Recent media reports focusing on incidents in which US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents have turned back seemingly innocent Canadians—some legal permanent residents, others fully documented citizens—tend to stroke a growing unease about heading south for leisure and business travel.
These reports include Canadian school groups forfeiting field trips in the US for fear they might run into visa problems. And there was also a recent report in the US trade journal Travelmarket Report citing the case of a Montreal woman born in Canada who was stopped by CBP officials at a border-crossing point in Vermont and told she would need a visa to enter the US—even though she was a Canadian citizen.
Now if this sounds unfair, dictatorial or authoritarian, please remember that this is not new, it has been standard procedure at international borders forever.
Entry is a privilege, not a right
You can be armed to the teeth with documents establishing your citizenship. You can have proof you have lived at your present address for years, that you have never been in jail, that you are employed and have a bank account, but you have no inalienable right to enter another country without that country’s permission. It is a privilege, not a right.
That’s why border agents engage you, perhaps look into your eyes, look at what you’re carrying, how you’re speaking; are you nervous, trembling, averting your eyes? Are you over-anxious to get on your way? Are you carrying a little too much luggage for an overnight trip? Are you vague in your answers about where you’re going and for how long? Agents are trained to spot such anomalies and they need to assure themselves that you are portraying your travel plans accurately and not intending to go underground and stay on as an undocumented immigrant, or that you’re not planning a secret marriage to an American citizen, or carrying illicit substances back and forth.
Here are some border crossing tips
Relax. The agent is a human just like you, anxious to finish up his or her shift and get back home to their spouse, kids and dog. Don’t make life difficult by answering questions you haven’t been asked.
Look at the officer when answering. Don’t avert your eyes. Don’t be evasive.
Be pleasant, answer the questions politely but briefly and stay to the point. Leave the jokes and stories about how long it took to drive to the airport behind. And if some of the questions set you on edge, continue to be polite. Answer honestly. Do not be confrontational.
Be specific about your itinerary: where you are going, with whom you will be staying, when you will be returning. Have travel documents handy, don’t unload a backpack on the agent’s desk looking for your passport.
Before you approach the border, be sure you know the rules about what you are allowed to bring into the country—liquor, fruit or vegetables, tools, electronics. Declare them when asked.
Keep your baggage to the minimum. If you have several suitcases for a weekend trip, the border officer might suspect that you’re planning to stay a lot longer than you’re admitting, or perhaps even planning to go underground.
Border control officials have a tough job. They must use their well-honed instincts and make instant decisions. Sometimes they may not get it right. But they don’t need to explain their decisions to you, and you’re not going to make it right by arguing with them.
Be prepared, but always be civil. In the vast majority of instances you won’t have a problem. But always remember, your entry to another country is a privilege not a right, regardless what papers and documents you carry.
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