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The Independent Institute
Commentary

Canada Copies U.S. Customs


Ironically, Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan was traveling to the United States to promote his latest film about post-9/11 racial profiling when he was detained upon entry into the country at Newark’s Liberty (another irony) International Airport. U.S. officials denied that Khan was formally detained, but his interrogation lasted more than an hour. The outraged Khan pledged to cut back on visits to the United States, and his incensed fans held a raucous protest. I feel Khan’s pain—literally.

On Aug. 11, I flew into Canada at Winnipeg International Airport for an outdoor wilderness vacation. Like Khan, I was detained—without the formality—for 35 minutes by Canadian immigration and customs officials.

Why Canadian ICE selected me to be detained remains unclear, but I was not told that it was only a “routine inspection” until about the 30-minute mark. Although I knew that I was not a terrorist or a criminal, the exhaustive questioning of every minor detail about my trip and the lengthy searches through my suitcase, my wallet, and my personal computer files made me begin to worry about mistaken identity or trumped-up violations.

At the 20-minute mark, with my ride still waiting for me, an immigration officer informed me that after all of these intrusive searches, he had to do some “background checks.” By then I had had enough and barked at them, “It’s been 20 minutes! How long is this going to take?” After being informed that I had crossed an international border, I informed them that I had crossed many of them around the world, including those of authoritarian countries, and had never experienced a violation of my privacy on this scale. By this time, being on a roll, I went straight for the jugular of shame, declaring, “I am disappointed in Canada.”

All three Canadian officers who had by then congregated around me—pretending to be as swaggering, macho, and surly as their American counterparts, but failing miserably—seemed to register a flickering look of embarrassment on their faces. This was an ephemeral victory, because the background checks took another 15 minutes. Yet it was a victory.

Nowadays, being compared to authoritarian regimes would not even get a fleeting reaction of chagrin from U.S. immigration and customs officials. After all, the Canadians seem to have learned everything about border security from the invasive American model. For example, the questions on Canadian customs forms are identical to those on U.S. forms—Have you been on a farm? Are you bringing in agricultural products? Are you bringing more than $10,000 in cash into the country?, etc.

In addition, after 9/11, the small nation of Canada has been pressured by the leviathan superpower to its south to tighten security against terrorists. It has not resisted the pressure very well.

Unlike Khan, I did not have hordes of supporters burning flags in anger about my traumatic experience. However, I did have a friend picking me up at the airport, who was also officially questioned about our trip.

After the ordeal was over, we had a splendid time carrying out all sorts of nefarious activities—swimming, boating, kayaking, and canoeing. Since canoeing usually requires two people, could this be considered a “conspiracy”? Expect a question about it on ICE forms soon.


Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.


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