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Backstory: Stopped at the Border

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Vehicles in Québec approaching the crossing at Highgate Springs - MOLLY WALSH
  • Molly Walsh
  • Vehicles in Québec approaching the crossing at Highgate Springs

Snowdrifts melted in the sunshine, and Québec DJs chattered in French on the radio. It felt good to be on a reporting road trip as I headed north to the Canadian border last spring.

My plan was to do a quick drive over and back via the Highgate crossing. Observations of the scene would flesh out a story on the Trump administration's plan to use fingerprinting, facial-recognition software and other types of biometric screening more often at border checkpoints — and the resulting potential for an increase in racial and ethnic profiling.

Government public relations officers had denied my request to interview agents at Highgate. But as it turned out, I got some unexpected access.

I came to a stop at the crossing and handed over my U.S. passport. The Canadian border agent made the usual query about the purpose of my visit. I answered that I was a journalist on assignment, writing about the border. He frowned and asked me to pull over.

I was surprised. For three decades, I've traveled to Québec for museum outings, ski weekends and many cups of café au lait with no problem whatsoever at the border. I don't know if being white has anything to do with my track record. But over the years, plenty of friends and acquaintances of color have spoken of being detained for no apparent reason, giving credence to theories that race or nationality was a factor.

Now, for the first time ever, I — a middle-aged woman with no criminal record — was being stopped and subjected to a car search.

I pulled over as instructed and was greeted by two new agents. They asked more questions. Then they searched my salt-streaked Toyota RAV4 — for what, I'm not sure. The agents gave no explanation when I asked. Instead they peered at a stray Frito under the front seat and examined a cup of stale coffee. I half-apologized for the mess, and the customs guys assured me they had seen worse.

I wasn't worried that they would find contraband, unless it's a crime to transport scratched Judds CDs. As I stood alongside my vehicle, people in passing cars stared as if I were an outlaw. It was Canadian customs holding me up, not U.S., but the experience taught me an international truth.

It felt lousy to be singled out, and the 15 minutes I stood there seemed a lot longer. The initial humor of the situation faded to unease. Then the agents announced I could go.

I drove off feeling relieved and, more importantly, better informed about the plight of people who are stopped but don't know why.


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