It’s a September morning and I’m out for a walk in North Vancouver. The mountains rise up behind me, dark green against a gray sky, draped here and there in fog. The leaves on a few trees have started to turn, little pops of yellow or red against the mostly evergreen backdrop. Cyclists, tiny in the distance, make their way up a steep road to my left.
I turn right and head down the mountain, chill air on my face, heading to a mini town center area, a place with four coffee shops and two butchers, a small grocery store, a dry cleaner, an organic juicery. The light poles are red and the storefronts are cute and uniform. People weave in and out of the little bakery coffee shop with lemon bars and caramel bars and coffees in hand.
There’s something really lovely about North Vancouver, something lovely about so many places we’ve been in Canada. The green-and-gray-and-brown forest of the Canadian Shield and the charm of the tiny towns there. The old-world feeling of Quebec City, with its brownstones and old city walls and hotel castles. The birch syrup ice creams of Winnipeg. The Whistler train wreck. Quite possibly the best bakery in North America (in Whistler). The vastness of the wilderness around Kananaskis.
There is much to be loved about Canada.
And yet, my feelings are mixed.
Because after only a few weeks in Vancouver, when I returned to the states for the day to sell the car (we’ll be flying out of Canada and no longer need a car and cars purchased in the US also need to be sold in the US), I was stopped on the way in by immigration.
While not as bad as my horrible experience with British immigration a few years ago, my time with the immigration officials was bad.
I was told that I was suspicious, again simply because I travel a lot. Was I moving here? (No.) Was I going to take a Canadian job? (No.) When was I leaving? (December 4th.) Why did I sell my car? (Because I’m flying out and only purchased the car for the road trip in the first place.)
I answered every question politely. I told the officer I had no intention of overstaying any visa ever and that I never had. I showed her one of my books and explained that I don’t need or want to take a Canadian job. I pulled up a copy of my plane ticket to Georgia.
Still, she was suspicious. Cold. Cruel, even. Treating me as though I was already a criminal in her mind. Guilty until proven innocent.
I hadn’t done anything. I wasn’t planning on doing anything. And there was no proof that I was. I just fit someone’s ridiculous “profile” of a risk, and suddenly I was supposed to prove I wasn’t up to something. Never mind that it’s impossible to prove a negative.
While not as bad as being bullied, laughed at, and physically coerced by the Brits, my Canadian immigration delay was anxiety-provoking in the extreme. When the officer first said “Gigi, come with me,” I politely asked her own name. Gruffly, she answered “It’s OFFICER So-and-So.” A subtle psychological power play that was hard to ignore and even harder not to resent, since I hadn’t done anything wrong.
When I sat down in the waiting area with my partner’s phone (which he’d loaned me for the day since I was traveling and might need to get in touch) to Facebook message him about the delay, they ordered me to turn over the phone,which they then proceeded to go through, reading Chad’s personal text messages to his family.
I felt sick. I would never go through Chad’s phone and handing it over to someone else to comb through felt like just as great a violation as going through it myself. What if he had messages about deeply personal things, medical records, family conversations that he had every right to want to keep private?
I might have understood if there was actually some reason to search a phone. If someone showed up to the border drunk or high or carrying something illegal, or if they’d previously done something suspicious or overstayed a visa. But I hadn’t done anything. And it wasn’t even my phone.
I asked a friend who used to work in Canadian immigration about it and was told that immigration doesn’t go through your private messages. They just check your list of contacts for anyone who’s on their list. And that may be the official line, but it’s not the whole truth. When I opened the phone later to message Chad, it was open to a string of text messages with his brother, and not the most recent in the bunch, either. A fact that suggests that not only did they read his personal messages, but that they combed through a good number of them.
I lost track of time. Was there I there an hour? Two? I spent my time trying to stay calm, trying to keep my anxiety in check. Because I can’t imagine that having an anxiety attack would make me seem less suspicious. Clearly immigration officers aren’t hired for their empathy or understanding.
They questioned me about the phone and I felt even more helpless. I don’t know what’s in the phone, I kept telling them. It’s not mine.
Finally, finally, they returned the phone and my passport and told me I was free to go.
While I had originally planned on calling a cab on this side of the border (I’d been told by the cab companies that I’d need to catch a ride to one side, cross on foot, then call another cab; they wouldn’t bring me across the border fully via cab), I was too anxious and upset. Instead I took my things, thanked the immigration officers, walked out the door, and kept walking. And walking. And walking.
I walked for an hour, through intense developing blisters on the backs of my feet, into the nearest town center where I caught the bus back to Vancouver. I didn’t even stop to put the phone in my bag until I was halfway there. I was too upset, too unreasonably afraid that they’d change their minds and come back to cart me back across the border where I’d have to figure out how to get back to Luna and my daily medications and all the other things I still had in Vancouver.
I arrived home a mess of anxiety and barely slept that night.
I spent the next week or two feeling anxious and unsettled, unwelcome, like Big Brother was watching my every move looking for something to pick on, to misinterpret.
And then Chad went to Seattle for the day to visit his brother and pick up some of his camping gear. I was worried the whole time, panicked that they’d mistreat him and find some reason to keep him out of Canada.
My terrible UK border control experience a few years ago cost me a substantial amount of money. Thousands to change a plane ticket. Hundreds more in ferries and trains and the like. And so my mind reeled as it came time for Chad to cross the border again. What would we do if he was trapped in Washington? We’d already booked and paid for our Vancouver place for months. Never mind how difficult it would be for me to pack up both our things and trek them back across the border without a car.
I was sick with worry all day, and with good reason. Despite having cleared me at my border crossing, they stopped Chad for hours as well, questioning, questioning, looking for gaps in the story that weren’t there.
Finally, again unable to find any actual reason to keep him out, they let him through. He arrived late at night, exhausted and upset. I don’t think either of us slept well and we both spent another week or two feeling unsettled, unwelcome, falsely accused.
Even today, over a month later, I feel an anxious tightness in my chest when recounting the story. And now I also feel angry. Because once you get beyond the anxiety and fear of it all, that horrible feeling of being totally powerless, of someone else, who doesn’t give two shits about you and, in fact, enjoys scaring the shit out of you, having full control of your situation’s outcome…once you get beyond all that, all you can feel is a righteous sort of anger. Anger that you were targeted without reason. Anger that you were treated as less than human, guilty until proven innocent, some sort of criminal–without cause. Angry, too, that your friends’ hard-earned tax dollars and your own hard-earned tax dollars (because the US is by far the worst offender in immigration mistreatment) are going toward this nonsense and none of it is making us any safer. Three officers spent an hour or two with me; two officers spent two hours with Chad. How much of your hard-earned money does that account for?
And so as I walk through the misty roads of my mountain neighborhood, drink raw organic ginger lemonade, sit in coffee shops mulling over my novel, and head into downtown for sushi or farm-to-table food or dim-sum, I’m left feeling unbalanced. Wanting to love it here, but also always feeling the clear message immigration left me with: you are not welcome here. No matter how many excellent scones you have or how much you like Granville Island or how pretty your neighborhood is, it’s hard to shake that message, that feeling, that aggression. It’s hard to love the place with abandon.
* * * * *
So, here’s an unpopular question: Why do borders have meaning at all?
Why is it that by being born somewhere–a thing we have absolutely no control over whatsoever–we somehow “own” that slice of earth? Earth that has been here long before us and will likely be here long after. Earth that goes on doing its own thing, bringing us good years and bad, droughts and floods, earthquakes, sinkholes, whether we want it to or not.
Isn’t it an incredible act of pride to claim we own this space at all? To keep people out, especially those in need, to claim that our accidental birth on this space (or, worse, our ancestors’ conquering of it) means we own it and we don’t have to share (even our toddlers know: you have to share) and, in fact, we can treat you however we want if you want to come visit.
Possibly worse, or at least more terrifying, is another question: why is it that by being born somewhere–again, a thing outside our control–we are part of the place, part of the thing to be owned?
If you’re an American, you’re actually a financial prisoner. Did you know? If you want to leave for good, to renounce citizenship and move to Iceland or Germany or Japan or wherever, your parting gift by the less-than-benevolent government will be a significant tax on all your money and everything you own. Even though it’s already been taxed. Even if you’ve been living abroad your whole life. Even if you made all that money overseas. In the mind of the US government, being born on the square of dirt they’ve laid claim to means you owe them your money for the rest of your life no matter what, and if you want to opt out, fine, they’ll take the money now.
Don’t misunderstand me. I have no problem with the idea of taxes. If I’m using the roads and parks and education system and whatever else that the government is keeping up, then I should help pay for it. If I choose to be part of a society, I am also choosing to abide by its rules, including taxes. That’s the whole idea behind having communities. By pooling our resources, we can have functioning societies.
But for someone who doesn’t benefit from any of that, someone who lives overseas, works overseas, raises and educates their kids overseas, to be forced to pay and considered a criminal if he or she doesn’t pay for the services he or she doesn’t use or have any part of, particularly when he or she is paying into another society that he or she has chosen to live in? That’s some intense kind of hostage situation the government is holding people in.
And so I’ve found that I have a problem with the whole idea of borders. The idea of keeping people out and keeping people in.
If I could change one thing about the world, that might just be it.
* * * * *
I must confess that I’m terrified at the way the world is shifting, at all the fear that’s driving policies about borders. About how many are in favor of giving more money to the ineffective, incompetent, and ethically questionable border control systems of western nations.
They cite terrorist threats as a reason to shut people out (and, almost worse, in), even though terrorist threats are negligible compared to the other threats we face daily. You’re more likely to be shot by a toddler than killed by a terrorist. White supremacists kill (way) more people in the US than Muslims. Mass shooters are mostly young white dudes. And refugees are highly unlikely to be terrorists. Our governments are just using fear and feeding into fear to get their way. The things we fear most are the ones least likely to happen. And yet we see officials standing up on TV and telling us that yes, we’re right, we should put our finite resources into closing up the borders and ejecting anyone who looks scary to us. Never mind if they’ve actually done anything (see border story above). Never mind if they’re actually a threat. Never mind if our tactics actually make the world hate us more, not less. We’re working on fear, not logic, and certainly not love.
I had someone ask me, smugly, if I’d welcome a bunch of Muslim refugees into my own house. I almost wanted to laugh at how sure he was that I’d say no–at how sure he was that everyone was afraid of refugees. Because of course I’d take people in if I had a house to hold them. Because the truth is that it is pure chance that I’m not one of them, that I wasn’t born in Syria, that my county wasn’t the one collapsing into war at this moment in time (though, give it a few minutes).
And, again, that whole idea of “my country”…it’s a human construction, not a reality. You can dig as much as you want, but you won’t find any borders, any lines of demarkation, any us-and-them in the earth itself.
It doesn’t divide itself. We do.
I’m so sorry you had such a terrible experience. I too dread the border between the US and Canada. When I lived in the US I often would get questioned when I would visit my family in Canada. Sadly my worst border experiences have all but one involved female immigration officials (no sisterhood there I’m afraid!) The last time I flew into the states I was taken and questioned about all my travels in the last 5 years- much of which was while I lived in the Middle East. It was so stressful thinking that they have the power to deny me entry into the US and it is one of the most humiliating experiences of my travel life-being escorted thru the immigration area. Even thinking about it now 6 months later I get upset. And the only thing one can do is stay calm- because they’re just looking for you to get upset to give them a reason to make things more difficult. So different from my last couple months in Europe where I’ve never been asked a single question by immigration officials!!! I’m already nervous to fly into Seattle next month ?
I know exactly what you mean. It’s so strange how different it is to cross into Italy or Croatia than to Canada or the US or the UK. Good luck with your upcoming border crossing!
So sorry you had such a nasty experience at the Canadian border. If you haven’t already, write a letter or make a call to file your complaint and explain what you do.
Even if the person at fault is not disciplined, the more authorities are aware of the increase in people traveling full-time and working remotely, the better. It’s only going to keep increasing, and they need to catch up.
I will say don’t judge the whole country or its people based on the immigration officials. I’ve been to Canada 10-ish times via flights, cars, and ferries (and I actually have quite a few friends here who are Canadian). I think the Canadian people, as in most places, are primarily kind, caring, welcoming people who understand the value of travel and tourism and want people (including digital nomads!) to visit their country. And you’re right that it is a sweet place that is worth the visit. :)
Excellent advice. I may well write to the officials.
Great post with some thought provoking questions about borders and “owning” land. I completely agree with you and of course, kept hearing John Lennon’s “Imagine” playing in my head.
Like you, I don’t have my own home, but I would totally take in some Syrian refugees. I feel like we humans have somehow lost our humanity.
But, the best thing we can do is to be kind, generous, warm, friendly and open-minded. We have to always believe that love wins over hate…
I did a huge amount of travel when in my late 20’s and early 30’s … a long time ago.. there still was a Berlin wall…..and Reagan was an international embarrassment, the world could not believe we would elect someone like this…..and the only trouble I had crossing borders literally having travelled around the world was I was leaving Berlin.. and it was not abusive, just a bit more thorough because I was American.
My generation felt it was a right of passage of growth to travel, donned with backpacks we trekked literally all over.
So to hear this in contrast shows the fallout of the time, as the pendulum swings a bit further into the reactive way of the terrorist reality… so sorry to hear this. You are a true pioneer now, and perhaps you might consider submitting your story to the Huff post as this is definitely a part of the larger conversation people should hear now.
Thanks, perhaps I will.
YES!!! I hate that you and Chad both went through such stressful border crossings. I’m looking forward to having you on this side of the pond, even if I still don’t get to see you for months. I think the “why do we have borders” thing is a really interesting topic to ponder, and like you said, we have no control over where we were born. It drives me nuts that there are so many people afraid of Muslims and terrorist attacks in the US when white dudes do so much more damage and the chances of a terrorist attack are tiny. And I’m with you…I’m really terrified about the way things are headed.
Yes! Looking forward to getting back to Europe!
Oh gigi this was horrific to read, I totally get you on all points and I went back to read your post about the British immigration experience. You know, that happened to me too. I was detained the same way because of “traveling too much” and actually was sent back to my previous port of entry into the EU. It was a horrible, demeaning experience and I felt that the UK taxpayers were the ones who lost out the most since they were paying for it. And the thing about being flagged is true, every single time I go, I have to explain that everything is fine, I am legal in Italy, all my income etc. It’s a pain but I’m not surprised. The funny thing is, my dad works in immigration services in the USA and has always taken the time to be kind and patient with those coming from other countries, and certainly would never look at anyone’s personal messages. He’s explained to me the pressure from above about trying to make split second decisions on “who’s lying, and who’s not.” I will say that living abroad has a way to make you see things a heck of a lot differently. I too would have said yes to welcoming Muslim refugees, and I’m shocked and saddened that an entire group has been ostracized because of some crazed individuals. Anyway… hope to catch up with you in person soon and stay strong!
Yes! I remember you telling me about your UK ordeal. Yikes. The more I’ve shared my stories, the more I hear other people’s. It’s crazy how many of us have had these problems.
As a Canadian, I am embarrassed by our lack of hospitality towards you. Any idiot could have googled your name and discovered exactly what it is you do and why you travel so much. One of the problems with the idea of “authorities” mandated to screen people is that they’ve forgotten how to treat ALL people like human beings. Travellers are also becoming far too accepting of a certain level of interrogation and bullying as a price to be paid for the freedom to travel. You’re being victimized, and you mustn’t let anyone make you a victim. Bon courage, my friend. There are Canadians who love you.
I very recently had a friend breakdown in Whitehorse, Canada he was towing up two work trucks from Arizona. I was the only one with a truck big enough to pull the trailers(We live in Alaska), so I began to rifle through my things to find my passport. To my dismay it was expired..But I looked around on some forums to get some insight and see if I could still cross the border with an expired passport, there was a lot of conflicting information, but the general consensus was that if you can get into Canada then getting back into America would be a breeze as long as you could prove citizenship. So I grabbed a backpack, threw my birth certificate, expired passport and as much other documentation as I could think of into it and got on the road..The forums proved to be right, explaining to the Canadian customs agent the situation and a quick review of my passport was all that it took. Made it to Whitehorse, and turned around. NOW, getting back through the border into Alaska was A NIGHTMARE, 7 hours we were in the American Customs office, they searched all 3 vehicles very thoroughly, interviewed both of us(interrogated may be a better term), but ultimately let us through.
I definitely learned my lesson and payed a hefty chunk of change to expedite getting a new passport.
I agree with you though, borders tend to be bullshit..especially between two countries that are allies such as Canada and the US.
It can be horrible. My sister flew all over the world no issue then got to the US and said they were so awful she burst into tears.
The only time I had any problem was in Japan. I’d left for 10 days then came back and got a very thorough bag check. They were quite nice about it but it’s scary as hell.
Maybe I’m particularly risk adverse but I’ve never understood people who set up a permanent home somewhere like Thailand when you are reliant on visa runs. It’ only takes on overly pedantic custom officer to screw you over big time.