A traveler presents documents at the US border crossing with Canada in Highgate Springs, Vermont. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
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Before September 11, 2001, more than half the border crossings between the United States and Canada were left unguarded at night, with only rubber cones separating the two countries. Since then, that 4,000 mile “point of pride,” as Toronto’s Globe and Mail once dubbed it, has increasingly been replaced by a US homeland security lockdown, although it’s possible that, like Egyptian-American Abdallah Matthews, you haven’t noticed.
The first time he experiences this newly hardened US-Canada border, it takes him by surprise. It’s a freezing late December day and Matthews, a lawyer (who asked me to change his name), is on the passenger side of a car as he and three friends cross the Blue Water Bridge from Sarnia, Ontario, to the old industrial town of Port Huron, Michigan. They are returning from the Reviving the Islamic Spirit conference in Toronto, chatting and happy to be almost home when the car pulls up to the booth, where a blue-uniformed US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent stands. The 60,000-strong CBP is the border enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security and includes both customs and US Border Patrol agents. What is about to happen is the furthest thing from Matthews’s mind. He’s from Port Huron and has crossed this border “a million times before.”
After scanning their passports and looking at a computer screen in the booth, the agent says to the driver, as Matthews tells the story:
“Sir, turn off the vehicle, hand me the key and step out of the car.”
He hears the snap of handcuffs going around his friend’s wrists. Disoriented, he turns around and sees uniformed men kneeling behind their car, firearms drawn.
“To my disbelief, situated behind us are agents, pointing their guns.”
The CBP officer asks Matthews and the remaining passengers to get out of the car and escorts them to a waiting room. Thirty minutes later, he, too, is handcuffed and in a cell. Forty-five minutes after that another homeland security agent brings him into a room with no chairs. The agent tells him that he can sit down, but all he sees is a countertop. “Can I just stand?” he asks.
And he does so for what seems like an eternity with the door wide open, attempting to smile at the agents who pass by. “I’m trying to be nice,” is how he put it.
Finally, in a third room, the interrogation begins. Although they question Matthews about his religious beliefs and various Islamic issues, the two agents are “nice.” They ask him: Where’d you go? What kind of law do you practice? He tells them that a former law professor was presenting a paper at the annual conference, whose purpose is to revive “Islamic traditions of education, tolerance and introspection.” They ask if he’s received military training abroad. This, he tells me, “stood out as one of their more bizarre questions.” When the CBP lets him and his friends go, he still thinks it was a mistake.
However, Lena Masri of the Council of American Islamic Relations-Michigan (CAIR-MI) reports that Matthews’s experience is becoming “chillingly” commonplace for Michigan’s Arab and Muslim community at border crossings. In 2012, CAIR-MI was receiving five to seven complaints about similar stops per week. The detainees are all Arab, all male, all questioned at length. They are asked about religion, if they spend time at the mosque and who their Imam is.
According to CAIR-MI accounts, CBP agents repeatedly handcuff these border-crossers, often brandish weapons, conduct invasive, often sexually humiliating body searches and detain people for from two to twelve hours. Because of this, some of the detainees have lost job opportunities or jobs, or given up on educational opportunities in Canada. Many are now afraid to cross the border to see their families who live in Canada. (CAIR-MI has filed alawsuit against the CBP and other governmental agencies.)
Months later, thinking there is no way this can happen again, Matthews travels to Canada and crosses the border, this time alone, on the Blue Water Bridge to Port Huron. Matthews still hadn’t grasped the seismic changes in Washington’s attitude toward our northern border since 9/11. Port Huron, his small hometown, where a protest group, Students for a Democratic Society, first famously declared themselves against racism and alienation in 1962, is now part of the “frontline” in defense of the “homeland.” As a result, Matthews finds himself a casualty of a new war, one that its architects and proponents see as a permanent bulwark against not only non-citizens generally but also people like Matthews from “undesirable” ethno-religious groups or communities in the United States.