PEMBINA, N.D. – As an American re-entering the United States after a quick day-trip Saturday to Winnipeg, I figured I’d be greeted with a smile, welcomed home and sent on my way after the obligatory stop at the border.
What I expected to be a simple exercise in acquiescing to U.S. homeland security procedures turned into a half-hour delay that left me feeling slightly frustrated by the officers of one of the most-visible agencies charged with protecting our country.
Talking with friends and co-workers in the past couple days, I’ve found I’m definitely not the first to undergo such an experience. At various points of entry by car or at various airports after international flights, the anecdotal evidence seems to show U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents don’t have the best reputation.
In a post-9/11 world, I completely understand Border Patrol agents have an important job to do, but what I was left wondering as I drove away from Pembina: Why do they do what they do, and must they be so stoic and unfriendly in the course of their duties?
I’ve had my fair share of border-crossings in recent years, including two trips to Europe and a few to Canada. In each experience, the border patrol agents at my foreign destination have tended to be polite, friendly and welcoming – even while asking the standard security questions: “What is your purpose of travel?” “How long will you stay?” “Where are you coming from?” “Where do you live?” “What do you do for a living?” “What are you bringing into the country?”
But upon my returns back to America, I’ve continually been greeted with a stern-faced agent who acts more as an interrogator than a friendly face welcoming me home, despite checking for security threats. Unfortunately, I’ve heard from many others that they’ve dealt with the same abrupt rudeness when they’ve returned to the States as well.
For me, that harsh welcome was never more evident than Saturday afternoon as I passed through the Pembina Port of Entry.
My boyfriend and I wanted to go on a day trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba, to get our fix on Tim Hortons and Pizza Pizza. Yeah, I know – That’s random and laughable. It’s a Canadian thing, but trust me, the donuts and pizza are more than worth the 3½ -hour drive north.
We arrived at the Emerson (Manitoba) Port of Entry at around 1 p.m. and waited in traffic for about 15 minutes before our turn at the inspection point to enter Canada. I handed our passports over to the Canadian Border Services agent, who checked us through politely but directly.
I told him we were going to Winnipeg on a day-trip just for some “shopping.” When he asked me what we were shopping for, I blushed and turned to my boyfriend, who jokingly expressed his disdain for the high prices and poor quality of pizza and donuts in Fargo and how we were only going to pick up Tim Hortons and Pizza Pizza.
The agent laughed and chatted with us briefly before welcoming us to Canada and bidding us a good day. We were at the window maybe 5 minutes at most.
Fast-forward about 2½ hours later, my boyfriend and I had checked off everything on our Winnipeg shopping list and were en route back south into the United States via Pembina.
We pulled up to the inspection point, expecting the same routine as we’d gone through a short while before. I handed over the passports and waited for the Border Patrol agent’s questions. She asked much the same as the Canadian agent had earlier but pried a bit further – and in a wholly unfriendly manner.
Perhaps her stoicism was merely overly-forced professionalism, but it came off to us as unnecessarily stern and abrupt. Nonetheless, we answered her questions honestly and directly in the hopes of passing through quickly.
When she asked the purpose of our trip, my boyfriend again jokingly explained our affair with Canada’s exclusive food offerings. She didn’t seem to find it at all humorous, nor even crack a smile. She only looked annoyed and rudely asked my boyfriend, “Are you an American?” even though she had his passport in her hand.
After a minute or so, she told us to pull around to the first garage bay, where we’d get our passports back. Obediently, we drove over and waited as a different Border Patrol agent guided us inside the building.
This agent told us to turn off the vehicle and put the keys and our cell phones on the dashboard. His demeanor was intimidating and slightly alarming – even though neither me nor my boyfriend had any reason to feel nervous.
We got out of the car and walked over to a nearby metal table, where a third agent searched through my purse and my boyfriend’s wallet. He asked us the same questions the window agent had, plus additional questions that seemed to be aimed at whether we were up to any criminal activity. (We weren’t). We answered, feeling slightly unnerved as about five other agents hovered behind us near the back of the garage bay.
The agents then directed us to a small waiting room just off the garage, while they went through the car. As we sat there, I couldn’t help but be reminded of an interrogation room. The glass on the wall was a one-way window, so we could only see a reflection of ourselves instead of the garage on the other side.
The stone walls were lined with notices and legal advisories of how anyone entering the U.S. is required to submit to a search. “How apropos,” I remember thinking.
After about 10 minutes, the first agent came back and told us we could go. No explanation of why we’d been flagged for further search; no thanking us for our time; no welcoming us back to America – not even a simple “have a good day.” It only made my boyfriend and I all the more eager to get home.
We understand the need for national security, but yet we asked ourselves: Why does it have to be done in such a rude, interrogatory manner? Is that the price of national security for all?
Learning in the past few days that I’m not the only one who’s been subject to such experiences, I’d bet many more of you would ask that same questions, too.
The main purpose of U.S. Customs and Border Protection is to secure America’s borders and prevent entry of illegal immigrants, criminals and suspected terrorists. Meanwhile, CBP is also tasked with “making sure people get down the road swiftly and efficiently,” in the interest of free-flowing commerce.
“To be able to have goods and people move across the border is a real important part of what we do,” regional CBP spokesman Mike Milne told me.
Like most modern security agencies in America, CBP was born after 9/11 after the federal government took a close look at how its various agencies communicate with each other. The combination of such departments as immigration, customs enforcement and border patrol under one agency was aimed at improving communication to better defend America’s security.
On an average day, more than 965,000 people are processed through America’s 330 ports of entry. Of those travelers on an average day, only about 75 are arrested and only some 225 or so are denied entry for one reason or another.
By those figures, literally 99.9 percent of people wanting to get in the U.S. each day are allowed in – whether they’re Americans returning home or international travelers paying a visit.
North Dakota alone has 22 ports of entry, including the main port of entry at Pembina, about 2½ hours north of Fargo.
About 1,000 to 1,500 passenger cars enter America’s northern border at Pembina, N.D., during an average summer weekday, Chris Misson, chief spokesman for CBP’s Pembina facility, told me today. On the summer weekends, that number jumps to about 2,000 or more at that port of entry. In the wintertime, the traffic diminishes substantially, Misson said.
Federal laws and regulations grant CBP somewhat wide-ranging authority to search and inspect all vehicles and individuals seeking to enter the U.S. In the interest of national security, a lot of the details about how CBP operates are hidden in a shroud of secrecy, but Milne and Misson explained what they could to me.
“Generally when people cross the border, most are cleared at primary,” Milne explained. “You pull right up to the inspection booth, show your ID, it’s run through the system to ensure there aren’t any warrants or intelligence, and then most people go down the road.”
“However, if there’s anything that we need to check on in terms of border security or if we have any additional questions, then we just pull you out of the main line and you go into ‘secondary’ for a more thorough inspection,” he continued. “Random (selection) is part of it. Sometimes there’s something that an officer on primary may think not only is suspicious but may require a little additional information.”
They couldn’t specify what indicators might be “red flags,” but Misson said each inspection can be different depending on what answers people give to the basic questions.
A question that an average person might see as intrusive or irrelevant could actually indicate important information to security officers, Misson said.
The Canadian Border Services Agency – Canada’s version of the CBP – trains its officers in interview, examination and investigative techniques to aid in their determination of potential security threats, regional CBSA spokesman Sean Best said.
“Based on the travelers’ responses, documentation presented, verbal and non-verbal indicators, if the officer is satisfied the individual will be allowed to enter/re-enter Canada,” Best said. “If the officer has concerns, the individual may be asked additional questions or be referred to secondary for further exam.”
Being asked to submit to further examination “should not be viewed as an accusation of wrongdoing,” Best added.
In order to ease the entry process, Milne recommended travelers “know before you go” and visit the CBP’s website for information on the required documentation, the entry process and other helpful tips.
“If you have the information you need to be in compliance, that’s less trouble for you, less trouble for us at the border,” Milne said.
Misson offered these other tips to travelers:
- Plan ahead and prepare for the inspection process.
- Consider alternate, less heavily-traveled entry routes during busy weekends or holidays.
- Build extra time into trips in case of delays at ports of entry.
- Check wait times for ports of entry at International Falls, Minn., and Pembina, N.D., by visiting apps.cbp.gov.
- Understand that CBP officers have the authority to conduct enforcement examinations without a warrant, ranging from a single luggage examination up to and possibly including a personal search.
Best also advised Americans traveling to Canada to visit the CBSA’s travel website for similar details that are applicable to our northern neighbor.
As to the complaints of poor treatment by Border Patrol agents, Misson and Milne both said it’s not anything they haven’t heard before – but CBP doesn’t excuse or condone rude treatment toward American residents or international visitors.
The CBP pledges to “cordially greet and welcome you to the United States,” “to treat you with courtesy, dignity and respect,” and “to explain the CBP process to you.”
“We have that focus to protect the homeland from any wrongdoers,” Misson said. “There is no excuse for rudeness – that shouldn’t be tolerated and we try to instill that in our officers.”
“We still have to do our job and question people, and make sure they’re out doing what they say they’re doing,” he added. “It’s a fine line to walk: You have to be professional but you still have to be able to ask the right questions and dig deep enough to find out if this person is going to do something wrong, or wants to do something wrong.”
And while each traveler might only interact with Border Patrol agents for only a few minutes, Milne emphasized how many travelers the agents must evaluate each day.
“There’s a common misconception that by our officers maintaining a level of professionalism to do an important job, some people may construe that as rude or unfriendly,” Milne said. “It’s certainly not the intention. We remain a welcoming country – both for visitors of the United States and certainly for Americans coming home. We just ask people to understand the important role and how high the stakes are for our officers at the border: They have to deal with those million people every day and really only have a short period of time to make those kinds of determinations that can have a real lasting impact on our country.”
However, disgruntled travelers who are unhappy with their treatment at the borders aren’t without options.
Milne said travelers can always ask to speak to a Border Patrol supervisor during their inspection, or file a complaint.
“We have an important job to do, and we try to do that in a courteous and respectful manner,” Milne said.
As maybe we’ve all seen since 9/11, enhanced security for our country requires a little bit of sacrifice, compromise and understanding from all of us, it seems.