Sean Martin

Of buses and passports

Filed By Sean Martin | April 30, 2010 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, The Movement
Tags: border guards, Canadian Royal Mounties, Doc and Raider, illegal immigration, LGBT rights, progressive politics, Tea Party

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 out 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 didn't, 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 hadn't, 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 didn't 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. And 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 more who don't wave the misspelled 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 won't any time soon, certainly not before people who ride the bus are treated like visitors and not criminals.

The cartoons continue tomorrow for sure at the blogsite -- and back here on Monday. Thanks for reading this.

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Sean as gastly as this might sound Constitutional rights to search,seizure and detainment do not apply at or near the border.There is or was a show on British Television that showed basically the same scenario happening to a Canadian TS crossing into England.I believe I saw the show on you tube.Countries have a right to refuse entrance to anyone and I would recomend to anyone to check out some different countries travel and immigration laws then compare them to the US.
England, Mexico and Thailand are all interesting countries to check out.

What a horrible incident, Sean! But here's why I think you're wrong about one prediction, at least.

I think ENDA will make it through. Why ENDA? The Dems want to lock up their base before midterms, and that includes the gays. ENDA's the most do-able, opposed mainly by right-wing crazies, whereas DADT repeal and DOMA repeal are opposed by credible officials within the government.

While many activists will not be satisfied with ENDA, most LGBT people are not activists and have no idea what is going on in law. When the Admin and Congressional officials and the major advocacy orgs trumpet passage of ENDA like the Angel Gabriel, most LGBT people will shout hallelujah and head to the polls to vote for Dems.

I'm not advocating this result, mind you, just sayin.

I made sure to post this to Facebook. What a great personal essay, Sean. I'm really enjoying your text posts as much as your toons. You're a good writer. :)

Border crossings in this neck of the woods have become increasingly inconvenient as shown in this article:

Mind you, these are inspections upon LEAVING the country not entering. Boogles what mind I have left.

CaliberGuy | May 3, 2010 11:54 AM

WOW its funny to see some one else from this neck of the woods! I have not been cross the border in almost 2 years since I have not bothered to get a passport to do so. But I can say you know its getting bad when you live 35ish miles from the border and you see more border patrol agents vehicles driving around then police and and county sheriff's cars! they have way to many agents up here, its like a military zone.

I"m getting a 404 on the article, but I can guess what it's like. On one train trip back up north to Canada, we were stopped by US customs and inspected leaving the country -- they ran all our baggage through an x-ray machine and everything. I dont know if it was a one shot deal or not, because I've not seen it since, but it was pretty unnerving.

As a notation to this, I'd like to point out that at this point, Buses just passing through southern Texas are subject to random stops *inside* the US, where, for no particular reason, they will ask for your papers in the middle of the night.

Which is why I flew home from Florida instead of taking a bus in 2007.

When I drove through New Mexico I had to stop at a checkpoint and present ID.When you leave Arizona entering California you have to stop at a checkpoint and tell them where your going.Both cases I was in a passenger vehicle.One on I 10 the other on I 40.

We'll see about ENDA, but the overall statement that America's politicians are so far to the right that nothing leftist or even liberal will get passed is pretty true. ENDA's supported by a broad spectrum of the US, tho, so it has a better chance.

The sad thing is it could have gone much worse. It is actually a crime for a US citizen to try to enter the country on documents from another country.

I know this because I am trans, and my US passport is still my old gender, and I am terrified to go 'home' from Australia. I need to do this to get my US documentation, and my birth certificate, updated, which I have to go to court in the US to do.

So a catch 22. Can't fly on my US passport, but if I try to fly on my (correct) Australian passport, I face jail time.

We're trying to work around it by getting my aunt to help; we left her with power of attorney when we moved to Australia so someone would be legally able to take care of our US affairs if we needed. But it's unclear if she has enough 'authority' to do that.

Well, as noted, legally I can, since I hold citizenship in both countries (and pay income taxes to both, I might add). I dont know if the US still permits it, but I obtained my Canadian citizenship in 1989, when you could still take on a second without letting go of the first. I'm sure that now the law has changed, since, after all, we live in constant fear and suspicion of... well, just about everything.