Monday, August 4, 2008

The Minimum Security Prison of America

(aka “Fun Times at the Canadian Border!”)

For those just tuning in here, I live in the state of Michigan. As such, I am surrounded on two sides (north and east, a little south if you want to get trivia-esque) by Canada. While I haven’t gone recently (a few years) due to a lack of funds, earlier on this decade I would go to Canada when I had the chance - especially when I spent a couple of years in northern Michigan in the tiny city of Sault Sainte Marie, MI, which is a stone’s throw from its twin city of the same name in Canada. The border crossing process had usually been rather simple for me, with the most that I got asked is “Where’d you go? How long were you there? Bringing back lots of money? Alright have a good one.” I suppose it was a bit naive of me to think that things would go south in the couple of years since I’ve been to Canada, especially in lieu of revelations that Homeland Security can take your laptop at the border if they feel like it.

Like most things in life you stay naive of it, happily nested in a world of “it can’t/won’t happen to me” until - sure enough - it does.

Follow up:

My purpose to travel to Windsor, Ontario, seemed simple and innocent enough: it was a Saturday, I was bored, and I wanted to take some pictures of the Detroit skyline to satisfy my off and on desire to pretend I’m good at taking pictures. Didn’t plan on going much of anywhere, buying much of anything, or even being there that long. It was, quite literally, something to do. You know, getting out of the house and all of that good stuff.

Maybe it was because I was traveling alone. Perhaps it was because I had a camera on me and those are starting to be regarded as a terrorist tool. Maybe I’ve managed to work myself on to some list of bad people: not the terrorist watch list which now boasts over 1 million names, but maybe some other list that we don’t know about yet. Could it have been a list of noted liberal-minded bloggers? People who buy politically-themed music? People who don’t love the President and haven’t loved the President from day 1? Known Obama supporters? Someone get Senator McCarthy in on this one to help me out. I’d love to know.

Maybe they didn’t like the way I looked? Maybe they didn’t like my car? Or better yet, maybe they liked my car and wanted to see if there was anything in it they could “detain” for as long as they’d like (reason #1 why I didn’t bring my laptop with me and go to hotspots while in Windsor). Maybe someone was a White Sox fan and didn’t like my Tigers baseball cap.

Or hell, maybe it was just my time.

It starts with a yellow sticker placed on the windshield and instructions to drive off to the side where the immigration/interrogation center is. The orders from the officer are in a stern matter, a “don’t cross me little man, I am judge, jury, and executioner!” type voice.


As someone who has been known to fly off the handle, thankfully I kept myself in check through this process. These people seemed like just the kind who wake up every morning just praying for someone to get smart with them so they can make someone’s life hell for a few hours. My constant humbled voice and over usage of the word “sir” hopefully appeased someone’s broken sense of self-importance and saved me what would have probably been a long night.

My cell phone was taken. The messages were gone through.


Thanks to the internet, I happen to have a number of friends dotted across Canada - though none in the immediate vicinity of Michigan. They’re scattered from the Maritimes to Toronto to Vancouver and a few places in between. I keep in contact with them, I even write some of them letters and they write me back - pen pals for a digital age, if you will. I had apparently made a big mistake just a little while earlier, when entering Canada, as I texted one of them: For at least the next little while, I am in your country p This was to a friend who lived in Calgary, as I had to explain - as well as rattle off other places of friends I knew in Canada.


Before answering the question I already knew it was going to turn out badly, as I’ve said before: people who take pictures of things are gradually becoming demonized. If you’re not taking pictures of drunken friends in this country, then you may be a terrorist. I sucked it up and explained that I was on the waterfront for a couple of hours, taking some pictures of the Detroit skyline. I expected an inquisitive response, but I was shoveled a pile of insulting gold instead:


I was stupefied. After saying I had only been out of the country for two hours I was being asked if I only went over there to get a prostitute. I had no response and my mouth was probably left a little agape.


Frustrated that my story (or rather, the truth) was checking out, he ordered me inside the immigration/interrogation center while they searched the rest of my car. Good decision on my part to clean my car out before I left.

Sitting in the center’s lobby I looked around at the faces of others who looked like they had been waiting there for a while. There were a number of Arabs. Some of them had looks of fright on their face. Some of them had looks of brokenness on them, a look of “here we go again” if you will. An Arab woman and her daughter were standing by a bathroom door wondering if they could go in. As they reached for the door an officer shouted KNOCK ON THE DOOR. KNOCK. to which the woman did not understand. The officer instructed the man she was traveling with (I’m assuming husband) to tell her to knock, and he did. The room was clear so she could go in. The doors had that buzzer system that doors in police establishments have - buzzing loudly when they are opened. The woman jumped back, alarmed by the sound the door made. The officer joked: Hey don’t worry, it’s not electrified, or at least not that much! as he laughed. At that point I was standing at a counter and I, too, laughed, not because of the joke but more of a I’m-about-to-be-sick-god-help-me sort of laugh. I wasn’t quite sure of in what direction the bad taste joke was pointing toward - GitMo or maybe Abu Ghraib. Aww hell, it’s just electrocuting Arabs, any parallel will do.

Finding that I wasn’t a terrorist and noticing that maybe I really was just some kid who wanted to take some pictures on a sunny August evening, I was allowed to proceed into the country, with an interestingly-toned “I’m sorry about all this” from one of the officers at the facility. He was older than the ones who were shouting orders and questions at me. Everyone who shouted at me or talked down to me seemed to be in their upper 20’s or lower 30’s - people hired in the age since the Transportation Security Agency was absorbed by Homeland Security. The one who said sorry seemed like he was from before that time, back when people like me could take short trips like this and not be “randomly” put through things like this.

As I drove home I felt somehow violated. That’s my cell phone. That’s my camera. Who has the right to look at them ever, for any reason, aside from me? Well, the answer would of course be Homeland Security - operating in the lawless zone between Canada and the United States, where they could do what they want to whomever they wanted - or at least that’s the impression they were giving off. I felt even more sick as I thought: I’m from here. I’m native born. How the hell are actual foreigners treated when they come here? I felt embarrassed for how this country was being represented just by my entry back into it. I was treated almost like a criminal for an hour because I had chosen to leave this country for two hours to take some pictures of this country.

If I were a tourist, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to come here and go through that. God help me if I was even the slightest shade of brown or my last name was the slightest of non-Western European sounding. This country is being run like a minimum security prison - you’re free to do whatever you want as long as you stay within the borders. If you leave, there simply must be some sort of nefarious reason you did so, and be prepared to answer 20 questions and then some if you have the audacity to leave. Don’t answer the questions quick enough and loud enough, get ready for additional rounds.

I had planned on going to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls next month, since the route on the American side is two times as long. A bit shaken after this whole ordeal as I am, I wonder if it’s even worth it anymore.


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