The Border "Mind Game"

Fall 2000 CSANews Issue 36  |  Posted date : Mar 06, 2007.Back to list

As you drive towards the U.S. border, does your heart beat a little faster? Do your palms become sweaty? Are you beginning to feel anxious? If so, it's quite a normal reaction to a Canada/U.S. border crossing and is probably being experienced by many others in the cars around you.

You are experiencing your body's physiological reaction to a perceived confrontational interaction, over which you believe you have no control.

Let me run that past you again, this time in plain English . . . your brain is telling your body - probably distorting the actual circumstance somewhat as a result of all those horror stories we have heard - that there may be bad times ahead, and is getting ready to react (the old "fight or flight" reaction left over from our caveman ancestry).

But there are many things you can do to reduce this stress and regain control over the situation. Some require planning before you leave on your trip, others are things you can do just prior to, and during your border crossing.

As a veteran of many border crossings and with a high personal stake (I could not gather material to write my book, "Along Interstate-75" if denied entry to the U.S.), over the years I have learned a number of ways to protect myself throughout the crossing process. I'll explain each one and tell you how they can help you too.

Before You Leave Home
In the last issue of CSA News (Summer 2000, page 28), immigration lawyer Andrew Cumming gave excellent advice about the documents you should carry in your vehicle. Andrew has prepared my border-crossing kit for the last three years, and having it in the car gives great peace of mind. The documents I offer at U.S. primary inspection (the drive-through booth) are my Canadian passport and my CanPass (see page 41). I'll explain later how I use both of these to help speed me on my way.

I have never had to use the other documents in my kit (see Andrew's article). Just knowing they are there in an envelope in my car door pocket, ready to take with me if I have to go into the Customs/Immigration office (secondary inspection) is very reassuring.

Before You Cross the Border
If travelling with more than one person in the car, let's talk about which of you is the best person to be in the driver's seat at the border . . . because this is the person who is going to do most of the talking. No matter what the inspection officer's attitude, the driver must not react to it or mirror it (a natural tendency), but must reply to questions in a straightforward, courteous manner.

Sarcasm disguised as courtesy is dangerous (a possible reaction to an inspector with a poor attitude). Forget humour - it rarely "butters" the inspector up and can often misfire. The driver should only answer the officer's specific questions and not volunteer any information which has not been requested. It's not a social occasion, but a very serious business communication. So put the person who is best able to handle this in the driver's seat and do not volunteer subsidiary information.

While stopped to make this change (the Canada Customs or Duty Free store parking areas are good places to stop), have a look around the inside of your car and make sure it supports the statements you will be making at inspection. Get out and look through the open driver's window (the officer's view). If you are going to Florida, maps of Tampa, etc. in the passenger door pocket are quite appropriate (a copy of my book, "Along Interstate-75" lying visibly on the console doesn't hurt, either!!!). If you have a portable ice box, it's better to put it in the trunk rather than in plain view on the back seat. From personal experience, I have found that one of these in plain view can open up a whole new line of agricultural questioning - but that's another story.

Finally, give some thought to these questions. What citizenship? Where do you live? Where are you going? For how long? What's the purpose of your visit? You will probably be asked at least some of these "standards."

We are now ready to join the traffic and head across the border to the primary inspection booth.

In the Pre-inspection Area
Are there lots of cars lined up ahead? If so, this is where your mind can really start to trigger stress. Distract yourself. Talk about last week's party. Find a talk radio show that holds some interest for you. Whatever you do, don't get impatient and honk your horn. I actually heard this happen once and I suspect that car is still there being cleared!

Next but One
Start to prepare yourself for the inspection. Get your passports (and CanPass) ready by opening them at the photo pages. Turn off the radio and roll down your window. Take deep belly (diaphragm) breaths - breathe in with your hand on your tummy pushing in - hold for five seconds - breathe out - do this five times. Result? . . . much of your stress will wash away and you have just used up another 30 seconds!

Border Inspection Station Buffalo, New York, USA. The cities are connected via the Peace Bridge which spans the Niagara River.

At the Primary Inspection Booth
Well, it's now your turn. Let me explain the interaction that's about to take place.

The inspection officer is trained with a specific agenda in mind. He or she must, within a few seconds, assess whether:
  1. you are a citizen of a country eligible to enter the U.S.,
  2. you wish to enter for a legitimate pleasure or eligible business reason (the officer has to sort out in his or her mind into which "slot" you fit, and whether you can enter under an oral visa or must go to secondary inspection to complete written documentation),
  3. you intend to return to Canada within a reasonable time frame, and
  4. you have the financial resources to do so (since you are driving a car, appear reasonably well groomed (I hope) and have luggage - this last assessment is probably a moot point).
Your mission is to answer all the questions honestly without raising side issues; to remain cool and calm while doing it (remember our chat in the Duty Free parking lot?), and get you and your family across the border with the minimum of fuss.

Now let's talk about your body language actions and how you can deliver some very positive messages to aid your goals.

As you approach the booth and while still rolling, hold out your passports (blue covers up) so that the gold Canadian coat of arms can be seen - if you have the plastic CanPass card, give this visibility priority (officer's reaction: tendency to dismiss the citizenship question - it will still be asked, but it's no longer a primary issue. He/she may mention that the CanPass has no bearing on entry into the U.S., but it has registered positively in his/her mind. The officer knows that you have been pre-screened and have satisfied the requirements of the Canadian government. At the very least, the officer doesn't have to worry about whether your passport is bogus or not).

Just before you stop, and in plain view of the officer but before he/she can ask the first question - remove your glasses. Unless you are absolutely blind, this recommendation applies to all glasses - whether dark or mirrored "sun-shades" or clear prescriptives. You can always put prescriptives back on if you need to read something (officer's reaction: "reads" non-threat, openness, honesty - all very conducive to an uncomplicated border crossing).

When you stop level with the booth window. . . this is really going to surprise you . . . turn-off your car engine! This is a very unusual action, but gives you a great psychological advantage. The officer may react in one of two ways; most will "read" this as a very positive "nothing to hide" sign. Some will think, "why did that happen?" If the latter, you will be asked about it. Your reply? "I just wanted to make sure I can hear your questions properly." After all, if you are like many seniors, you may be a little hard of hearing.

This "trick" was given to me by a person who is an expert at human behaviour. It may take a little nerve to do this the first time, but I can report that whenever I have done it, I have always had the easiest of border crossings.

Oh . . . by the way . . . don't try this unless you are sure your car will easily start again!

During the questioning, maintain good, but not solid, eyeball contact. This positive and honest body language sign is well known and has been documented in many places. People with something to hide do not maintain good eyeball contact, or their eye contact is solid and intimidating.

Well, hopefully, you have been told, "Fine, have a good day," and are now on your way towards your.

CanPass: The government of Canada's CanPass pre-clearance program provides you (and immediate family members who apply with you) with a laminated plastic card containing your photo and signature, a special sticker for your windshield and a "Letter of Authority" which enables you to use the speedy commuter lanes and bypass regular inspection booth lines when re-entering Canada. You can, however, be subject to a random check to ensure that you are complying with customs regulations.

To be eligible for this program, you must be a Canadian or U.S. citizen, or a documented Canadian resident. You must apply for the card ahead of your intended crossing and can do this by mail. Prior to actual use, you must visit the CanPass office at the border and have your photo taken. For further details, phone 1-800-842-7647.

Cross-Border Kit: To obtain further information about immigration lawyer Andrew Cumming and his cross-border kit, phone 416-943-4712.