General Assembly, Border Patrol, and Me

June 18, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Current Affairs, Life, Miscellaneous, Religion, Travel 

This week I’m attending the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Detroit.  At this meeting, many big and important things are being worked on and voted on and I’ll probably write about that later.  This is a story of something that happened to me during this week, unrelated to the GA meeting.

Because Detroit is only one river away from Windsor, Ontario, Canada, I brought my passport with me in case I had a chance to go to Canada for the first time.  Yesterday, I had that chance.  So two friends and I got into my car to go to Windsor for dinner.

Leaving the US through the Detroit-Windsor tunnel we were briefly stopped by CBP (Customs and Border Protection) folks, probably because there is a little unrepaired body damage to my car.  They looked at our passports and asked why we were crossing and let us go.  Note that these guys looked like they were in army uniforms, with flak vests.

On the Canadian side we drove up to the booth and spoke to a man in a regular linen uniform shirt.  We explained who we are and why we were there.  And 15 feet later we were there.  We had dinner at a Lebanese restaurant, walked around a bit, and headed back.  Total time in Canada – about 2 hours.

Entering the US we pulled up to a booth.  We handed our passports to the man in the booth, and answered the same questions (are you US citizens?  Where do you live?  Why are you in Detroit?  Why did you go to Canada?  How do you know each other?  What kind of conference?).  Our first sign of trouble was when he closed the booth door and picked up the phone.  After a conversation and a lot of looking at his computer screen, he opened the door.  He said something like, “I’m going to have to send you inside this time.  Mr. Smith – you have a mismatch and we’ll fix it so that you don’t have to do this again.  Please pull around the curve and into the parking lot – there will be someone there to direct you.”

This was not unexpected.  On several background checks (seminary, Red Cross) I was initially declined because there is a criminal in another state who shares my first name, middle initial, last name, AND exact date of birth including year.  I’m sure that was the problem here.

We pulled around the corner, and more guys in military-style uniforms and flak vests.  One told me where to park and asked me to turn the engine off and put the keys on the dashboard.  We were told to leave our cell phones in the car, and to take our passports and go into the building.  We entered and another officer looked at our paperwork and signed us in on a clipboard.  We were instructed to have a seat and wait.  After a while, we were called to a counter where we gave another officer our passports and answered all of the same questions again.  We were told to sit again.  During all of the sitting time (on surprisingly comfortable stainless steel benches) we chatted about the General Assembly and church stories.  Finally, the officer asked us to come up and take our passports and we were free to go.  I asked if he’d done what he needed to do, and he said, yes – that’s what I’ve been doing.

We got into my car, noted that nothing had happened to my car (no search or anything – phone was still on the same screen), and drove back to the hotel.

So …. something that only happens to me.  Most recent in a long series of such things.


But …. it triggered some thoughts.

1.  I don’t know why our border patrol officers have to be dressed like they are going to war in Iraq.  The bulletproof vest doesn’t need to be on the outside – it can be under the shirt like most police officers.  Their gun, cuffs, radio, etc can go on the same belt as a police officer.  I seriously doubt that a major armed incursion is going to happen at the Detroit-Windsor tunnel.  This seems to be intended to enforce (in our minds, and in the minds of the officers themselves) the idea that the officers are soldiers and not police.  This is intended to instill fear of outsiders, and fear of each other.

2.  The secondary inspection area is intended to demoralize people.  The seating is comfortable, but harsh stainless steel.  There is very little on the walls.  The bathroom is locked and must be buzzed open.  I understand that the bathroom is locked to prevent flushing of evidence, but still.  This doesn’t say “we have to sort things out,” it says instead, “you are a criminal.”

3.  I’m struck by the difference in appearance and demeanor between the Canadian personnel and the USA personnel.  The Canadians were friendly (though still wary) and welcoming.  The USA personnel were forbidding and suspicious.  They were doing the same job.  Both involved in the same wars.  And there’s no reason that our officers couldn’t be normally dressed and more friendly.

4.  This minor episode has clarified for me the plight of immigrants.  The song “Immigration Man” makes sense.  Our process is cold and unfeeling.  At all times the officers were polite and even friendly in one case.  But the process and design make it an unfriendly process.  This set up causes the fear, rather than the other way around.  And therefore fear of the other.  I will be paying more attention and trying to find a place to find action.