Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Welcome Home


Well, we chose the wrong car to get behind at the border checkpoint, as usual.

The U.S. Immigration officer is taking his time with this one. He's stepped out of the box with a heaving swagger, his barrel chest huge and heavy under his body armor and dark navy cop's shirt. Slowly, he walks around, shading his face with his hands as he peers in the back windows, then wandering to the back of the car to pop open the trunk for a leisurely poke through its contents. He opens a zippered suitcase and gropes around the sides. On the passenger side, a younger officer stands by with a beagle in a bright green jacket, who is sniffing at the wheel wells for drugs.

Finally, after a long Q-and-A with the driver and a long second look at the passports and his computer screen, he waves them on reluctantly -- as though he's sure there's something going on there, but he can't quite make a case that would stick. As the car disappears around the corner, he waves us forward. My husband gooses our ancient SUV through the yellow barriers. A flash goes off as the camera takes a picture of our license plate, and now it’s our turn.

We know the drill so well now that we can almost do it in our sleep. (Though sleeping in front of a CIS officer is a no-no: it's best to wake napping passengers up when you get near the front of the line. Other big no-nos are reading, eating, talking to other people in the car, listening to an iPod, or -- don’t even think about this -- having the radio on.) Over the last three years, we reckon we've passed through this checkpoint well over 100 times, usually on day runs down to Bellingham to pick up mail and do our US banking.

"Where do you live?" It's almost always the first question, and his eyes stay on our faces while his hands effortlessly skim the edges of our passports through an automatic scanner.

"North Vancouver." It's just like talking to any cop: you don't offer any information you're not asked for.

He scans the screen for a moment. It's full of information, evidently accessed via that photo of our license plate and the numbers in the passports. Within a second or two, it's already told him how to handle us. There are only a couple questions after that.

"What brings you to the US this morning?"

"We're just down for the day to get our mail."

"Are you bringing anything down with you -- meat, eggs, plants, gifts, anything like that?"

We know the right answer to this one, and give it without a moment's thought. "No. No food on board. And we're not bringing anything else that's going to stay in the country." Sometimes, we'll make a joke about it: "Only this box of Timbits (Timbits are an iconic Canadian snack -- assorted donut holes, bought by the box at Tim Horton's donut shops, of which there is one right before the border) -- which we guarantee you will be eaten before we leave the US." If the officer is in a smiling mood, this always gets a grin.

"OK, then," the agent says, glancing at the cars down the line as he folds up our passports and hands them back to us. "Have a nice stay." (Once in a while, one will say, "Welcome home.")

You go through this wait and this interview a hundred or so times, watching the ebb and flow of officer interest in people as the lines move around you, and you can't help but wonder. Why did they wave that huge RV through in under 30 seconds -- but pull over that pickup truck for a thorough tossing? Why does my husband attract no attention at all when he's with me -- looking like the male half of a nice middle-aged suburban white couple in family car -- and considerably more when he's by himself in his own car, a vaguely Semitic single man traveling alone in a BMW convertible that's seen better days? What information are they gleaning from questions like, "Why did you move to Canada?" (And, no, we didn't say: Dude, look in the mirror.) And, most curious of all: What on earth is on that screen that pops up when the officer runs our passports?

Well, we know the answer to that now, don't we? Michael J. Sniffen of the AP explains it all to us:
The Associated Press reported Thursday that Americans and foreigners crossing U.S. borders since 2002 have been assessed by the Homeland Security Department's computerized Automated Targeting System, or ATS.

The travelers are not allowed to see or directly challenge these risk assessments, which the government intends to keep on file for 40 years. Some or all data in the system can be shared with state, local and foreign governments for use in hiring, contracting and licensing decisions. Courts and even some private contractors can obtain some of the data under certain circumstances.

Almost every person entering and leaving the United States by air, sea or land is assessed based on ATS' analysis of their travel records and other data, including items such as where they are from, how they paid for tickets, their motor vehicle records, past one-way travel, seating preference and what kind of meal they ordered.

Acting Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Paul Rosenzweig told reporters Friday they could call it scoring. "It can be reduced to a number," he said, but he clearly preferred the longer description about how the rules are used.

Great. I'm from San Francisco, which has got to mean my score is probably in the tank from the get-go. If they've got my air travel records, they can see I've done the occasional one-way trip (usually some sort of drive/fly vacation involving our RV) -- oops, points off for that, too. Being a lover of window seats probably calms their minds -- you can't make sudden moves when you're wedged in behind two other passengers -- but Mr. R is an aisle seat kinda guy, and a long-time martial artist to boot. He could do some damage in a hurry if he had a mind to. Big guy, big points off there.

And what about those meals? I usually order vegetarian or kosher meals on flights originating in the Midwest, where airline catering often doesn't have quite the flair one finds at coastal airports. It's one way to increase the odds of getting a decent meal. It's probably a good thing it's never occurred to me to order halal. But millions of other have made this choice, unaware that they were implicating themselves as potential terrorists.

The basic paranoia that prevails at US border crossings, both air and land, has already muted my behavior in many small ways that rub at my American sense of justice like gravel in sweaty shoes. The way I tuck away my reading material before approaching the checkpoint, for fear that seeing The Nation or Mother Jones in my lap will arouse unnecessary suspicions. The way I just never get around to putting those great bumper stickers on my car, for the same reason. Being liberal in America these days means that you're only safe as long as you don't try to wear it (literally) on your sleeve or anywhere else. Being a liberal who regularly crosses borders may be unsurprising as a metaphor; but as a literal act, it's best approached with caution, in full awareness that you are putting yourself in the direct path of all kinds of official mischief.

And now it turns out that, for the past four years, all this information, some factual, some inferred, has been compiled into a superfile that -- unlike my driving record, my medical file, or my credit rating -- is completely out of my ability to view, correct, or control. Every time I cross that border or get on an airplane, I'm adding another data point to its detailed and growing portrait of my life. If the border guard is feeling cranky, he can take the time to read the screen in greater detail, and harass me about the things he finds "of interest." And it does happen: the "Why did you move to Canada?" guy went on to ask a lot of other questions about our political beliefs, more than hinting that he found the idea of Americans choosing to live elsewhere deeply offensive and suspicious. He did not approve of our choice; and he was determined to make us answer to him for it. For about five seconds, we considered discussing his attitude with his supervisor -- and then realized that even that very reasonable step would likely get us written up in a file somewhere (and now we know exactly where) as activist malcontents, and subjected to much worse harassment in the future. But keeping silent is always a mistake, too: because we didn't do that, he's probably out there on the job today, adding who knows what to the files of those unlucky enough to end up at his booth.

The thought that would-be stormtroopers like this one, based on secret information and a whim, could detain me, restrict my access to the country of my birth, put my US assets and mail beyond reach, charge me in secret, and deport me for extrajudicial "treatment" is terrifying. And all this inferential "data" is, day by day, making its way into other databases, where it will be seen (according to the AP) by employers, lower-level governments, contracting agencies, and people who issue licenses. Lies and whispers, hints and allegations -- yet they may someday, without our even being aware of it, determine which of us gets a job, a loan, a university acceptance, a government contract, a business license.

Is it worth exposing myself to all this just to go get my damned mail? It's a question I've started asking myself every time I pull into the southbound customs line to wait for my welcome home.

Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont has promised to institute oversight on the ATS program in the new year.

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