Denied Entry: A U.S. Border Tale

Posted: April 9, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Yesterday morning I headed out the door around 8:40am to pick up a friend, and the two of us were to be on our way to a ministry conference in Seattle, WA.  It was supposed to be a great two-day opportunity to hear a couple of excellent pastors, mentors, and pioneers in the field of communication and ministry to teenagers.  As well, we were looking forward to taking in all the perks and advantages that these conference provide in networking, resources, ideas…and the cool opportunity to drive one of the session speakers to the airport…thus gaining 30-40 minutes of great one-on-one time.  But that’s not all folks…no sir…in addition to all this, we were blessed with free registration for the conference…free lodging…and a couple free meals.  It almost sounded like one of those ‘too-good-to-be-true’ tele-marketing offers.  

Well everything was ‘legit’…but sometimes plans don’t quite happen as they’re supposed to!  We got to the Sumas border crossing in plenty of time for our 3 hour trek down I-5 South…but an unexpected turn was waiting for us at booth # 3.  It started with a less-than-friendly (or much of a personality) US customs agent, who asked a few questions about where we were going…you know the standard protocol “where do you live?”…”where are you goin?”…”how long will you be gone?”, etc…  So when the question of what we were going to be doing came up, my reply of “attending a conference in Seattle” was met with a barrage of follow-up questions…again in a less-than-friendly…and even more personality-less manner.  This poor fella couldn’t seem to grasp the concept that you don’t have to be a presenter to attend a conference, and due to his skepticism, we were instructed to pull over to secondary inspection.  This is where our ‘too-good-to-be-true’ opportunity was starting to appear just like that phrase.

We answered a bunch of questions from another customs agent with more personality than agent #1, and who has obviously been to sarcasm university.  We ‘patiently’ waited for approx. 2 hours for the agent to verify our story, check with contacts I provided, and went back-and-forth with this supervisor about 4 times…I felt like I was buying a used car!  After 2+ hours, at last we were called to the ‘side counter’ (apparently this is the side of the office where the big decisions are made!),  but not before being threatened by an agent to take my phone away from me for looking up a contact # (NO cell phone use)…followed by him asking me for a contact #, at which I pulled out my phone…at which he promptly told me I would lose it…to which I responded…”I’m just trying to get you the contact #”…he then gave me the silent, universal motion to come forward.  We were thanked for our upfront honesty, but unfortunately we were being denied entry to the United States.  Say what?

Apparently we were in breach of an immigration law that would prohibit us from attending this conference due to our ‘too-good-to-be-true’ arrangement.  You see, the reason we got the free conference was through a contact I had, and he needed a couple of volunteers to help with the info table for his company, as well as to drive one of the speakers to the airport.  According to US immigration law, because we were helping out (albeit for 1 hour) in lieu of the registration fee, we could not provide services for a US for-profit company if we did not have working papers.  The reason was that we would be ‘taking away employment opportunities from US citizens’…even though we were not receiving any form of payment…other than the freebie favor from a friend.  Under this law, we were not even permitted to drive the speaker to the airport, because that would be providing a service…although I’d like to research that one a little more!  If we had been paid registrants, everything would have been ‘business as usual.’

So after more questions, explanations and interpretations (not tongues!), we were informed that under the US Patriot Act, we were required to be finger printed for the FBI (standard protocol for anyone denied entry under immigration reasons) before we could be released.  So after being informed it would take 15-20 minutes, we were released 1 hour later…escorted to the Canadian border line-up, and explained to the Canada Customs agent why we were coming back early (actually the official US Customs papers we were given explained it quite nicely!).  So we went for lunch, had a few laughs, and called it a day after a three-hour adventure at your friendly neighborhood border crossing.

So what did I learn amidst the disappointment, frustration and 3 hours of sitting on a hard wood bench?

Never assume everything is good-to-go- I’m not sure anyone would have even thought to check US immigration policy for something like this, but just because you make plans over the border, doesn’t always mean it’ll happen as planned.  When planning anything that is remotely out-of-the-ordinary when travelling across the border…it doesn’t ever hurt to do a little research.

There’s a reason for everything…but don’t over-analyze it!– it would be easy to want to submit this whole ordeal to a series of ‘what-if?’ scenarios…what ifwe left 10 minutes earlier?…if I hadn’t got caught by the train?…we went to another booth, or Aldergrove crossing?…if I didn’t say anything about volunteering.  I could go on-and-on, but that wouldn’t help or change anything.  Did this whole thing happen ‘for a reason’?  Was this all part of God’s plan…His will?  Well I’m not sure if this event happened for a specific, planned reason…we may find out later in due time, or we may never know this side of Heaven.  What I do know is that God only has 2 ‘wills’ for my life (and yours)…and that is His moral will, which is revealed to us in scripture (what God desires of us as His people…moral, character, purity laws…and these are not ‘enforced on us’, which means we can choose to obey, or to ignore them.  Secondly, God’s sovereign will, which is that pre-determined plan that God has for our lives and the world around us, and is unknown to us…only God knows.  Unlike the above moral will, which we can choose to obey or reject, this sovereign will cannot be diverted or circumvented by us…what God wills to happen, is going to happen.  For more on Knowing God’s Will, you can read a brief little article from Insight for Living Canada.

Anyways…sometimes things happen, and you just have to accept that you cannot control it…period.  Was this part of God’s will?  I don’t know His sovereign will, but I do know His moral will…and that would call us to respond to every situation with character, uprightness, and with the intent to honor the Lord (Romans 12:1-2 would be a good place to start!).  So His will for us that day, and everyday, was to honor Him by being honest, upright, prayerful, and ready to respond in character no matter what the outcome.  So if I was to analyze anything, it would be “did I handle that situation in a way that would make God smile?”

People are always watching…so make the most of every opportunity– The moment we said we were going to a Christian conference…it was game-on!  Every response would now be put into that little figurative microscope of scrutiny…so we had to make sure we took advantage of the opportunity to be a reflective witness for Christ (there’s that reference to doing God’s ‘will’ in the Eph. passage!).  With all these laws and regulations, it makes it tough for the average Joe to want to tell all the facts when crossing the border…and after several explanations from customs officers, it’s like they almost entice you to want to lie…or at least not reveal all the facts.  I think this is an area that can cause compromise for many Christians…”no sir, I did not buy or purchase anything while in Bellingham“…which translated could often mean…”no sir I did not buy or purchase anything…but my friend in the states bought it for me, and I paid him for it…”  We could apply this situational ethics to most everything in our lives (business practice, school assignments and plagiarism, taxes, calling in ‘sick’…), but in most every circumstance there are people watching…and even when we think no one sees…God is never duped!  I’m not saying I didn’t want lash out at someone…I just submitted myself to the influence of Holy Spirit, rather than my own flesh 🙂

US customs agents don’t like to exercise– or at least many appear to not have a gym membership, or regular exercise regime!  There were a lot of big fellas/fella-ettes around…and I don’t mean ‘ripped’ when I say ‘big’!

God is at work, even when our plans don’t work!- with every seemingly missed opportunity in life, God is quite often still actively at work in the midst of things.  Little did we know that during our 3 hour ‘missed’ opportunity, the Lord was placing other opportunities right in front of us.  We had a cool conversation with a younger couple who were also denied entry, and they overheard our dialogue with the agents, and between my friend and I, and it led to an open-door to share the light of Christ with them…both in actions, and spoken word!  God was also at-work in our witness to the customs agents, who numerous times commented on our honesty and “noble ambition to want to make a positive contribution to society and young people.”  God is always at-work in every circumstance…we just need to sometimes open our eyes, minds and hearts a little wider to see it!

So there you have it…a tale of border adventures, and insight for dealing with a little discouragement!  If you have any cool…or not-so-cool ‘border’ stories, I’d love to hear them…and likely, so would the rest of those @ Here and There…

  1. Wow, what a day Shawn! Way to handle it all with Grace. It’s hard not to be disappointed with your vision of how the day should have gone but you never know… your life could have been spared due to the border denial. Thanks for making us Christians look good in the face of a little adversity 🙂

    • Thanks christina…I wish I could say that everything that entered into my mind that day was noble and pleasing…it was certainly a frustrating experience, but at least I didn’t outwardly express anything I would regret!

      Funny thing was, the next week when I went to the States, I got the same officer at the booth on my way in…so good thing we didn’t let our frustration boil over during our border ordeal!

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