In the summer of 1998 I was on a bus from Montreal to New York. At the United States border we were told to get off, get our bags and file through a building. Inside I showed an immigration agent my passport, or maybe my driver’s license.
“Why’d you go to Canada?”
“For a conference.”
“What kind of conference?”
“A conference on computational linguistics.”
“So you’re a computer programmer?”
“Sort of, I’m-“
“Why’d you go to Canada?”
“For a conf-“
“Bye. Go on.”
It’s hard for me to put into words exactly what bothered me about this exchange. It always upsets me to be interrupted, dismissed and silenced, but this particular instance has stayed with me over almost 21 years.
The logical incoherence of the conversation bothered me at first. The agent clearly understood my first answer, and he couldn’t have forgotten it so quickly, so why did he ask again? And then why didn’t he wait for me to answer again?
A few years later, someone told me that a common technique in psychological screenings is to ask the same question multiple times. If someone gives inconsistent answers, that suggests that they’re lying or otherwise unreliable. My best guess is that this immigration agent was trying to catch me in a lie.
If that’s what he was doing, he was really inept at it. That technique depends on the subject refreshing their short term memory, which requires more intervening conversation and a change of topic. It simply wasn’t possible for him to deploy that technique effectively while keeping the line moving, but he didn’t realize that.
That bungled interrogation tactic was disorienting, but the agent could have reassured me with a few words, or even a smile. Instead, he compounded his manipulation with dismissiveness and contempt.
As I walked away from the desk, I was struck by the brutality of the interaction, at the feeling of being in the hands of someone who saw me as less than human. I could have protested, but I had heard stories. They could have found some reason to question me, hold me in the middle of nowhere until after my bus left, until after the last bus left.
Of course I was not physically harmed in any way. I wasn’t detained or prevented from boarding my bus. I was not even insulted or threatened. It feels weird to even talk about my experience in light of the much worse abuses that so many people have suffered under the Border Patrol over the years, especially since Donald Trump became President.
Somehow, it feels relevant. The casual nature of the brutality, even just in the tone, that that Border Patrol officer felt comfortable using in a routine interrogation of someone he saw as a privileged (but bus-riding) white male citizen who wasn’t challenging his power at all made me imagine what he and his colleagues were capable of with people who don’t look like middle-class white guys and don’t have citizenship papers.
I wrote most of this post last year, after reading articles about rank-and-file border patrol officers expressing satisfaction that they’d been “unshackled” by Trump, but I didnt finish it. Today, when the Acting Commissioner of the Border Patrol announced that they were being deployed to the District of Columbia (which hasn’t had a border since 1861) I remembered that incident in 1998, and felt I should share my story.