Friday, April 30, 2010

Of buses and passports...

No cartoon today, sorry. Instead, I'm gonna talk a bit about what it feels like to come to a country where you're clearly not wanted.

This is a true story.

I emigrated to Canada in 1987 and obtained my citizenship - and, important to this story, my Canadian passport - in 1991. That November, I was invited to New York to meet some friends for American Thanksgiving, and, money being a bit tight, I opted to travel by Greyhound bus.

We got to the border in the middle of the night and were rudely and pointedly awakened by a border guard who came on, armed to the teeth, to tell us to get our documentation out and ready for inspection. I generally traveled with both my US and Canadian passport (because I was one of those who, during a brief legal window, could hold dual citizenship), but I couldnt find the former in my backpack. Still, I had my Canadian one, so I figured no big deal.


We're "escorted" inside. When it comes to my turn, I present my Quebec driver's licence and my Canadian passport. The questions begin. Where am I going? To New York for a week. Pleasure or business? Pleasure. How much money am I carrying? About eighty dollars.

The agent looks at me. "You're going to be in New York for a week, and all you have is eighty dollars?" I explained how I had been robbed my last trip and now carry as little cash as possible, that I prefered to use my ATM card. "May I see it, sir?" I hand it over to him, and he starts to turn it, over and over, as though it was about to talk to him. It didnt, so he looks at me again. "Do you have any credit cards on you?" "Sure," I say, handing over my Royal Bank Visa. "Your current account balance, sir?" I tell him I'm not sure, but it's below a hundred dollars. "I see. Did you bring your last statement with you?"

Again, to underscore: this is a true story.

When I allowed as I hadnt, he proceeds to rip me a new one, about how "irresponsible Canadians are coming down and stealing American jobs", about how I "should be grateful the US is going to let your kind in". Now, during this rather alarming rant, I kept sufficient cool to remember that I had packed my US passport first, putting it on the bottom of stuff in my backpack. When he pauses long enough to take a breath, I gently stopped him and said I had something that might square all this up. He leans over the counter as I dig around, then, with as dead serious a face as I could muster, I put the American passport on the countertop and say, "I'd like to speak to your supervisor, please."

After a great deal of hemming and hawing, he goes and gets his supervisor. The border agent starts to tell him what happened, but leaves out a great deal of slightly important detail, like the whole credit card statement request, so I interrupt, fill in the glaring holes, and then proceed to read both of them the riot act, even as they both begin with profuse, meaningless apologies. They returned my materials and then quietly pushed me out the door and back to the bus.

Back on, everyone was curious what had happened in there; the driver laughingly thought they were going to arrest me when I started yelling at the guards. After sharing my story with my fellow passengers, others contributed their own, and it didnt take long to realize that we had all been chosen for such special treatment because we were on a Greyhound. Only poor people ride the bus, you see, so bus riders are given the worst border crossings. My subsequent experience with train, plane, and car substantiates that. Travel by air or train, and the border agents are decent enough. Drive, and they generally just wave you through. Go by bus, and you are seen as quite possibly a terrorist, at best.

I bring all this up because, as one of my coworkers pointed out this morning, traveling across borders should not be this deranged. Were I a citizen of the EU, I could go virtually anywhere, no questions asked. But here, in the land of shining democracy, where everyone's equal and innocent until proven guilty, where we all have the right to liberty, justice and the pursuit of happiness... and where Arizona passes a draconian law and a Texas representatives tells an Asian-American to change his name "to make it easier for real Americans to understand", I shake my head in bewilderment at what this country has become.

And what does this have to do with LGBT issues? A lot. So to that end, let me make a few forecasts. I'm hoping I'm wrong, but I suspect I'm going to be right.

ENDA will not pass.

DADT will not be repealed.

DOMA will continue on.

Prop8 may get the bye at the appeals court level, but the Supreme Court will say it stands... even though it, like the rest of the things on this list, is flagrantly unconstitutional.

Why the dire predictions? Because the political climate in the US is so poisonous right now that no one will dare move on even the slightest progressive law. There is always another election to look at down the road, and no one will want to do anything that might disturb the feelings of all those "real" American voters. We laugh at the Tea Party people, but at the same time there's a reason why Fox News is number one in the ratings. It reflects the mood of a lot of people, the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more who dont wave the mis-spelled signs. These people are angry at Washington, and DC will in turn look for a scapegoat. And for now we're it.

Maybe someday that'll change. But I suspect it wont be any time soon, certainly not before people who ride bus are treated like visitors... and not criminals.

The cartoons continue tonight, tomorrow for sure. Thanks for reading this.


  1. That's a very revealing story. I have never had such difficulty crossing the Canada/US border. I know someone whose car was taken apart by Canadian border people looking for drugs I guess, but the question I ask is do they put the car back together and do they do it correctly? If it's not reassembled correctly, border agencies could be held responsible for the results of a post assembly accident or mechanical failure.

    I agree that Americans are angry right now. And no wonder, while poeple loze their jobs and thir homes, thier elected represetatives are going to lavish dinners and photo ops, and are spending far too much time finding new ways to tax people rather than help them save their homes. Congress is still diligently working on keeping thier 2008 ideological campaign promises when this is now 2010, a whole new economic situation. I'd be pissed too.

  2. I dont disagree that people are angry. I'm angry too. What astounds me is how easily we let ourselves be swept by a scapegoat mentality. We're hideously in debt? Wow, it's because gays wanna get married!


  3. I'm frightened by the polarization myself. Both liberals and conservatives are ramping up the frenzy for the sake of ratings, dollars and power. Moderation doesn't sell. Honestly, I wonder how many of those in the limelight actually believe what they're saying. Tragically, many undereducated people do believe it.

    I haven't given up hope yet. There are millions out there wondering if they're alone because they're not hearing a moderate voice. Where is the reasoned discourse? We must take back the attention of the nation with reason. Keep writing.

  4. Sadly this is an old pattern. When I was a young wart hog (long before I moved here 15 years ago) my family often visited relatives 'south of the border'. The carload passed through the border with relative ease.

    I once took a bus from Toronto to visit my Aunt in Richmond, and spend time at Colonial Williamsburg. I was the first off the bus at the border, and the last one set free to board.

    The only busloads welcome at the border are the ones filled with "little old ladies" heading to a casino or Discount Mall.

  5. When I was 19, I travelled from Hamilton, ON to Fort Dix, NJ to visit my brother and his wife over New Years. I was with my boyfriend and we travelled by bus. We were the only ones on the bus under 50. At the Peace Bridge crossing in Niagara Falls, my boyfriend and I were hauled off the bus and I was strip searched because I was "suspicious", to see if I was carrying any drugs. I was carrying a Canadian Passport even though I wasn't supposed to have to. The bus was held for over 3 hours. It was only a few years after the FLQ crisis and just at the end of the Vietnam era. It was almost 40 years ago and I still break into a cold sweat whenever I cross over the border into the US.