to the desk to see…a compassionate looking face. He was a burly man with an outwardly intimidating appearance, but he had the soft eyes of someone who was real. I could hardly believe it when, as I recounted my story and the purposes of my trip, he actually nodded and addressed me with the simple respect of one person to another. It almost brought me to tears right then and there. When I finished, he asked me if I had any other questions or concerns. I told him my grandpa was slightly diabetic, that we’d been here since before 1pm and I was getting concerned because he hadn’t had anything to eat. The Man (he had no name tag) said he would see to it that grandpa got some food, and asked if crackers and juice would be enough. I very gratefully said yes. He told me to have a seat, and said he would talk to his supervisor about my situation to see what he could do--but first he would get the food. He came back immediately with the crackers and juice.
After we waited another 20 minutes or so, the Man came back and said he was authorized to take a sworn statement on my behalf, to present to his supervisor. I took the statement, which he typed out carefully. Then he took my fingerprints and picture to make sure I didn’t have any warrants in Washington. Finally, he told me to wait just one more time while he presented it, and that he hoped to be back with good news.
I sat back down for the last time feeling sure that my luck had turned. At least after this horrible ordeal I’d be headed in the right direction, towards my precious car, with a wild story for my American friends. About 10 minutes later I was called back up, and as I approached I saw the grave look on the Man’s face and my stomach dropped.
“I’m sorry,” he said with real sincerity, “but you aren’t going to be able to cross today. There’s nothing else I can do. When you come back, make sure you bring a whole stack of paper. This folder is pretty small and with too little to go on. I’ll meet you at the exit with your passports.”
Well, I didn’t really see it coming and had been trying to keep a stiff upper lip…but at that moment I burst into tears. All I could muster was a meek “Okay”, and walked back to my grandpa struggling not to break out bawling like a hurt kid. I apologised through tears to my grandpa for putting him through all this for nothing, and we left. As we turned out to the lane, the officer was standing there and handed the passports to us. With almost a pleading look in his soft eyes he said,
“Again, I’m very sorry about this.”
And I managed to reply,
“Thank you for trying to help. I really do appreciate it.”
He nodded, looking down, and we drove away. Grandpa, who had been so supportive in his own quiet, dignified way through this whole thing, refused to use Heinz ketchup at the restaurant we stopped at on the way home. He peered at the label and said,
“Nope. Made by the Yanks!” and pushed it to the end of the table.