Saturday, June 19, 2010

Border Crossings

I grew up in a border town - Niagara Falls, Ontario. Crossing over to the US was something we took for granted. We either hopped in the car and drove over to shop or go to a special restaurant, or we played tourist and walked across the Rainbow Bridge, stopping half-way to plant one foot in Canada and one in the US while we gazed at the view of the Falls from the bridge.

The Rainbow Bridge has been closed to truck traffic for a few years, so it's the best bridge to use to avoid getting stuck in a long line of trucks that one might encounter at the other bridges. However, in summer, the bridge can be backed up, sometimes for miles - always good to plan on a delay and be surprised when the coast is clear. On Thursday we were lucky, the traffic was very light - no line-up. Had I known there is now a webcam on the bridge, I might have checked the situation before leaving the house. Next time!

Working for many years in the US, I crossed the border every week. I presented my passport and work documents, and was quickly on my way. The US immigration officers at the bridges are used to people crossing for work, the only question I usually got asked was what did I have with me other than lunch?

In later years, the questions became focused on who I worked for, where I was headed, and what I would be doing while in the US. Easy questions to answer - just tell the truth. When I started traveling to the US for work from Cancun, it was harder - officers at the airports were not as used to people coming in to work, and they often questioned why I had the original work document (which clearly stated 'multiple entry') - some wanted to take the document away from me, so I was always a little nervous when entering the US by air. Luckily I was always able to explain the situation to them where it seemed to make sense to them, and they allowed me to enter with my documentation intact.

Now I am simply traveling between the three NAFTA partners as a tourist, but sometimes I get asked more questions than I did when I was coming in for work. When crossing on Thursday, on my way to the airport, the officer wanted to know what I was bringing into the US. As always, I said 'nothing', because I was not leaving anything there. He said that he still wanted to know what I had because I was coming onto US soil and it didn't matter if I was leaving anything or not. So I started to tell him, but he quickly got bored as I stumbled over the a/c testing unit - couldn't decide it if was an instrument or tool, called it both. That's all he wanted to know, along with how I'd met Miguel, and where, and how long we'd been together, and if he was Mexican. Just tell the truth is my motto, there's nothing to hide even if the questions seem redundant.

On the other end, at the airport in Cancun, I was a little more worried about dealing with customs. I had receipts for everything new and I was under the $300 US limit, but I also had a tiny tv that was 8 or 9 years old. The tv is in good shape and I would hate to have it taken from me just because I could not prove that it was old and not worth much. Now that they scan every bag (not just suitcases, they scan carry-on and purses too), I figured they would question the contents of my bags.

Sure enough, as I approached the red light/green light, the woman watching the xrays called over to alert the guy manning the light button that I had something electronic in one of the bags - she wasn't sure what, maybe a laptop (I love that I can understand Spanish). The agent took my form and asked me if I spoke Spanish, and when I said yes, he asked if I'd read the customs form and understood what it said.

Yes, I'd read the form and yes, I understand (I think) what I can and cannot bring into Mexico. Once he had my confirmation that I'd understood what I'd signed, he sent me over to the table to open up two of my bags. The first was the one with my laptop, and the second was the one with the tv. Once the guy saw the tv and I told him it was used, he wasn't interested in checking anything else in my bags. I was free to go. And even though I knew I should be ok with what I was bringing in, I was relieved - you just never know when someone is going to decide to give you a hard time. But honestly, I've found the agents in Mexico to be very helpful - even when they took away my Jerky treats for Loco, they did it nicely and explained why, and that I could buy them in Walmart or next time make sure I brought chicken or pork, never beef.

Immigration and Customs agents in the US at the airports are almost always nicer than those at the border crossings - there are exceptions, of course. But often they want to be helpful, especially when I explain the situation about Miguel needing a visa just to transit through an airport and how difficult that makes it for us to travel together on the cheaper airfares. "Just get him a tourist visa and it will be good for 10 years and you won't have to worry about it", one officer recently advised.

So I think we'll start working on the US transit visa for Miguel. It means a trip to Merida to personally speak with US Immigration, which is a cost and time investment that hopefully will be worthwhile.


Jonna said...

If you do decide to come over to Merida, please let me know. We have a guest room and would love to have you both visit. I'll have drinks and a sympathetic ear after your visit to the concrete fortress surrounded by soldiers that passes for a piece of the USA here in Merida.

Life's a Beach! said...

I always approach the immigration desk in Cancun a little apprehensive, but I've never had any problems. We had really long lines at immigration in Cancun in October. I'm hoping this next trip won't be bad since I'm arriving on a Tuesday. Getting excited! Glad you're back home and getting back into a comfortable routine.

Sue said...

Thanks, Jonna - email communications are underway!

Beck - I hope the line isn't too bad. Good luck and maybe I'll see you on the beach!