My Continuing Adventures with US Customs

I haven’t posted about my border issues in a while, despite there being several instances, but a call tonight with immigration lawyer Ronald Zisman has inspired me to give an update. Oh and I’ll be blogging about my conversation with him shortly.

1. Grand Forks, ND

For my 28th birthday in March, my wonderful friend Kate Morris drove from Texas to Winnipeg with her brother Brian to surprise me. Unfortunately, the surprise was on them when Canada Customs would not allow them into the country.  Kate posted about her experience on her blog.  Since I was hardly going to have my friend drive all that way and not see her, my friend Lyndon Reid and I drove down to Grand Forks to meet Kate and Brian.

We get to the booth at the border and they seemed skeptical of our story. I knew we’d get sent in for inspection anyway, so this didn’t really bother me.  I drove my car to the inspection area (this is important, in regards to another incident) where Lyndon and I were put in an interrogation room and waited while they searched my car.  When the inspector came in to question us, I again had to explain what happened in January when I tried to speak in Las Vegas. We were allowed to go.  I suppose this one wasn’t too bad, it was just worse since Kate and Brian had a run-in with the Canadian side the night before.

2. SMX Advanced – Seattle, WA

I was really interested to see how this one would turn out. I was going to SMX Advanced in Seattle as nothing more than an attendee of this conference. The first time trying to cross at the Winnipeg Airport again, I actually recognized some of the inspectors. I was, unsurprisingly, sent to secondary inspection where the were not that pleasant with me.  I was armed with my registration, hotel details, return flight details, pay stub from my Canadian employer – everything I could think of. I explained what I was doing.  I couldn’t believe what the inspector said to me next.

“If I look up this conference online, will I see you on the speaker list?  Because if you’re lying, you’re going to be in big trouble.”

Yeah, cuz those types of threats work on a 28-year-old woman. I’m not 5.  You go right ahead officer, look it up, because I will not be on that speaker list (though I wish I could be).  Sure enough, he looked it up and seemed satisfied to let me go. Whew. Even though I was totally legit, I was a bit nervous about encountering a problem.

3. Queenston-Lewiston Bridge – Lewiston, NY

In late June I was in Toronto visiting my family.  My sister and I decided to head to Niagara Falls, NY to go for lunch and do some shopping. I warned her that we would be sent to secondary inspection, but I couldn’t believe what happened.

When we pulled up to the booth, in my rental, we were questioned as normal until he swiped my passport. I was asked to shut off the car and wait.  THREE more inspectors came out.  Two females to ESCORT my sister and I to the interrogation area and another to drive the car. (Should I have told them it was against my rental agreement to have someone else drive the car?) It was humiliating.  All those cars behind us saw the two of us removed from our vehicle and taken inside.  Me, the tiny 28 girl and my sister, the even tinier 30 year old. I have NO idea why I wasn’t able to drive the car to inspection myself.

We waited about 45 minutes before I was called to begin my interrogation. It was ridiculously simple. A few questions, AGAIN repeating what happened in January (and the “tsk-tsk” I now expect). About two minutes later, I was given the keys and told I could go.  No idea where the car was, but I found it and was on my way.

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So that’s where we’re at.  I am heading to Hawaii on vacation in September and fully expect more delays, particularly since I’ll be traveling alone and meeting friends there. I connect in Vancouver, so that’s where I’ll pass through customs, and if they make me miss my connecting flight I will be SOME MAD. I guess we’ll see what happens.

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Status of my NEXUS Membership

It’s been almost six weeks since the incident with US Customs at Winnipeg James A Richardson Airport. In that incident, the officers took away my NEXUS membership card and told me my membership would be terminated.

Earlier this week I checked that status of my membership online – still says active. Hmm. I looked a little more into the appeal process. Looks like US Customs has to send me the details of my “violation” in writing and then I can appeal it. But I haven’t received that yet either.

I placed a call to the Canadian Customs officer at the airport – she’s been very helpful, even before this incident when I was just trying to change my last name. Her system also says that my membership is active.

What does this mean? Not sure. The officer thought it could just take a long time. Honestly though, given the sensitivity of the program (TRUSTED TRAVELER) you’d think they’d disable that right away. After all, I don’t need the card when using the iris-scanner at the airports. If my account is still able, I wonder if I can still use it? I won’t, of course, one thing I’ve ALWAYS been is 100% honest. I’m not about to change that.

So we’ll see what the next few weeks bring, see if that customs officer can find out anything for me and whether or not I can get my membership reinstated.

NOTE: If you’ve been considering NEXUS, please don’t let this discourage you. It’s actually really awesome and SO useful. I highly recommend it.

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Day Trip to the USA

Last Monday, February 15, was a provincial holiday here in Manitoba, Canada. I decided to drive down to Grand Forks, North Dakota. Why? Well, it was a nice day and I wanted to go for a drive (I find long drives in my beloved Mustang extremely therapeutic), I wanted a few groceries I couldn’t get in Canada and I was dying to know what it would be like to enter the USA after my experience less one month before.

Got to the border and it was not busy. There was a lane with two cars, and I thought I saw another lane open – turns out I was wrong so I did some fancy steering to go back to the initial lane. When I got to the booth, I explained where I was going and why. As usual, they ask whose car it is (mine, don’t know why they always ask) and why I was going alone. Well, I like playing the music I want as loud as I want it. I didn’t say that though. A scan of my passport later and I was sent to the garage for inspection.

No one else was in there, so there was no wait. But I got out of the car, emptied out my pockets and purse and was told to flip my pockets inside out. Wow. So I go wait in a little room for a bit and they come out and tell me I can go. Great! Off I go to finish my drive where I picked up about $40 in groceries and filled up on gas.

I was expecting this. I don’t know if this is something that will happen every time, but I would guess that yes it will. Returning to Canada would be a snap I figured.

Nope. Got sent in for secondary inspection there too. This time I really felt the interrogation. I also found it interesting how one officer drew my attention away from what the other two officers were doing with my car. It made me very nervous. But, after a while, I was on my way again.

So, now I know that I will likely have to allow for extra time if I’m crossing the border as I will expect to be taken for secondary inspection. I can handle that.

I have never, ever lied when crossing the border. I declare everything, big and small. I’m always honest about where I’m going and why. Despite the hassles of the past six weeks, this won’t change.

However, I am still pursuing answers about what happened in January and what I can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Still no answers, but as soon as I hear anything, you can bet I’ll be posting it.

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US Customs Does Not Allow Conference Speakers?? – My Experience

Affiliate Summit West 2010 started this weekend in Las Vegas. I was honoured to be a speaker at this conference.

I knew the Winnipeg airport would be a little bit crazy, especially flying internationally. But I am a member of NEXUS, a trusted traveler program between Canada and the US.

Important note to the story: I changed my last name this past fall. Changing all my documents was no problem, but the folks at the NEXUS office had trouble getting everything updated. After a few visits in November, they assured me everything was updated. Today was the first time using NEXUS since doing that update.

Sunday morning (this morning), I got myself to the airport for 4am. After one hour of waiting in lines to check in and wait for US Customs to open, I waltzed past the long line at customs and up to the NEXUS line. A quick scan of my irises later, I had my printout to give to the customs officer and I could proceed to security.

I handed my print out to the woman who did not appear to enjoy working at 5am. She looked up code and informed me that I had let a document expire on my NEXUS account and therefore was in violation of the program. She proceeded to interrogate me about where I was going and why. I explained that I was scheduled to speak at a conference on Tuesday morning and that I’ve done this many times before. She grilled me on whether or not I was getting remunerated and whether or not people pay to attend this conference. My answers – I do not get paid to speak at the conference (other than my regular wages paid by my Canadian employer) and yes people pay to attend the conference.

Told that this was NOT allowed, I was waltzed into the US Customs and Immigration office and handed over to the supervisor for interrogation #2. By this time, they had all my ID, my business card, and my integrity. I went over the same details and again I was told, people CANNOT go to the United States to speak at a conference that people pay to attend. The supervisor seemed aghast when I said that I had done it many times before – he likened it to admitting I’ve done these horrible fraudulent activities in the past. He informed me that I was lucky I’d never been caught before, and that the other hundreds and thousands of Canadians who go to the US on a daily basis to speak are also “lucky” they’d never been caught.

Finally, my punishment. I was told that they would be lenient with me and that I would be “permitted to withdraw my application to enter the United States.” But that I needed to wait for the paperwork to be completed.

45 minutes later, I’m sat down in a little room for the “paperwork” – which ended up being the third interrogation, fingerprinting, and a mug shot.

This guy was a little bit nicer and tried to explain things to me, but I still had to go over my story again and again be scolded for what I was trying to do and had done in the past. I gave my weight, height, marital status, employment information, etc.

Another 30 minutes later, the paperwork was finally done. After being told that my NEXUS trusted traveler status was now revoked for life, they started finger printing. However, the program kept freezing and after three tries, they decided I didn’t need to be finger printed and have a mug shot done since they finally admitted they didn’t think I was knowingly trying to do anything wrong.

At 7am, I was on my way home.

SO! Why was I turned away? What are the rules around this?

All travelers to the US must go on a Visa. Now, as Canadians, we don’t require a physical Visa. But if you’re going for business, you’re traveling on a B-1. If you’re going for pleasure, you’re traveling on a B-2. Most people will never know this.

The documents surrounding this confuse me greatly. But here’s what I found on the US Department of State’s web site:

The chart below is an overview of key groupings of temporary business related travel permitted on business visitor visas.

Purpose of Your Travel About Your Temporary Visit
Conference, meeting, trade show or business event attendee Will receive no salary or income from a U.S based company/entity. For scientific, educational, professional or business purposes.
Lecturer or speaker No salary or income from a U.S. based company/entity, other than expenses incidental to the visit. If honorarium will be received, activities can last no longer than nine days at any single institution or organization; payment must be offered by an institution or organization described in INA 212(g); honorarium is for services conducted for the benefit of the institution or entity; and visa applicant will not have accepted such payment or expenses from more than five institutions or organizations over the last six months.

Download the document here: Business Travel to the United States – What Type of U.S. Visa Will You Need.

The documents the customs officers actually gave me seem to indicate that the issue lies under the category of “employment”. That, regardless of whether I was compensated for speaking or not, I’m taking the place of an American who could have done the same thing. They did not seem to care that speakers are selected for their credibility and knowledge. Maybe that’s because of all the blank states I got when saying words like “affiliate” and “search engine optimization”. Who knows.

I’m at a loss now. Although I was not formally denied entry, my record is now marked for life with this “incident”. I go to the states a lot. That’s why I got the NEXUS membership. I don’t know what this means for me, speaking at future conferences.

Many are saying “well I guess now you lie and say you’re just attending.” Except that I can’t do that. If I were to be caught lying about the same issue that brought me trouble this time, there consequences would be much less pleasant. And honestly I don’t condone lying to any peace officer – customs, police, etc.

What I want is to ensure this doesn’t happen again, and to continue my life and career just as I was, with minimal trouble.

Was this a “quota” issue? Did this happen because of a glitch with my NEXUS membership, so I was flagged as an easy person to turn away? I don’t know. NEXUS will for sure be getting a phone call from me this morning. They didn’t know what they were doing in November and as a result, I now have a record, I lost my trusted traveler status, I will forever be scrutinized when crossing the border, I cannot fulfill my commitment of speaking, and smaller things (but greater to my heart) like not seeing my dear friends whom I only see a few times a year at conferences like these.

Thoughts and your experiences are welcome.

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