Thursday, November 19, 2009

Oops – big detour in the road of life

Monday morning we hung around Thousand Trails at Cultus Lake until what we considered late in the morning. One of the hazards of life on bus time is that we are often in situations where the locals are completely clueless about what time it really is. At Chilliwack for example, when it is really 10 AM the locals still think it is only 8 AM. So that meant that we couldn’t pick up our mail until after 10:00 and we wanted to get it one last time just in case BC Health had finally got around to reviewing our health insurance application. Turns out it didn’t really matter but at the time we didn’t know that.

What with picking up the mail and getting a few last minute groceries at Costco we didn’t get to the border until about 11 AM (which of course the local yahoos thought was 9:00 but that’s really not our problem). When we got to the border there was a moderately long line – maybe 15 cars in each of two lanes – so we had to sit a while before we finally got up to the window.

Everything seemed normal, the kid in the shack who looked to be about 13 asked where we were going, for how long, what fruits and vegetables did we have – the usual stuff. Then he wandered back to get the license plate off the truck and wrote it on a little orange slip of paper. “You’ll need to pull over there and park while we do an agricultural inspection”. No biggie – we’ve been through that before, including one memorable return from Mexico when a short armed border cop couldn’t reach one runaway potato in our fifth wheel corner kitchen.

We went inside the station and were briefly interrogated by an agricultural guy. Then another officer came over and started asking us about our travel plans and particularly when we planned to return to Canada. I said something about when it warms up and evidently that was the wrong answer. At one point he shouted “YOU HAVE TO NAME AN EXACT DATE!!!!” And it went downhill from there.

For the next 2 hours they bounced us from one officer to another and generally treated us like the TV cops treat skells. Nobody actually assaulted us but they might as well have. Clearly none of them believed that we didn’t plan to work in the US and a couple of them went so far as to suggest that we had no intention of ever returning to Canada. They kept insisting that we needed to provide proof of employment and that we needed to have a residence in Canada. Several times we heard that “you folks have everything you own with you” which of course was clearly bullshit as anybody who has seen our cubevan can attest to but they were more interested in talking than listening.

Eventually the bottom line turned out to be taking me into a small office where I was fingerprinted and had my mug shot taken. At that point they informed me that we were being sent back to Canada. I kept asking for access to a supervisor but that clearly wasn’t going to change anything and wasn’t going to happen until they had bounced our asses back to the north. Which is exactly what they did after they had fingerprinted Marilyn.

Before actually kicking us out of the country we did get a few minutes with McMillan – that’s what his uniform said his name was. It was like nailing jello to the wall trying to get him pinned down as to exactly why we were persona non grata. All he would give up was that we needed to provide more information about our ties to Canada, our employment and our travel plans. As far as what that looked like – no way was he going to tell us. I pointed out that we have most of our information in files on the bus and the balance available online. We suggested that perhaps we could put something together and come back in the afternoon and he allowed as how that might be a good idea.

So that is what we did. We dug through our files and found some banking information, our Holiday Trails campground contract and some invoices that we had issued to clients. We didn’t have access to the internet so there was a lot that we couldn’t provide but it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway. One of the fundamental principles of logic is that you can’t prove a negative and what they really wanted us to do was prove that we weren’t going to work in the US. At least that’s what I think they wanted us to prove. We were outright lied to so many times that I hesitate to say with any certainty what they wanted from us.

Late in the afternoon we took our envelope of stuff, walked back across the border and presented ourselves at the counter. One of the officers stuck his head in a small office and we heard him say “those people are back.” McMillan eventually appeared and took our package. After we had sat for an appropriately long period of time on their hard bench he came back to tell us that we needed to provide more information about our ties to Canada, our employment, etc. etc. At one point I said “I don’t think it is possible for us to provide what you want.” He was quick to claim that he disagreed but clearly he didn’t think we could either. For what it was worth he encouraged us not to give up hope and somehow we ended up agreeing to come back in two days. I think the logic was that he would be back on shift in two days.

By the time we got back to Chilliwack we were already regretting agreeing to come back. Implicit in our return was the idea that we were going to bring more complete information for him to review and we had already realized that nothing we could provide was likely to change his mind. Furthermore there wasn't a lot more we could provide other than what we could access online. However a deal is a deal – once we had agreed to meet him we didn’t feel that we could stand him up.

So yesterday we spent the day cooling our heels on the parking lot at Walmart in Chilliwack slowly coming to terms with not being able to travel in the US as long as we want to live this lifestyle that we have chosen. We couldn’t go back out to Cultus Lake because the terms of our membership require us to spend 14 days out of an individual park after we have checked out. It was a hard day but by bedtime we had more or less adjusted to the thought of spending the winter on Vancouver Island. It’s really not that great a hardship – lots of prairie dwellers would gladly change places with us – it just was a hard shift from the Arizona desert and Mexico.

Today we had to cool our heels until 3:00 (when the locals thought it was 1:00) before we could go back to the border. We each took a vehicle because it is easier to get around that way. Initially we had planned to leave the bus on the parking lot at Costco (about 2 miles north of the border) but we ended up parking it and the truck in whatever the little town on the Canadian side of Sumas is called. From there we walked back across the border with our big package of stuff from Monday plus whatever else we had been able to round up in the interim.

One of the recurring themes in our interrogation had been that we supposedly had all our worldly possessions with us. Leaving aside the fact that we still own some significant property in Saskatchewan it’s simply not true that we travel with everything else we own. To prove that, I went to the storage lot on Tuesday and took a picture of the van with the door open as well as one picture of the boat. We had those attached to the storage contract along with some additional banking information. We were a lot more relaxed than we had been on Monday – mainly we wanted to get the ordeal over with so we could catch the morning ferry to Victoria.

We got to sit on the hard benches again and we got the stern look from McMillan again and then he took our material away again. While he drank coffee and we waited for him to return we talked about how we can replan our lives to remove the necessity of travel through the US and it’s really not that hard if you are willing to be even a little creative. We’re probably not quite ready yet but the time is rapidly approaching to get ourselves FM3 status in Mexico. Neither one of us is enamored of Canada’s so-called healthcare system. What we have seen of the Mexican system has been positive and it is accessible for a reasonable cost. So it’s not a large leap for us to consider just chucking the Canadian residency and moving completely to Mexico.

If you have stuck it out this far then you can possibly imagine our surprise when McMillan returned to tell us we could continue our journey into the US. The subsequent border crossing an hour later was anti-climactic. We had to wait in line for a while and there was yet another black uniformed “CBS” officer to deal with at the window. He had the orange detention slip all filled out and was ready to send us back inside when McMillan dispatched two of his flunkies to straighten things out.

Computers will eventually be the death of us and I suspect that they were somewhat to blame for our troubles this week. We changed our vehicle registrations from SK to BC at the end of last week so they had to show in the database as new or perhaps they didn’t show at all. That may in fact have been the reason for the 2 day delay. It may simply have given them time to confirm that we were who we said we were. One thing I know for sure – we observed enough outright lies to convince me that the only way we could be sure they weren’t lying to us was if they weren’t actually talking to us.

The final holdup at the crossing shack was that the computer wouldn’t allow the guy at the crossing to do anything other than give us a detention slip and send us inside. McMillan must have decided that we had been through enough already. The last we saw of the border was three guys in the shack holding our orange detention slip and peering into a computer screen.

W e still don’t know whether we were detained by a computer, whether our lifestyle really is too bizarre to fit the system, whether the kid that initially detained us over-reacted and his supervisor had to back him up or whether our ordeal was caused by some perverse witch’s brew of all of the above. All I know for sure is that last night I was cool with spending the winter in BC and tonight we are parked in a casino parking lot in Washington.

And by about 2 hours into the ordeal on Monday I knew it was going to make a great story no matter how it all turned out.


Anonymous said...

I have not problem with National Security and the officers doing their job. I feel safer knowing they are doing a good job and you shoud too.

Jorgito's dad said...

That's a juvenile and ill thought attitude but it's an all too common one. When we willingly give up freedom it doesn't matter what the presumed benefit is. Maybe this will be simple enough for this anonymous coward to understand: Didn't your mother ever teach you that the ends don't justify the means?

All the great totalitarian regimes have used "national security" as an excuse for depriving citizens of their freedom. Once you start down that road it takes a long time and usually some violence before you can ever return.

Anonymous said...

Saw your link from sounds frustrating, not to mention infuriating.

No way you could try a different border crossing & hope for semi-reasonable people there?

Jorgito's dad said...

One of the possible explanations for why they gave us a 2 day "holiday" before they rendered a final answer was to see if we would try exactly that. They call that "crossing shopping" and it really pisses them off, which is why we didn't try it this time. I agree that it will be tempting another time but on the other hand we worked really hard to build a relationship with McMillan (and ate a lot of crow in the process). In a perverse way I think that at least in the short term we will likely do better at Sumas - at least until McMillan moves on to another posting.

Sandra said...

Thanks for leaving a message on my blog. I can't believe the arrogance of these immigration guys. Glad you guys got your problems sorted out and are able to continue your lifestyle. Unfortunately our problems are requiring legal help which is cutting severely into our retirement funds for something that wasn't our fault to begin with.

Have a great winter!

Anonymous said...

DAD, there is always two sides to every story, having heard one side gives a tainted perception for those that have no understanding of what national security is about.

I served my country and believe in security on the boarders. If you don't have the correct paper work to get in it's not the fault of the officers that are doing their job.

If you understood this you wouldn't be so quick to pass judgment on those that comment.

Throwing around statements like "totalitarian regimes" is not applicable here.

"Never Forget"

Remember 9/11

Jorgito's dad said...

I was tempted to just delete the previous post because it really doesn't offer anything new or thought provoking. But I let it through anyway because I am fundamentally opposed to censorship, even when the comments are really stupid.

I don't know where the "DAD" comes from - I'm most assuredly not his father.

This wasn't a matter of us not having "the correct paper work". We've crossed the border 100s of times with less paper than we presented this time and we were still turned back. We piled more paper on and were turned back again. "Anonymous" seems to have missed the point completely so I'm not going to waste my time or bandwidth trying to educate him now.

One thing my dad taught me was to never try to teach a pig to sing - it's damn hard work, the pig won't thank you and the results won't be pretty even if you do succeed.

dixonge said...

Stories like this make me annoyed, scared and pissed off.

From what I can gather the one thing that border guards and customs agents are really good at is matching visas and passports to their observations. If you had a U.S. work visa they would probably have waved you through. Since you didn't (I'm guessing) they immediately switch into "there must be something going on here" mode. I'm guessing they couldn't imagine someone just vacationing in such an old bus.

If countries would put this much effort into tracking actual criminals the crime rate would be .02%, 9/11 would never have happened and bin Laden would be dead.