Our trip to Quebec was lovely, thanks. Returning to the U.S., not so much.
At the Jackman, Maine, border crossing into the United States, I get interrogated about what I have in my car. And not just the three juicy Canada-bought clementines, either.
"What is your relation to these children?" brusquely demands the young border guard who examines my two daughters’ passports and my own.
They do have their mother’s last name, and they do look somewhat Asian. I’m white. Maybe he’s curious. So I don’t give him any lip.
"I’m their dad."
"Where is their mother?"
"At home, I guess."
"Do you have a letter with her permission for you to travel with them?"
"I wasn’t aware that I needed any such thing,” I say. “Are you telling me I do?"
He clearly doesn’t appreciate even that tiny bit of pushback.
"Never mind. Follow me into lane one, please. We’re going to have to search your vehicle. Please give me your driver’s license."
I hand it to him, then park the car in the area he indicates.
"Now please get out of the car and follow me inside."
I grab my iPhone off the dash, hit the record button, and tell him politely: “For my protection, officer, I’m now recording what’s happening.” He stays silent. I step out of the car, and without warning, he physically attacks—that is, he wrestles the phone from my hand, twisting my arm in the process. I’m stunned.
"Officer, I do not give you permission to take my phone."
"I don’t need your permission!” he barks. “Get inside and sit on the bench. With your kids."
He disappears. With my phone.
Inside the building, I ultimately get a lecture from two other border patrol officers—friendlier, but not by much—about why recording is not allowed.
"If you upload it or share it in any way, people are going to know what kinds of questions we ask," one of them says.
That makes no sense, I say. “As a journalist, I can tell the world, in writing, what questions you ask. In the U.S., anyone has that right. That’s certainly not against the law. What’s the difference between that and recording the conversation?”
A moment’s hesitation.
"Officer safety and security."
I consider it. Might be fun to turn the tables for a moment, and use the argument of the typical surveillance enthusiast against them.
"If you all behave professionally, I believe you have nothing to worry about, and I don’t see why being recorded should faze you."
'Officer safety' strike me as a nonsense. They're all wearing name tags. I could identify them in writing, in public, and that wouldn't be an intolerable affront against safety and security. Why would a voice recording be any different?
Now, to my surprise, my oldest daughter pipes up, in her sweetest voice. She’s 11.
"Why are you telling my dad this?"
I stare at her, wondering if, for her own good, I should tell her to zip it.
The answer from one of the guards is unexpected: “Because!”
What in the world? Who’s the child here?
My daughter doesn’t hesitate. In a soft but clear voice, she tells the two uniformed men, “‘Because’ is not a reason.”
Holy crap. I am suddenly swelling with pride. But take it easy, kid, I think—this is not your fight. I gesture to her that it’s all right. She sits back down on the bench.
Then I fill out a customs declaration, as requested, and am resigned to letting my car get searched…for no reason that I’m aware of, unless it is that, ten minutes earlier, I hadn’t smiled ingratiatingly enough.
But the guys now have other plans.
"We’ll need you to delete from your phone what you just recorded."
I think about it. Is this leverage, maybe? “If I do, are we free to go?” I ask.
Surprisingly, the answer is yes.
They retrieve my phone.
I take a chance and delete the recording while one of the officers watches closely. I figure that if I ever need to retrieve the footage, I’ll find a software expert who knows how.
To his credit, the officer wasn’t lying. I promptly get our passports and my driver’s license back.
"Welcome home," he says, perhaps brightening at the prospect that I will soon be out of his life. The feeling is mutual.
My daughters and I roll away, in our unsearched car—having ultimately posed no greater threat to the United States than the unthinking importation of three clementines, contraband that the border patrol professionals have bravely confiscated and discarded.
I’m sure they’ll rest easy tonight, and so can you.