Reflections on border crossings

So I returned to the US from Canada via the Peace Bridge without any incident.

Thankful as I was that I was not treated the awful way that Sarah Abdurrahman and her traveling companions were, it struck me when I was crossing the border each way how brusque and surly the immigration officers are. There was no greeting when we drove up to the booth, no smile, no word of thanks when you hand them your passport, no “Welcome to the US/Canada”, nothing. This is even though I smile and am polite as is my custom when dealing with people. The questions they asked were curt and monosyllabic. When my wife answered the Canadian immigration guy from the passenger seat, he said in an aggressive tone of voice “I can’t hear you!” without even looking at her. Would it have killed him to say, as I do when someone speaks softly, “Could you please speak a little louder?”

The immigration officials are often the first people from the host country that one meets and they create an initial impression of that country that is hard to shake. I have visited Russia only once when it was part of the Soviet Union and I was transiting there on my way to the US. This was decades ago but the immigration people in the Moscow airport transit area were so rude that I have this unshakeable impression of Russians as basically rude people because those people were the first Russians I met. This image has lasted even though I have since met perfectly nice people from that country.

First impressions count, and the first people one meets as representatives of a country and business set the tone. This is why of course why companies like Walmart employ greeters, and cashiers and workers in businesses are trained to smile at people as they walk in the door and greet people and say “Have a nice day”. Even though they are required to do so as company policy and thus may not be spontaneous, they do create a welcoming atmosphere.

So why is it that the US and Canadian governments do not train their immigration officials to act in a way that gives a good image of their countries? Of course, not all the people are like that. On one occasion when we drove back to the US with Baxter, the US immigration guy had a brief friendly chat with us about dogs since he had one, and sent us off with a “Welcome back!” And on another occasion, the immigration guy at San Francisco, seeing from my passport that I was born in Sri Lanka, engaged me in a brief conversation about various kinds of tea. These pleasant encounters leave one with a good feeling.

But these were rare occurrences and that is why they form an indelible memory. Almost always the experience is like the one this weekend, consisting of discourtesy and even rudeness. Given that the immigration officials have such authority to make life difficult for travellers, it becomes even more important to train them to treat people well. It is clear that the US and Canadian governments are not making any effort to do this, which is why the officials can so easily slip into abusive behavior. But now it seems as if we should be grateful that they don’t abuse us, a truly low bar for behavior.

The fact that these officials have to be on the lookout for possible wrongdoers should not be a license for them to treat everyone rudely, just like the fact that police have to deal with the occasional criminal does not mean that they can treat all members of the public as if they are criminals.