I’m With Khan
Adventures at the US-Canada border.
There’s no telltale sign. The decor could be that of a spotless, well-appointed post office. The equipment might fit in at a supermarket checkout. The uniform, notwithstanding the potentially lethal collection of hardware at the belt, would blend in at just about any jumpsuit-friendly operation. And unless you’re particularly unlucky, you leave without marks or bruises.
Forty-eight hours ago, the most consequential issue on my ranting agenda was sandwiches (see our feature). But a brief, relatively harmless spell in the tank with an Indian friend set me to thinking. Forty-eight hours ago, I’d have told you “soft secondary” was what happens when you leave mayonnaise on bread for too long. And it may well be. But it’s also a euphemism for something less pleasant. It’s where American immigration officials put those they deem suspicious.
The funny thing about a run-in with immigration authorities is not what happens while you’re inside. It’s how you begin to look at what happens outside. Though I’ll never know what it’s like to be brown in America, there’s a shortcut to empathy. It is to accompany a brown person through American immigration.
I’ve often found it easy to rationalise profiling or to dismiss it as harmless. I singled out examples—we now know that Shah Rukh Khan has issues with security personnel, not vice versa—that allowed me to laugh it off as a persecution complex, or just another pathology of an inflated ego. But this dismissal can come only from a privileged perspective.
An Indian passport holder doesn’t have that privilege. This past weekend, a former roommate from Chuim Village came to visit me at my childhood home in Detroit. A sometime Mumbaikar, he’s now a permanent resident of Canada by virtue of a document the Canadians call the “maple card“. Having earlier paid him a visit in Toronto, I was looking forward to hearing his impressions of my slice of American pie. But first I had to pick him up.
I’d invited along another friend for the ride—a friend, as it happens, whom I’d also met in Mumbai, in 2006, long before she adopted Detroit as her home. She, in turn, had invited along two more cool kids. My errand had precipitously rebranded itself as a jaunt. A night out across the border sounded, and not only to me, like fun.
Getting into Canada from the US has always been easier than the reverse. Still, it has never been as ridiculously easy as it was that night. Heading down we did a little strategising: Would it be easier not to mention that we were bringing someone back with us? That he wasn’t a citizen? How much to reveal? When or whether to lie? By the time we pulled up to Canadian immigration, we had rehearsed our story, and I was not expecting, as I lowered the car window for questioning, that one of these friends-of-friends would blurt, “Hey, I know you!”
By a staggering twist of fate, she had recognised that very Canadian border crossing guard as a customer of her shop, where she sells, among sundry other curiosities, vintage postcards of the Ambassador Bridge. It’s not only the world’s longest suspension bridge joining two countries, it’s the one over which we had just driven south (yes, south) to enter Ontario. I found the officer’s penchant for decorating his home with images of his workplace somewhat odd. Even if lithographs of Khar Station become available for purchase, they will not adorn my kitchen. Regardless, we all thought it commendable that he should venture to Detroit on his day off in order to do so.
The shop owner’s hastily improvised gambit struck me as risky. Our officer, somewhat portly and encrusted in a salt-and-pepper stubble, shot her a look that at first bespoke incredulity, then flickered into a kind of flattered surprise—was he, he may have wondered, being hit on?—before melting into an amused recognition as he heard the details of his purchase. He waved us through, without so much as a glance at our documents. His laxity may not have been bred of familiarity; Canada did not require passports for US citizens until June 2009. Regardless, it drew a stark contrast to what came later.
There’s not much going on in Windsor at 11pm on a Friday night: a strip club, a handful of Chinese take-away joints. A drunk 19 year old magic-markered her name across one of our forearms. We snatched my friend off the Greyhound bus from Toronto, downed a quick drink, and prepared to head back to Detroit for some real excitement.
Arriving, finally, at the checkpoint, I handed over our passports to a customs officer not so different in appearance from the one we’d befriended a few hours earlier. He worked for a different government, to be sure, but he could easily have been a postcard buyer. I kept the engine running as he performed a couple minutes worth of swiping. He didn’t immediately zero in on the Indian passport, but once he did, the radio chatter made it clear that we had a Problem.
He diverted us to the small lot up ahead, but not before slapping on the windscreen an elaborately segmented orange Post-It on which he had scrawled “I-94”. That’s the name of one of the freeways onto which the tunnel exits. This should be easy, I told myself once again. Little did I know that “I-94” is also a touchstone of America’s labyrinthine immigration bureaucracy.
Leave the keys and cellphones in the car and bring your documents, were our instructions. That took a couple minutes to sort out. We were not drunk. The state is a sieve, and pouring oneself through its apertures is bound to cause confusion and discomfiture.
With our documents but without our cellphones, then, we shuffled down a few stairs and down a narrow hallway with a single door, marked Hard Secondary. To my relief we were led past it to a table where I handed over all our passports and the Post-It. Then we passed into the tank and sat. The steel benches were spotless.
The US Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) is the human face, such as it is, of George W. Bush’s dystopically named Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It is every immigrant’s first impression of the US. It is a distinctly post-9/11 impression. Below the counter, at eye level for those of us who were seated, a series of posters were arranged, each detailing a potential immigration infraction, among them Assaulting a Customs Officer, Smuggling, and Alien Smuggling.
We were not alone: a pair of preternaturally pneumatic Asian women in stiletto heels tossed their hair on the opposite bench, muttering about business back at the casino (Windsor has one, Detroit three). A large African-American woman sulked ahead of us. A mustachioed man announced to the woman accompanying him that he’d “been to bad boy school”. It felt like an episode of Night Court.
After a time, my friend and I were called up to the counter to answer a few questions, then directed again to our seats. “What are you in for?” I joked as I sat down next to the temporarily tattooed friend, only to discover that the joke had already made the rounds at his end of the bench. As the clock verged on 2am, we were all laughing. Except for my friend. He had difficulty forcing a nervous chuckle.
There were the suspects—my friend, the casino hookers, and a handful of others—and there were the rest of us. The rest of us were, to a man, white. What divided us in that room was not skin colour per se, but our expectations of law enforcement personnel. There’s nothing intrinsically black, white or brown about these perceptions. They’re less like our skin and more like our hair, not embedded but teased out, conditioned and shaped according to our personal understanding of identity.
To be fair, that’s how the CBP officers think of themselves. There’s a customer service ethos behind the counter. They say things like, “Has everyone been helped?”
We sat. After an indeterminate stretch during which our documents were further examined, a call sounded over the radio: All Personnel to Lane Six. Within seconds nearly the entire staff cleared out, leaving only the greeter at the entrance. We had been set adrift in bureaucratic limbo. The I-94 form that would release us was half-filled at an unmanned desk. The bathroom, which we had to ask permission to use, was off-limits. We were relieved, first psychologically and later urologically, when the greeter arrogated, then benignly administered, bathroom authority.
After another sit, of perhaps 15 minutes, the remaining officers returned. They were escorting a neatly dressed man, of course brown, sauntering casually with a knowing smirk on his face. As he passed, we saw his handcuffs. He was headed to Hard Secondary.
The form took another five minutes. In all, we spent little more than an hour holed up in reasonably comfortable, clean conditions. We were not deprived of life, liberty or property, save the $6 they charged my friend for the I-94 and a chance at another drink. By Indian standards, it was a highly successful brush with bureaucracy.
But it’s not that. Being a detainee is disturbing in itself. Not for me, but for the one who knows he’s at the mercy of the relevant authorities. He is not, in fact, an autonomous human being but one held hostage to larger, and largely amoral, forces. It’s not a Muslim thing; my friend is a Mangalorean Catholic by birth. It’s not even an Indian thing; he’s lived abroad, fully documented, for years. It’s a protocol thing. The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the citizen as well as the foreigner to enter without the proper documents.Tags: Homeland Security, immigration, The Holdout