Tuesday, April 19, 2011

West Coast Living: (Not) Born in the USA

And there was I, after having spent about a week in my friend Joyti’s house in Vancouver. My next step was to spend a couple of weeks in Hadar’s place in Kirkland, Washington—some two hours drive south of Vancouver—until I get my downtown Vancouver apartment in mid-February.

That’s when things started to get… well… a little annoying. OK, not a little; very annoying. And it all started when I crossed the border.

For Canadians, the issue of crossing the border to the USA has always been somewhat painful. While the commerce and trading relationships between the two countries are very strong, crossing the border is much easier for Americans travelling north than for Canadians travelling south.

Why? Well, that depends on who you ask.

Canadians have been traditionally arguing that the difficulty for Canadians crossing the border is a direct result of the Americans’ “condescending” mentality, blended with “we are the best country in the world” sort-of arrogance. Americans crossing the border to Canada rarely encounter any sort of difficulty in doing so; Canadian border officers are widely known to be very courteous, pleasant to deal with and generally trusting—and Canadians perceive this asymmetry as some sort of an insult (as in: if it’s so easy for an American to cross the border into Canada, why shouldn’t it be similar the other way around?).

Americans, on the other hand, claim that border line-ups and questionings are a direct result of Canadians being too forgiving, when it comes to allowing people into Canada. As far as Americans are concerned, it is very easy for “bad people” to enter Canada, and Americans are effectively forced to double- and triple-check border-crossing Canadians in order to filter out said “bad people”.

Another claim often sounded by Americans is that the number of Canadians who’d wish to live in the USA is far greater than the number of Americans who’d wish to live in Canada; in other words, illegal immigration from Canada to the USA is far likelier than illegal immigration the other way around.

I, believe it or not, tend to better identify with the Americans’ claims than with the Canadians’ claims. The huge, sweeping wave of political correctness that had been sweeping North Americans over the last couple of decades seems to have made Canadians oblivious to the fact that democracy and freedom require more than plain naivety to protect and to conserve. I will elaborate on that later.

Anyhow, over the years, various border-crossing government-sponsored programs have been established to facilitate border-crossings from Canada to the USA and vice versa. The most renowned one is called NEXUS, which requires an individual to file an application, pay a pre-defined fee, have his/her past, present and future be thoroughly inspected, pass a series of interviews and then be classified as a “low risk traveller”. Participants in the NEXUS program enjoy a tremendously simplified process for crossing the border.

While the criteria by which the two government agencies (that of Canada and its USA counterpart) decide upon approving NEXUS applicants is unpublished (understandably), it is known that being a NEXUS participant isn’t something to be taken for granted as criteria keep on evolving. By participating in that program, you essentially allow both government agencies a much closer and intimate access to information about you that would otherwise be classified as strictly personal; fair enough, if you ask me—it is, after all, a benefit for which you have to “pay” in one way or another.

I wasn’t too surprised, then, when my first attempt at crossing the border right after moving to Vancouver has been a rather painful one. From a home-owner in Ontario, I became a renter in Vancouver—some 3,500km away; no permanent address yet (back then, I stil hadn’t been granted access to my apartment as it was still occupied with the previous renter); my employment style—an independent consultant working on my own free will and time—also rang some bell somewhere.

That being said, more than I got worried and annoyed by border-crossings, I got very occupied with another aspect of this—in a much broader scope.

Is Freedom Real?

You didn’t expect that, did you.

Imagine you have a significant amount of money in the bank. How significant? Well, instead of myself naming a particular figure, how about you just think of a figure that is way, way more than enough for you in order to continue maintaining your current lifestyle for a few years without really having to work.

Imagine you can set your own working schedule; imagine you live in a huge country that offers everything, and you live in the city that has recently been nominated the #1 city in the world to live in by The Economist.

Imagine you have very little, if any, obligations to anyone or anything.

Imagine that you don’t own a house, and the reason you’re renting is purely a financial decision (well, that “#1 city in the world to live in” is experiencing a shockingly unreal housing bubble). Hence, even residency-wise, you are free.

Imagine you are (to the best of your knowledge) healthy and in good shape.

Seems like the realization of a dream, doesn’t it? Well, I know what you’re thinking. It also seemed like a dream for me, which is precisely why I have been working my arse off for quite some time in order to realize it. Luckily (?), I somehow managed.

Yet, how “free” can one really be? Can freedom somehow crawl up your leg and bite you in the arse?

I used to think that “hell no”. I used to consider “freedom” as the apex of one’s dreams, a point in which perspective automatically turns positive on each and every aspect on one’s life. Nowadays, however, I think differently. I think that there is a price to pay in many aspects.

Dealing with governments is just one aspect and since this post started discussing border-crossings, I will provide it as an example first. Perhaps paradoxically, it seems like crossing the border into the USA is actually harder when you’re “free”.

Some of you might say—”hell, that’s a load of crap. Nobody hassles Canadian billionaires, business-owners and whatnot when they attempt to cross the USA border, so, Isaac, the reason you have been hassled is simply because you don’t have enough money”. My response to that is that I would suggest you quickly get rid of your perception of “money = freedom”: one’s net worth implies nothing of one’s level of “freedom”. If you’re a millionaire but you’re still responsible for the day-to-day well-being of, say, your employees—then I’m sorry, you’re not really “free”. Having millions of dollars in the bank helps, of course; but it’s not a sufficient factor to determine “freedom”.

The reason crossing the border is harder when you’re “free” is that your freedom, essentially, implies that you’re free to decide where to live and when. Hence, what would prevent a “free” individual from deciding to illegally settling in the USA, other than moral and ethics (I should mention here that I abhor the practice of illegal immigration. I feel as negative about illegal immigration as I feel about ticket scalping, which—as some of you might already know—is an extremely negative sentiment)?

The responsibility at the border officers’ hands is—among other things—to ensure that people who enter the country would enter it for the purpose they had declared, and have no intention of staying illegally in the USA. The latter has nothing to do with over-patriotism or arrogance; look at the broader scope—illegal immigration, first and foremost, hurts those who live normal and lawful life in that country.

The most obvious indicator for one’s motivation to go back to his/her country of origin is evaluating the obligations one has: the more obligations one has in their home country, the more likely they are to eventually return there. Home-ownership is one example. Kids, family—an even better example. Employment? definitely ranks high up there.

But when you have no obligations…?

Some might attempt to refute my view by delegitimizing its premise, namely—challenge my observation that the Americans are too concerned with illegal immigration. After all, the argument presented above is completely senseless in a reality when the USA isn’t such a “cool place to live in”.

Well, to that, I can only reply by advising you to look at history and statistics. Say whatever you wish to say about the USA—at the bottom line it is, still, one of the best countries in the world to live in. It’s not coincidental that so many people worldwide would have wanted to live there—the USA indeed has a lot to offer, and as an individual who has been to approximately 30 of the USA’s 50 states, let me assure you of that. Illegal immigration has been and still is a problem there because there’s more than enough people on this planet that would do everything for an opportunity to settle there.

So, there you go. At least as crossing the border to the USA is concerned, “freedom” does come with a price…

… Which I am willing to pay.

Next up—arriving back in Vancouver and settling in. If you thought that moving from one place in Canada to another is easy… think again.



dee said...

Hmm... your arguments are not very convincing: it’s not a question of money, having a free-lance work, obligations, living in a rent-house or health: the real point is the good shape: maybe you are a bit overweight :-)

Isaac said...

You certainly know how to seduce a man, dee...

Bill said...

Hmmm... as always, provocative and enlightening. I agree almost completely (I personally would never consider moving to the U.S, but I agree that a significant portion of the planet doesn't share that opinion). Had you not mentioned your "homelessness" and kept your Ontario address as your address, you would probably not have had any problems at all.

Isaac said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill said...

"Freedom is just Chaos with better lighting" - Alan Dean Foster

Isaac said...

Theoretically, you're right. I mentioned that I still own the house in Waterloo, but still waiting for my apartment in Vancouver.

But trust me on that Bill, if there's anybody on the planet you DON'T want to lie to, or play games with, is a USA border official.

I would never even consider doing something like that; I'll leave the "lying" part for those who really need it in order to get into a country where they're not welcome. I'd much rather go through thorough questioning each and every time crossing the border, than play games and hide something - after all, I really have nothing to hide and no reason to hide anything.

Mind you, had I really wanted to live and work in the USA, I could have simply applied for a TN-1 Visa, to which I am qualified...

Bill said...

I should have been more clear. Had you described your current position as "In the middle of moving from Ontario to BC, but the sale of the house being incomplete and the new residence being unavailable for a couple of weeks requires a short vacation." You may have avoided any long discussions.

Isaac said...

That is *precisely* what I said... which is, unsurprisingly, the absolute truth. :-)

Bill said...

I sincerely hope that the conversation didn't involve anyone wearing a rubber glove.

Isaac said...

Not that I can remember...

dee said...

let apart my kidding:fortunately you know me:-)
but.. had you really some trouble at the US-border for the simple reason that you ( being a Canadian citizen, not a let say Italian who wants to enter USA through Canada) wanted to spend a couple week at your friend's place? It quite worrisome. How did you manage it last summer? Can you compare the different crossing- border situations during the GL tour?

Isaac said...

Hi dee,

Even though the Get Lucky tour was a "crazier" idea than spending two weeks at someone's house, still I can see the rationale behind the border officers' action.

The Get Lucky tour was a structured visit. Jeroen and I crossed the border with a rental car, and showed the rental agreement there; I had a house in Ontario; Jeroen lived (and still does) in The Netherlands; from the border officer's point of view, the chances of such a structured trip to become permanent, illegal stay in the USA were extremely slim.

On the other hand, entering the USA with my *own* car, with the stated (and true) intention to remain in someone's house for 2.5 weeks - that's more suspicious. Much more likely for such a stay to become illegal - that is, if the person crossing the border is ignorant enough to not follow the rules.

An important distinction to make is this: you are *allowed* to do whatever you feel like in the USA, as long as you have documentation to support your claim; as long as the activity you want to do there is legal; and as long as you fulfill the requirements to become eligible to do so. Most people think that the border officer's goal is to keep you away from the USA, which is definitely untrue. They simply want to know that you know what you're doing and you're honest. If you have nothing to hide, and you can support your claim with regards to what you're going to do there, they will let you in. It's their right to ask you whatever they want in the process - then again, it's not a perfect world and people try to "sneak in" all the time.