My US Border Nightmare
Posted from: ON M6S 3R2, Canada
So I have to say 2 things up front. First that this might sound like a bit of a rant and its long - sorry. And second that if you are an American border guard reading this, I appreciate your occupation, and I understand your job is to protect your country. I never had intention to violate that, I don’t want to steal an American’s job, I don’t want to start a business in your country and after my latest experiences I really don’t even want to be in your country, I would very much just like to get training and get out, and also that I’m so very sorry for this situation.
So a little context. Upverter was invited to participate in some business training over the next couple months in California. When we were in the US right before the new year we met with some people and ended up getting invited back to participate in a very unique and exciting bit of startup training. Often this training involves setting up an American corporation for the startup activities - but I’ll get to that later. Anyways, this was fantastic news. We were over the moon with excitement. We started packing frantically and trying to figure out how to get back down there for 3 months, in just 4 days.
Our favorite San Francisco flight is with Virgin America. And if you ever need to fly from Toronto to San Francisco it really is the perfect flight. Its cheap, Virgin is a great airline, and I’ve always had a wonderful experience. But, it turns out other people have been catching on to this, and the flights over the holidays were scarce, sold out, or ridiculously expensive - which really sucks. Sooo after a bunch of hacking on hipmunk and massive family coordination we decided the best route to take was to have my mother drive Steve and I to St. Catherines where Mike (bringing Steve’s stuff from Toronto) and Steve’s mom would meet us. We would do a big vehicle swap and continue on to Rochester to drop off Steve’s Canadian loot. We were scheduled to fly out of Buffalo on an ugly and horrible flight - the only one we could find on the cheap - to Washington and then to San Francisco. We were gonna be great.
So we show up at the border around Noon on Sunday and amongst a whole pile of IIHF Hockey goers made our way across the Lewiston bridge. And this is where it starts to fall apart. I’m working on about 1 hour of sleep and probably look more than a little sketchy - but I still have no understanding of how bad this can go, and as far as I know I have every right to visit the USA. We arrive and get the standard questions on who we are and where we are going. Steve and his mother are Americans and have fine answers, while I say I am helping Steve move and that I will be staying with him and visiting in California for 3-4 months afterwords.
I then get asked about my residence and occupation and how I’m allowed to take so much time off and I fuck up. I say Waterloo (totally out of habit) and that I left my job so its no issue about the time off (just a pointer here - never enter the US with an unclear leaving date, and no paying job). For the record I should have been entering on a B1 and not a B2 for the purpose of business training - but I had no idea of that. It was a pretty crazy couple days and I had zero documentation, I hadn’t even thought about what I was going to say at the border - which was pretty silly, but I thought I should be fine, I always have been before, and I’m not breaking any rules. So just tell the story and I’m good, right? Wrong.
For the record - and remember this as my sacrifice to anyone reading this. let me fuck up so you don’t have to. There is a burden of proof placed on an applicant for a US visa to prove they are not working in, or immigrating to, the US illegally, and most importantly that they are leaving. And due to being massively unprepared I was unable to prove any of this = not good. So we get sent inside, and I’m still thinking everything is OK. After sitting for a bit I get called up to the counter and the border guard starts in on me hard. I mean he had it out for me. I still have no idea why I rubbed him the wrong way, but he sure didn’t like me. He starts asking about the duration of my stay and what I’m planning on doing, and he is obviously fishing for something. I, tired, nervous and oblivious really don’t know what the hell he is trying to get at but according to the 3rd guy I talked with that day he was trying to get me to talk and contradict myself - which I have to admit is pretty fucked up. So I’m talking, mostly about travel plans while in California. Eventually my previous US travel comes up including my trip just days before to the same place for meeting with the program we ended up getting included in. Which apparently is suspicious, and I probably should have been on a business visa that time too - but like I said earlier I really didn’t get the difference between the two. I honestly thought business = money = work. ie. you need a work visa, and everything else (ie. no money involved) was personal. Again wrong.
This turns out to be an important thing to know - and was my second fuck up. So after beating on me and asking me to talk lots and threatening that not telling him stuff = fraud = jail time + a ban from the US (and I still have no idea what he wants to hear) I get locked up. Which I’ll tell you sure ain’t a fun feeling. Prison is not for me. So while I’m locked up he starts grilling Steve on all of the same things. Telling Steve I had different stories, and threatening all kinds of equally terrible things. After beating on Steve and letting me rot for a while he yelled at me again telling me that Steve told a different story and to tell him the truth. I still am stunned, and super confused about what he wants to hear. I go over it again, I am visiting, staying with Steve an American, and will be returning to Canada in 3 months. I rot for a while longer. Steve and him talk again, and Steve mentions more details on the program we are participating in while we are in California, hoping that will fill some void in our story. So the border guard has now figured out our deceptive plan to illegally enter the US on a business visa and get… training. haha. So he comes back and tells me he knows what I’m lying about and that I’ve committed fraud and that hes gonna do way worse things than send me back to Canada.
And I’m shitting my pants.
I have no idea whats going on. I try and talk to him, I also start talking all about the program, realizing I hadn’t mentioned much on it and that maybe that’s what he wants to know about (I’m more than happy to give details, this was really the first time it occurred to me that might be what he thought I was withholding - though I have no idea what he would know about it). Anyways, this isn’t what he wants to hear and he storms out. So at this point good cop comes into the cell with me. He says he has no idea what going on and that I should tell him the story and he would try and talk some sense into the other officer. So I again start from the top, including the details on the program. In summary that I’m helping Steve move to California, that I think i need a tourist visa, that we will be doing training while there, and that I will leave in 3 months. He leaves the room, and I never see him again, nor hear anything about our conversation. And I get left to rot again for another couple hours.
So, a little recap. We have been at the border station for maybe 3-4 hours now. Steve and his mom have been waiting in the lobby and I have been locked up for lying. I am still confused about visa type, have no idea whats going on, and am sick of not being asked questions and just told to talk. I have no documentation to prove my employment, residence, substantial ties to Canada, or a return flight - all of which is bad and quite simply due to a lack of planing. Then after another hour of waiting in comes a guard referring to himself as a prosecutor and tells me about my jail sentence and court hearing date. I’m being charged with fraud, and I have a hearing date of next Thursday (a full 4 days away) but he is willing to fight for me (sketchy) if I tell him the truth. And while I have been suspect of the whole process, haven’t had the right answers for any of these guys, and am getting really sick of the holding cell, I decide to tell him what I’m pretty sure he wants to hear (which it turns out has now burned me, more on this later). We work backwards and I focus on the business training, and my relationship with Steve.
He seems very happy that I am telling him all of this, and a number of times he asks if I feel better getting it all of my chest - to which I say no and explain that I’m still confused about what is so messed up. He has a complete printed copy of this blog (hence the comment earlier), details on the Canadian corporation, lots of personal details on each of Steve, his mom and myself. He lied a number of times concerning my relationship with Steve, my name being on documents in the US associated with Steve, and that there was preliminary paperwork for a US corporation which he alleged I was trying to establish in the US. In the end we end up on bad terms because I refuse to agree that I was attempting to illegally immigrate to and work in the US, and because I disagreed with his lies. He threatened to give up trying to help me and put me in jail if I didn’t admit that was what I was trying to do and after fighting it for a while I decided (possibly wrongly, I have no clue) that agreeing was the only way I was getting home, so I did.
I Zak Homuth, am a bad, bad man, who would very much like to leave my family, all of my possessions and a friendly government and society to be battered, scared, and working illegally for no pay at an illegal corporation in the US, because I am a masochist, and I really do enjoy jail cells and the prospect of being barred from the US for life. (FYI for border guards: This is sarcasm) (FYI everyone else: It pretty much says this on my US file now, fuck me)
After he was satisfied that I was trying to cheat lie and steal he went right back to the threats of jail-time and an extended bar from the US because I lied about my original intentions. Thats right ladies and gentlemen, if I told him the truth he would fight for me, but agreeing to his truth is in conflict with my originally story, and thus I have committed fraud - I believe that is called a catch-22. So he sends me back to sit and wait for him to talk to his supervisor, and plead my case. I’m not convinced that he talked with anyone, but I have no idea. And after letting me worry and fret for another hour (were at about 6 now) he called me back over. Apparently his supervisor, who is normally a hard-ass, decided to be nice to me (sketchy) and just refused my admission on the grounds that I needed more and better paperwork (212.a.7.A.i.I).
So I was not forcefully deported, I was not barred from the US, but was required to immediately return to Niagara Falls, Canada. Steve and his mom, after enduring all of this with me, drove me back to the bus station in Niagara Falls and then tried again (with no issue) to cross the border and head home to Rochester. I got into Mike’s house in Toronto late that night and spent the remainder of the evening worrying, crying and researching to figure out what went wrong. What a mess. It was my thought at the time that if I had been able to prove a substantially strong tie to Canada (which I can absolutely prove and just didn’t have the paperwork for at the time) I would have been fine. And I probably should have had a bit of sleep, so as not to goof up the bits of my story that I did - which was out of habit more than anything. In the interest of preparing myself, friends and family for future US border crossings here is a list of where I went wrong, in order of severity…
- Being unprepared and un-slept.
- Not understanding the requirement of a burden of proof on the applicant.
- Not having a return flight booked, with a specific return date.
- Not initially declaring I was there for business, with specifics on the program.
- Not having documentation on my possessions and ties to Canada.
- Crossing with Steve and all of his stuff (suspicious).
- Worst of all, these are all things that are easy enough to get and do right - but I just didn’t know better.
After all this went down I still had a positive outlook that I could fix all of this and both clear my name and get admission to the US for this training. So I spent most of Monday on the phone with immigration lawyers trying to figure out what I needed to get across without an issue, how to fix the problem I now had, and how to get the right visas should I need to go that route. The day ended with Canada whooping the American’s ass at the IIHF semi-finals and me booking a flight and printing a giant stack of documents, corporation details, proof of residence, and a magical letter that was supposed to save the day.
So I was able to get a seat on our beloved Virgin flight this morning and I show up at the Toronto Pearson Airport at the ungodly hour of 4:30 am. I get my boarding pass and enter the line for customs. After about an hour in line I meet an officer who asks me about my past issues crossing which I explain was a huge misunderstanding, that I was both confused and unprepared, and that I had a letter of explanation. As I expected, I get sent to the back room. Now I have to say first off that the guys at Pearson are much nicer than the ones at the Lewiston bridge were, which helped with my shattered nerves.
So after waiting 30 mins or so I meet with an officer, and provide him with my giant stack of paperwork. We chat, I apologize, we talk about the confusion, he seems satisfied with the documents I’ve provided and generally everything seems fine. He then gets a call, and passes the case off to his partner telling him everything looks fine and that I have provided all the right documents. I am asked to sit down while they finalize. Another 20 mins goes by and its approaching boarding time and I am finally called back up by the officer the case was handed to. He says I’m being refused entry and my heart sinks.
The other officer had said I was fine, WTF.
He continues by asking why I didn’t go back to Lewiston and explains that it looks like I am port-of-entry hopping and that I should have gone back there. I explain that I have no way back there and no way to buffalo should I go back there. I explain that the officer never mentioned a requirement to return to the same port-of-entry and that I have provided everything they asked for (which I did, and then some, and then a whole fuck load more). The guard then changed his story to say I was being refused entry because my letter says I am doing invalid activities for a B1 visa. But like a good boy, I have read all of the documentation on the acceptable uses of the visa and show him the border admission handbook that says they are in fact acceptable activities. So we do this dance a couple times, and every time I am able to refute the change.
We go through his whole list and at the very end, he very stubbornly says none of it matters because the real grounds for refusal are that I am trying to start a business in the US as according to the notes on my file by the Lewiston prosecutor. I refute this, explain the documentation prevents and disproves this, I explain and explain and explain and all to no effect. He had obviously made up his mind, and I wasn’t getting through.
So here I am, tainted in the eyes of the American customs and border service, with enough documentation to choke a donkey and a nasty and very long letter on my file concerning me being a liar and wannabe immigrant. Yuck.
EDIT: For what its worth I wrote this post to document my side of the story (which actually played a postive part in my eventual entry into the US), and to make sure this never, ever happens to anyone else ever again. Yes the CBP were unkind to say the least, but its still largely on me. I appreciate all the comments and I couldn’t agree more - Don’t take a border crossing for granted, and don’t do all of the outright stupid stuff that I did.