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.


  1. unbound says

    It wasn’t always this way, especially going into Canada. Raised in North Dakota, we would travel up to Canada once or twice a year (best way to get the creamed honey my grandfather loved), and the Canadian border agent was always very friendly. The American border agent coming back was rarely friendly (even back then), but they weren’t the outright jerks that they are today.

    I don’t know what happened to the Canadian border agents, but it does correspond with the requirement of passports. My last drive across the border pre-passport days was at Detroit (2002 or 2003), and the Canadian border agent was still very friendly. However, the return back to the US was borderline harassment even then. I’m in a mini-van with my wife, 3 kids, and my parents, and the questions from the agent were rude and outright stupid considering what could obviously be seen (and I’m white, so I can’t imagine what you would have to had dealt with Mano).

    Is this really the America we want?

  2. says

    That’s really interesting, and may point to an unexpected application of white privilege. When my partner or I cross the border (both white), crossing into Canada is usually a complete doddle, they ask where we’re going, where we’re from, how long, and away we go. They’re always polite and friendly. Always. I’ve not once had the Canadian side be a problem, for me or for my USan partner.

    The US side, well, yeah, they’ve gotten much more surly to everyone. But yours is a very different experience than we get going into Canada, and it’s hard not to think that it’s for the obvious reason (i.e., racism). And I estimate we’re dealing with a sample size of a hundred crossings or more for her into Canada via at least four different gates, and maybe twenty-five for me, so it’s not like we just struck lucky.

    Sorry our folk treated you poorly. Very unCanadian of them.

  3. colnago80 says

    I had the same experience visiting Toronto while a grad student at the Un. of Rochester. The Canadian border guards were unfailingly polite while the US border guards not so much. This was back in the days when only a driver’s license was required.

  4. says

    I was crossing the border each way how brusque and surly the immigration officers are

    Authoritarian followers; it’s how they are when they get a tiny feeling of power.

  5. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    I’m happy that you’re home safely.

    Back in 1995 I flew to Toronto on business. This trip was the first time I had flown to Canada (having crossed the Peace Bridge and numerous other points via car, including one beer-fueled transport of alcohol at 3 a.m. while in college, with no problems). I didn’t think to take a passport because I’d never needed one before.

    Entering Canada I was pulled aside and questioned by a very nice lady who explained that a driver’s license just wasn’t sufficient but she let me in with a warning to never offend again.

    On my return to Cleveland, U.S. customs didn’t even ask for an ID, just waved me and my carry-on luggage through.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,


  6. twosheds1 says

    People in authority always seem to be like that, yet they seem to be totally unaware that being nicer, even superficially, would garner more cooperation from the people they encounter. It would make their jobs easier.

  7. bmiller says

    Years ago, I think I was still a poor student even, I had loaded my bicycle up for a road trip across the border into Ontario. The Canadian border patrol turned me back because they thought I did not have enough money. Weirdest thing I have ever seen!

  8. elpayaso says

    or little men with anxiety about the size of their sticks? not that the female ones are any better.

    i deal with CBP officers and agents (AKA border guards) in my work a lot. these guys are actually heavily trained to fear The Other outside the city gates….they are completely mystified that i would want to go to Mexico for fun, since they’re constantly told it means certain decapitation in the first few feet of travel. got the “thrill” of meeting several of em socially when our receptionist was dating one, and several of em made clear thay still think MJ makes men grow boobs and everyone go insane….some of it was propably preexisting attitudes, but much of what i heard was obviously due to work conditioning.

  9. elpayaso says

    we once had the cranky fuel pump on my ancient BMW quit on theinternational bridge. had the interesting experience of PUSHING it through the primary inspection area. then after we pushed it into secondary, we had to pull everything out of the trunk(full to the gills since i’d been moving) and diddle the fuel pump to get it going. to say the customs people were mystified would be an understatement.

    to add to my previous comment, i get sent to secondary every so often, and once they realize that i was indeed just fishing, a few of em soften up and want to talk fishing. i’ve actually seen one or two look positively wistful about wishing they could go down to fish there (i suspect they’d get written up or at least heavily surveilled by their employer if they tried). there are a few humans among the robots.

  10. sarah00 says

    The last time I flew to the States was about 3 years ago. I took an afternoon flight from Heathrow to LAX and instead of sleeping spent the entire flight watching films (they had such a good selection!). Obviously, by the time I landed I was pretty tired. I got to immigration, showed my passport and was asked the usual questions. He kept trying to pick holes in my ‘story’ and eventually said ‘you don’t seem very excited to be here’.

    What?! I explained I’d just been on a long flight and was tired (which should have been obvious given that I was at immigration in the international terminal of LAX) but apparently my ‘lack of excitement’ at entering the wonderful country that is the US of A was an sign that I wasn’t above board. Because of course any legitimate visitor would be bursting with joy after spending 11 1/2 hours in a seat in economy. I was eventually allowed through but there was a point where I found myself getting very careful in my answers in case I found myself being put on the next flight home.

    I hate US immigration with a passion due to their rudeness and suspicion of anyone foreign (you work at a border, expect to deal with foreign people!!). If it wasn’t for my friends who live in the States I doubt I would have visited more than once. First impressions really do matter and the disdain and distrust exhibited by US immigration staff are enough to put off all but the most determined visitors.

  11. Trickster Goddess says

    One of my American cousins recently came to Canada for a visit. On the way back, the US border guard asked the purpose of her trip and she replied that she had been visiting relatives. In response, the guard angrily demanded to know why she had Canadian relatives.

  12. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    They are trained that way. They are supposed to give an impression of law and order, and newcomers better be humble and scared, or else.

    In the Good Ol’ Soviet Union the border guards were recruited from a remote part of the country. They didn’t speak the language of the country across the border, and even the local people they had to live with shunned them. That’s the way to manage a border guard.

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