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May 16, 2011

Chapter 21: A Border Crossing Gone Badly

Tik asked Sapphire to get on the trailer for what he thought was going to be a long journey to their new home in New Jersey. Photo courtesy of Tik Maynard.

I looked around the room and put my hands on my stomach. Then I put them in my lap. I started to sweat.

The room was a small warehouse divided into a lobby on one side and a series of cubicles on the other. The two areas were separated by a long counter. The building served two purposes. First, it was to welcome visitors to the United States, and in that sense it was fitting: The lobby, like the country, was bigger than it deserved to be, and the welcome underwhelming. The people that worked there—uniformed, mustached men for the most part—took its size and strength for granted.

Americans, I find, lack the efficiency and kindness that smaller countries like Luxembourg or New Zealand have perfected out of necessity. 

I had already seen many people enter and leave the lobby as I waited, detained. Mostly they seemed to be Canadians making routine trips. A lady in a white hat and her daughter were going shopping in Bellingham. A Japanese man in a dark suit was heading to Seattle to open a sushi bar with his sister, a small girl in a skirt, who had just left a troublesome marriage, or so I imagined. There had also been a flock of Dutch tourists heading further south to San Francisco. Some of them looked at me curiously, but I wouldn’t meet their eye.

On my right were the cubicles where the U.S. Customs and Border Protection had its center of operations, and on my left was a wall made of frosted glass, and in it a phrase was written in clear glass: The Grass is Always Greener.

A bold statement I thought. I looked through the letters and saw a long line of cars outside. But I couldn’t see the horse trailer that I knew was out there, or my two horses inside it. They were just out of view. “Could I check on the horses?” I had asked after my first interview.

“Not until you’re cleared.” 

“Can my dad go check on them?”

“Not until he is cleared.”

“Can I go to the washroom?”

The officer frowned. “No.”

I walked over to the water fountain and had a drink, and then I tried the washroom door. Locked. It’s OK; I could wait. The second purpose of the building was to interrogate criminals.

Ordinarily I don’t like to think of myself as a criminal; I’m certainly no crook. But I wondered if all my paperwork was in order? And I wished I had confirmed my story with my dad before the interrogation had started. I hadn’t looked at him more than once in the past two hours, but I could hear him breathing, and every half hour he would clear his throat. He was as uncomfortable as a foal without his mare. I wasn’t much better.   

“Mr. Maynard?” The CBP officer called. It was my turn again.

“Yes?” I heard my dad say innocently beside me. I was surprised; we both knew who he meant.

The man looked down at the passport in his hand. “Thomas Maynard?” He looked at me, and I nodded. “Follow me,” he said.

I stood at the desk and looked across at officer 952. He wasn’t much older than I was, 32, maybe 33. He sported frizzy sideburns but was otherwise clean-shaven. This would be my third time talking to him, and we already had a routine. He would try and get me flustered, and I would stick to my story. His boss might come over and threaten me when he thought things were creeping along. Officer 952 watched his boss carefully while I spoke. Officer 952 was learning to frown when appropriate and to squint as needed. He was learning when to threaten and when to cajole. Luckily his baby-face prevented him from being as grave as his boss (perhaps unluckily for him?). Anyways, I was planning on sticking to my story, and that gave him plenty of chances to squint his rodent eyes.

Where are you going? To Frenchtown, New Jersey. What will you be doing? Riding horses. Will you be working? No. Will you be paid? No. Do you understand that any form of payment, even payment in kind, means that you are working? I do now. And are you? Am I what? He raised his voice. Will you be working in New Jersey?

And that is where I was stuck. I knew I wasn’t allowed to work. And I also didn’t know what my dad would tell them. And what if they called Anne? They had her number. What else did they know? And how do you define work? Is being a working student the same as being paid?

“I will not be working there,” I said. The boss frowned at me, his mustache quivered. He was as proud of his ‘stach as if he had invented them. Officer 952 put his hands on the table, palms down; he was unsmiling. “I may or may not help out from time to time to help pay for lessons. But this is an unspoken agreement only,” I said. This was going badly. I frowned as well.

“Why Do You Have To Come To The U.S. To Ride?”

The boss interrupted: “We know about this industry. They have Canadian boys come down and work illegally all the time. We’re on to you! Tell us the truth.”

I suspected that he was bluffing, and I decided not to fall for it. Instead I told him again that I was telling the truth. “Why do you have to come to the U.S. to ride? Why do you have to go to New Jersey?” he asked. I told him what I had rehearsed, but why did I really want to go? Surely there are good instructors, good horses right here in British Columbia? Maybe he had a point. “Go sit down Thomas,” they told me. “We’ve heard enough. We’re going to talk to your father again.”

“Thanks,” I said. But I don’t know why I thanked him.

I went and sat down next to me dad. We didn’t say anything, and five minutes later they called him up. What would my dad tell them? We hadn’t thought to practice our stories. I leaned back, crossed my legs and studied the wall opposite me, which was somewhat interesting because of the fauna on display. A sign said they were CITES animals. Endangered I gathered.

One of the animals was a polar bear. It had once stood 8 feet high the sign said. Its head was still attached, and its eyes were black and unyielding as coal. “I can outwait you,” he seemed to be saying. He stared somberly at me, but he lacked the menace of his former life.

I asked if I could use the men’s room again. The officer thought about it, then reached under the counter and pressed a button. He nodded at me, and I went in. Maybe he would let me check on the horses now too?

In the washroom, signs warned that cell phones weren't allowed in the building. I didn’t see any security cameras, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were hidden. When I came out I could still see my dad talking to the CBP officer. My dad had built a quiet life that consciously avoided dealing with people in uniforms, or people with more power than education, or people in dark suits and under-arm holsters. I felt bad for him. I went and sat down again. There was nothing I could do.

They gave us lots of time to wait and to think. I thought about my horses in the trailer outside: three hours so far without water, in the heat. I thought about the job that was waiting for me. Why did I want to work with horses? On paper they really aren’t that appealing. I usually enjoy sports without much equipment or cost. Running, say, is a sport I can practice anywhere, anytime, with a friend or by myself. There are no expensive accoutrements in running; no vet bills, only runners.

My dad came back finally. He looked like he wanted to tell me something, but all he said was, “They said I can check on the horses now.” And I sat there, the polar bear eyeing me, while he went outside to water the horses, maybe hay them too.

Later, I was called up for a fourth time, and they kept at it. They asked questions the way a Border collie herds sheep. At one point the boss asked me about working for the O’Connors, and I knew then that they’d Googled me. “Yes,” I admitted, “I was a working student in Florida last year.”

Officer 952 raised one side of his thin pink lips. “Finally, a bit of truth out of you. Why didn’t you tell me this before?”

“You didn’t ask,” I answered.

In the end we were there for five hours. The horses were hot and sweaty, and my dad was allowed to check on them only once. I heard a CBP officer yell at another suspect, “I can see liar written all over you forehead.” It took three hours for that man to crack, and he left in tears. He was 23, and his family had been waiting for him across the lobby. They left together, returning north. It was all getting to be a bit much. I was worried about my dad. We were both worried about the horses.

I found out later that my dad never told them anything. With only suspicions to go on they would have one last try. I was taken into a small white room, fingerprinted, photographed and then asked to give a final declaration, which would determine my fate. Even if they got nothing, they could still stop my entry. Like wolves in the forest, they could bare their teeth and had no one to answer to.

“This Will Go On Your Record”

“I am going to type everything you say,” CBP officer 952 told me. “This will be recorded and go on your record.”

I didn’t say anything, so he went on, “Any statement you make must be given freely and voluntarily. Are you willing to answer my questions at this time?”

I wasn’t ready to lie down, and so I asked “What if I say no?”

He eyed me from across the desk. His fingers danced on his chair, next to where his gun might have been, and he leaned back. I imagined us pacing off from each other, counting to 10, and seeing who had the quicker draw. Finally he said, “In that case we would send you to prison in L.A. where you would await a trial and deportation.”

“I guess I should say yes then?”

“Yes.”

“Then yes.”

“Is it all right with you if I just put down ‘yes’?”

“Sure.”

Raising The Bar

That was how the declaration started—I still have my typed copy—and the rest of the interview went by mechanically as I repeated the answers I'd already given. I found myself thinking about New Jersey. I hoped Anne wouldn’t be mad. I wanted her to keep my place. The real reason I was going away was to learn about riding, to learn about horses, I thought. There are all kinds of reasons for riders to head east: the atmosphere, the competitions, the competition. Nobody ever jumped higher by lowering the bar, they say. For me, Frenchtown is raising the bar.

Suddenly I was conscious of my interrogator looking at me; I started to pay more attention.

“Do you understand that you are not admissible into the United States at this time? In the future you will need to provide strong ties and equities to Canada before attempting to make entry, and if you attempt to make entry without this documentation you may be banned from entering the United States for a period of five years or more. And if you attempt to cross at another port of entry you are subject to the same proceedings?”

“I do.”

They were saying I would have to prove that I'd be returning to Canada after my stay in New Jersey. They wanted to see that I owned a house, had kids or a job or a wife.

I left the office and got my dad. We got in the truck and drove back across the border. My dad told me what they'd asked him. And he told me how he stuck to his story: He knew nothing. He just kept repeating that to himself: I know nothing. The arrangements between Anne and me were just that—between Anne and me—as far as he was concerned.

They also threatened him with being an accessory. They told him he could go to jail.

“Accessory to what?” I asked.

“I forget,” he said. “Murder in the first maybe,” he laughed thinly, trying to make a joke.

“Mum will never believe this,” I said. “And now, in order to leave, I will have to prove that I’m going to come home again.”

My dad didn’t say anything for a while, then, “You’ll probably have to get a lawyer.” He was shaken, but I was proud of him; he had stuck to his story like a tick to a hide.

At home now, we unload the horses. They trot out into the paddocks and greet their friends, who nicker to them. Horses are soulful animals, I think, why am I taking them away? For my ends, for my pleasure, I admit to myself.

Humans are always organizing other animals, moving them about, or stopping them from moving. It’s all about control. We are buying and selling our friends. Selling-out our friends? No, don’t think like that.

To be a professional I will have to learn to distance myself I tell myself. And I will be leaving my family too, I realize. Does that make it better? It doesn’t matter now anyway. The decision has been taken out of my hands. I am home again; I would make the most of it.

I take some carrots out to the horses. “Happy to be home?” I ask quietly.

In the summer of 2008 Tik Maynard came up with a grand plan. He decided to spend a year working for some of the greatest horsemen he could find in different disciplines and writing about his experiences. So far, he has worked for Johann Hinnemann, Ingrid Klimke, David and Karen O'Connor, Bruce Logan and Anne Kursinski. He just finished working for Kursinski as her assistant trainer, and he wrote this a year ago. For more information on Tik, visit www.tik.ca/.