I’m an Alien, an Illegal Alien…

This morning, for the first time in my life, I was denied access to a country. In particular, I was denied access to the United States.

I was scheduled to spend three days at Microsoft as part of the MSN Search Champs program. I knew a number of people who were going, it sounded like fun, and I was excited to see the Redmond campus.

When I arrived at US Customs, I did the thing I always do when travelling on business to the States. I said I was attending some meetings. This has always worked in the past, and, conveniently, is also tends to be true.

Today, I must have had a particularly inquisitive customs agent. He asked a few more questions, asked to see my business card and then upgraded (downgraded?) me to the secondary interview room. There I had a longer interview, and I answered all their questions politely and honestly.

Ultimately, the customs agents concluded that because Microsoft was covering my flight and accommodation, I was being compensated for consulting activities. In order to enter the country, I’d need a work permit. I didn’t have one, and certainly wasn’t going to produce one in the next four hours, so I was stuck in newly-Conservative Canada.

I then stood around for 45 minutes while the agent processed my ‘withdrawal of application’. Ironically, his machine was downloading a patch–government IT folks apparently don’t run these things in the middle of the night. So, I had to wait until that was done, while casting worried glances at the three (three!) boxes of rubber gloves sitting on an adjacent stainless steel table.

While I waited, I watched a half dozen other people get processed. Five out of six of them were denied.

I asked the agent whether this would impact future attempts to travel for pleasure to the US. He said no, so long as I had enough documentation to verify my pleasure travel status. He also advised me to, “you know, go to Hawaii and Palm Springs”. So I guess a pleasure cruise in Lake Michigan is out of the question.

Ultimately, it was a civil experience. No strip search or, uh, digital exam (thank goodness, as Constable Hurtado (not his real name) had massive hands). Just a conversation and a lot of waiting. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I certainly had an easier time than Jeremy.


  1. hmm…maybe next time, just hitch hike thru Sarnia then catch a plane from Detroit? LOL! But tell us honestly, while you were standing around, you were thinking, “this is gonna be great to write about in my blog at least!”

  2. Nancy: Good point.

    Buzz: Not a bad idea, but on the off chance that they do process me again, I wouldn’t wanted to suffer the consequences.

  3. I travel to the U.S frequently as part of my job. At the border I say I’m going there for “training”. They usually ask if I’m being paid by Canadian company, which I am; they’re okay with that.

    You have me scared now, though.

  4. And I don’t have a passport; I use my birth certificate and driver’s license. I travel to the U.S. at least once a month (I’m in Flint as I write this).

  5. I *always* get hassled when I go to the US for business. I seem to spend way longer in Customs than anyone else I know — even co-workers.

    I always have a business card and a letter on letterhead that explains my role and how I’m not being compensated in any way by anyone in the US.

    Maybe next time you can arrange for MS Canada to comp you, instead of MS USA.

  6. It’s pretty insane. The only hassles I got travelling over half the world were at the Los Angeles airport, where a guard ordered me to take off my shoes and pirouette in a circle. “Dance, Monkey, Dance!” I could hear in my head.

    A woman I know, who’s vaguely granola and left wing (lives in Vancouver,) was refused entry to the States because she’s on some sort of list. Her and I can’t imagine what. Maybe they think a woman in her fifties with hair past her butt is a suicide bomber or something. Hooray for Jesustan!

  7. Odd. Them covering your expenses isn’t compensation, according to DHS standards. I know, because that’s how I travel to most conferences and speaking gigs.

    You probably should have had a letter going in, saying you were invited and were not being paid…

    Ah well. It WILL be in the system though, and you WILL be asked about it whenever they pull you in. Besides that it’s not a big deal.

  8. Wow, that’s really unfortunate to hear about that. I’ve never been hassled by U.S. Customs before, and my experiences have always–considering what happened here–been pleasant.

    The only time that I ever feared that I would be denied entry into a country was actually in Canada. About three years ago, a friend of mine and I went up to Vancouver for a few days while we were visiting the Northwest. While we were getting our luggage in the airport, after passing Canadian customs officials, a custom official approached me and said something to effect of “excuse me, bringing drug paraphernalia into this country is illegal.” For about five minutes, he confronted my friend and I about this, threatening to search us, but ultimately let us go.

    I’m sure he was doing his job or having a bad day, but I really thought for a few minutes with my heart beating like mad that I was going to be sent back to the States. Besides, I’m hardly the drug type.

  9. Even though i am dual-citizen and can legally work in both countries and carry two passports (yes, that is legal), i almost always say, “I am going shopping in Bellingham” – it just keeps things easier and doesn’t work the wee noggins of the customs lackies too hard (what do they give these guys? a brochure and a gun and say “go to work?”)

  10. DaveO: I don’t know about US Customs guards, but the Canadian guards have to take a fairly brutal exam. I spent three hours in a room where they showed me videos, photos, reports, documents, sounds and other information. After three hours, they sent us to lunch. When we came back, we had a three-hour exam that grilled us on what we’d seen in the morning. For example, “What was the man who stole a donut wearing?” or “What other products were on sale in the donut shop?” And then there were pictures of people with various modifications – scarves, fake noses, glasses, beards, dye jobs, etc. We were asked to recall license plate numbers, memos and other weird things. There were also lots of math questions and some verbal questions. It was brutal. It was 12 years ago and I still remember some of the questions.

    I passed and was offered a test, but I turned it down to work for another branch of the government. However, I seem to recall that the passing mark was somewhere around the 85th percentile. I’m not even sure my GMAT was as exhausting.

  11. I’ve been invited to Seattle many times to my company’s HQ, but apart from the fact I work for the company that invited me, my situation seems just about the same as yours. (Except my ‘deportation’ would be a 10 hour flight back to Europe 😉 )

    The previous comment to have it organized by MS Canada seems a good one.

  12. Stricter controls will only cause problems for people legally entering the states. Illegals will always find a way.

  13. My boyfriend tried to come visit last september and was held in toronto customs for 5 hrs, fingerprinted, interrogated, etc. his mistake? he said he was going to visit his girlfriend. He is young looking and had just started a new job in canada. Not enough ties, looks like someone trying to escape to the US. Denied. Lost his plane ticket. I feel for you.

  14. well i hate usa airports, they didnt let my husband throught last year to Scotland because he couldn t give them the right info and he got tongue twisted so they sent his ass back to usa, omg! i was so angry when the PAKISTAN called me frm London airport and said ur Husband isnt allowd through, even though we r married for 3 years, that doesnt count? yea right, the usics sucks big time and im no great fan!!! ahhhhhh whatever

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  17. Really crazy. It’s looking like in the middle age. Even Switzerland doesn’t make identity controls any more at the frontiers. really US start to look more and more antipathetic. No matter, even between neighbours…

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