Are US Border Agents Hassling You? Stay Cool

Harassing an elderly couple for not reporting that they had an apple in their lunch bag is hardly a justifiable use of time by US border agents screening Canadian snowbirds driving south for the winter. But if it happens to you, bite your tongue.

Whatever the rules about transporting fruits and vegetables into the US, threatening someone with permanent banishment from the country for “lying” about one forgotten apple is a ludicrous abuse of authority by someone who quite possibly just got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. Fortunately, this is a rare occurrence. Most US border guards are pleasant, civil, and welcoming.

But when you run across one who isn’t, you have to just suck it up. Argue, and your travel plans could be quickly unravelled—and you could be banned from entering the country for varying periods of time. Just remember that you do not have a “right” to enter a country that is not your own. To do so is a privilege. You are a guest.

Customs and border agents have a lot of discretionary power and must make quick judgments about who they let into the country. It’s routine for them to ask what you are carrying, how much money you have with you, where you are going, how long you intend to stay, whether you have a permanent home in Canada, and whether you are carrying a gun. What they are trying to do is determine if you are who you say you are, and to ensure that you will not be a charge on the state, that you’re not going to overstay your welcome and become an undocumented permanent alien—or worse, a terrorist.

If they sense you are not telling the truth, or if something doesn’t ring true about your answers to their questions, they may search your car. They have the right to do this. Or, they may just have decided to search every 50th car that day, and you got unlucky. And the issue may not be the apples you’re carrying, but whether you’re telling the truth about carrying them.

The point is this: When entering the US, or any other country, remember you are seeking permission to enter someone else’s house. You need to show courtesy even if the doorkeepers do not—which is very rare.

  • Answer the questions truthfully and in a clear voice
  • Don’t be evasive
  • Keep your answers short—“Yes” and “No” answers are best
  • Look the agent directly in the eyes
  • Don’t ramble on with stories about your grandkids
  • Make it easy for the agents to see what they want to see
  • Don’t get sarcastic or make jokes out of your answers
  • Don’t get personal
  • Be neither overly friendly nor hostile

And if they ask how long you intend to stay in the US, do not say 182 days (which is the limit you are normally allowed), if that’s what you intend. Some border agents have taken that as a smart-alecky answer. It sounds calculated. Just say up to six months, and leave it at that.

Fortunately, most of you will not encounter harassment and will find the border-crossing process routine. But if you are hassled and don’t think you deserved it, let us know and maybe we can shine some light on the issue and see how widespread it really is.

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