On July 7, more than 2000 elderly cruise passengers (mostly British) underwent seven hours of customs examination on a hot Los Angeles pier while on a 10-week cruise on the P & O liner Arcadia. They said customs agents harassed them after some of their group made smart remarks about being in Guantanamo Bay. Whoever was at fault, the cruisers learned one lesson: don’t mess with border agents. You can’t win.
Crossing the border into the United States, which used to be a relatively simple process, is becoming more cumbersome for foreigners as border agents become more inquisitive of incoming visitors. It’s all a matter of imposing tighter security and trying to make this enormous border less porous and less inviting to undesirables. It’s a tough balancing act, and your feelings may be hurt if you’re singled out for special scrutiny, but get used to it.
More important, do your homework and be prepared. The easier you are to deal with, the more likely you will get through unscathed. Here’s what you need to do.
Have your passport ready and your immigration form signed and don’t volunteer a lot of information about how the picture really doesn’t look like you. Be courteous and pleasant, answer the agent’s questions concisely but don’t take up his or her time with irrelevant small talk. There is a line behind you.
Be prepared to show evidence that you have a permanent residence to which you will be returning and don’t be vague about your plan to return. Show the agent you have a plan and are not going to lounge around in the U.S. until you find work (which you’re not allowed to do), or until you run out of money.
It’s not a bad idea to stick a recent property tax or telephone bill in your pocket if asked to show other evidence of permanent residency.
If asked when you were in the U.S. last, and how long you stayed, be specific but don’t appear obsessive.
You are allowed to be in the U.S. as a visitor for up to six months a calendar year, and border agents think in those terms—they don’t think of 182 days as a magic number. I know of several Canadians who have forthrightly said they were in the U.S. 182 days last year and the agent thought they were being smartasses for tossing a number like that at him and he really gave them a going over. Don’t over-react to a question like that.
Don’t take offense at some of the questions you are asked. There’s a purpose to the question and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the way you look or the nervous smile on your face. This agent doesn’t know you from Adam. He or she is just doing a job and trying to make sure you are who you say you are.
Don’t make stupid jokes about carrying bombs or cocaine. That’s one sure way of having yourself strip search and poked and prodded in places you wish you didn’t have.
Before you go, remember the golden rule about being allowed to be in the U.S. for no longer than six months in a calendar year: that means from the 15th or 16th of one month, to the 15th and 16th of another. That’s the way border agents think; so should you. Remember that other nationalities are only allowed up to 90 days at a stretch.
And most important, remember that you are a guest in someone else’s house. You are there by privilege, not by right. If a border agent is not satisfied with your answers, or has even a suspicion you are not on the level, he or she can turn you around and send you home: no questions asked. And there’s nothing you can do about it. So be prepared but don’t be paranoid and don’t sweat all over your passport. And if you don’t have a passport, you deserve what you get.