Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A Peace Bridge Story

Many Americans do not realize how many legal hoops the US immigration system makes people jump through. As a Canadian working here, I just got back from jumping through a big one earlier today, and thought I'd share the experience.

I have been here in the US on a temporary work authorization (H1B) for a few years, and needed to convert it to a different status (TN), as my H1B status was expiring in just a month. To do this, I had two choices. I could do it by mail, or I could do it by leaving and re-entering the country. If I did it by mail, I would not be allowed to leave the US for any reason for the whole time it was processing (over 4 months). With almost all of my family and my wife's family outside the US, this was too much of a burden, so I decided to leave and re-enter, and accept the risk that entails.

Of course, leaving and re-entering has its own challenges: the person who makes the final decision is not a nameless bureaucrat, he is right in front of you. And, if he turns you down, you don't have much in the way of right to appeal. But, for me the risk is worth it when it makes it possible to let my kids see their grandparents for Christmas.

As I figured, there were four possibilities that could have happened:

Option A: They approve me.
Option B: They turn me down, but let me come into the US to finish out my H1B. If this happened, I'd have to quit my job, pack my belongings, pull my kids out of school, and leave.
Option C: They turn me down, but let me come in as a visitor to pack up my things. This would have been the same as B, except it would yank the rug out from my employer: I'd be forced to quit with no notice.
Option D: They turn me down and tell me to go away. With this option, I'd need to leave my wife to do all the packing and handle the move while I'd wait in Canada.

While option A was the most likely, I knew that all four options were legal possibilities for me, and would be at the sole discretion of the immigration officer I'd meet. I knew I was to speak at the Oracle OpenWorld a week ago, and did not want to mess that up if the Department of Homeland Security picked options B, C, or D for me, so I waited until this past weekend to make the trip.

Last week, I forewarned my boss about all this, I put together (with the help of my attorney) an application package about an inch thick, and on Thursday, I went into work late at night (so nobody would see me doing it) to clean out my office in case I was not allowed to come back and clean it out myself. Then, on Saturday, I kissed my wife goodbye, and drove to Toronto, Canada to stay with friends and family and feel totally stressed out.

Earlier this morning, I left Toronto, stopped in at the Duty Free Store, said a little prayer, and continued driving across the Peace Bridge into Buffalo, New York.

On the American side of the bridge, I came to the border checkpoint (which looks a bit like a toll plaza) and told the officer I had a TN application package. After a brief but friendly conversation, he radioed a description of my car, handed me a red referral form, took away my passport and put it into a yellow envelope, and told me to "make a hard right, pull into the parking lot beside the U-Haul truck, and go through door number 1". I followed his instructions, and as I got close to the U-Haul truck, I saw another officer beckoning me and directing me to a parking spot. After I got out of my car, she asked me if I was going to door #1, and directed me to it.

Inside door #1 was one of the most miserable rooms I have ever been inside in my life. In an obviously old building, the "waiting room" we were in was really a lobby, with dingy green tiles around the walls, four decrepit chairs with ripped fabric in the corners, and steel-trim doors, one on each wall: the door to outside (from which I entered), two other doors with one-way glass and "do not enter" written on them, and a third door with a sign reading, "if the immigration officer outside took your identification, wait here, otherwise come inside." Inside the room with me were about 20 bewildered and stressed-out people, about half with brown faces, many speaking foreign languages, and all of whom were "referred" there because the first officer they saw could not admit them to the country. Here, they would be called a few at a time through the door with the sign, where a "secondary inspection" officer would decide their fate.

Of course, I knew I was going into this room, knew I'd be interviewed, and knew I'd be there a while, so I went wearing a suit and tie, and brought a novel with me to read. In that room, sitting calmly reading my book among all these bedraggled and bewildered people, I stuck out like a sore thumb.

After about half an hour, a very serious 50-something man in a uniform came through one door, pointed at me, and told me to go through the door with the sign. He beckoned me to a booth with a video camera mounted on the side panel, pointed at me. He stood on the other side of the counter, took my application packet, asked a few simple questions, and told me to go back to the other room and he'd be with me in a few minutes.

On the way into the room with the counter, I'd noticed a girl, perhaps 17, walking like in a stupor back into the waiting room. When I returned to the waiting room, she was there sitting in shock for a few minutes. She walked over to a payphone, made a call, and broke down crying on the phone, saying she was "stuck here" and wondering what to do. Evidently, she had been pulled off a bus (perhaps a school trip) and was now being denied entry into the US and stuck at the border crossing with nothing but her suitcase while the bus and the rest of its passengers were allowed through.

I was called back in, told "go pay the cashier, you're all set". I paid the cashier, picked up my passport, and as I was coming back out, an immigration officer interrupted the crying girl and told her, "here's your ride to Canada". As I was walking out the door, the poor girl was being escorted out of the building by an immigration officer and into a waiting taxi: "expedited removal". I hope she made it home okay.

You could probably write a book about all the drama that goes on at that border crossing every day. Fortunately, my story had a happy ending today.