I pull up to the booth at the American border. It’s Saturday evening. I’m on my way to the United States to record some demos and pitch a few of my new songs. I hand the border agent my passport. He asks where I’m going. “Tennessee,” I say. He asks me why. “Business,” I explain. “I need you to be more specific,” agent says roughly. “I’m going to record some demos and pitch songs next week,” I tell him.
Agent looks at me suspiciously. “Put your car in park,” he says before asking me who pays for my stuff in the US. I tell him I do; that my company does. Agent then says, in a tougher voice this time, “I need to see documentation from your company stating your business in the US.” “I am my company,” I tell him. “There is no documentation.” I’ve crossed dozens of times before, for the same reasons.
Agent puts in a call to the main building. Another agent comes out. They talk in the booth, I can hear first agent tell second agent he doesn’t believe I am going to do demos, that I am probably being paid (I wish). I’m told to wait. Then two more agents come out from the main building, looking stern, hands on guns like they’ve caught someone on their top ten most wanted list.
I’m forced to pull my car into a garage in the customs building, where I am then told to put the vehicle into park and get out. “Leave your cellphone in the car,” agent who looks like he has watched too many Rambo movies says. “I have to leave my cellphone?” I ask. Rambo gets all pissy and tells me my phone can stay in Canada if I’d like. I get out of the car. Rambo and his posse surround me and start asking questions, giving me some serious attitude.
I calmly try and explain myself, but Rambo warns me that if I don’t change my attitude(?), I won’t be going anywhere. “I told the agent in the booth…,” I begin, but Rambo cuts me off. “You’re not talking to him, you’re talking to me now,” he barks. “I wasn’t in there, I don’t know what you said.” I point to the agent behind me – Little Rambo – and say, “he was in the booth.” Little Rambo – says, “I didn’t talk to you, either.”
I am brought to a table and told to remove my jacket, empty my pockets and pull them inside out. I comply. Little Rambo asks me what I’m doing in the U.S. I tell him the same thing I tell the border agents every time I go to Nashville. They want to know if I have any demo CDs on me. I say yes, I have copies of my new album with me, 60 promo copies to hand out in Nashville. Third agent, a goofy looking prick, pipes up and says “where’s the manifest?”
“Manifest?,” I ask. “These are promo copies that I’m giving away.” Goofy prick says, “You can’t give them away. How do we know you aren’t going to play on the corner and sell them for five bucks?” I tell him I don’t need to do that. I’m trying to get my songs recorded by other artists. Little Rambo asks me if I will be performing in Nashville for money. I tell him no, that I’m not allowed to make any money while I’m in the U.S., that I know I am only allowed to perform at Open Mics and Songwriter Rounds.
Goofy prick says, with a big attitude, “ you know, do you?” I say, “Yeah. I’ve been going down for many years.” He says, his tone getting darker, “I just started working here today.” “Cool,” I reply. “Yeah,” he says, “I don’t know anything about immigration issues.” I’m thinking, oh boy, here we go. He continues, shouting now: “I’m a US customs officer, I know the law. You can’t perform at open mics or anywhere.”
I say, “but I don’t get paid.” He says, “the bars are making money. I’ve been (to Nashville) and saw songwriters play and then set up a booth afterward and sell their CD.” I reply, “Well, I’ve been down dozens of times, and I’ve never seen anyone do that.” He says, “Really” and gives me a condescending grin. “Yes,” I say. I’ve never seen anyone do it.”
Little Rambo interrupts and tells me that if I lie to them I can be charged and spend up to six months in a US jail. I can also be banned from the U.S. for life, he tells me. Again I explain what my plans are. They don’t want to hear it.
Little Rambo says, “this is your last chance to tell me the truth. After this, if we find out you’re lying, you will be charged and deported or jailed and barred for life.” “I understand,” I tell him. He lets me put my stuff back in my pockets and motions for me to head up a set of stairs and into the customs building.
As I’m being lead up the steps to the door that leads to the office, I hear little Rambo say from behind me, “What’s this?” I turn around and he’s holding my phone. “You just got a text that says ‘good luck with your performances in Nashville’. You lied to us.” I asked who the text is from. He says, “ someone named X.” I try to explain to the agents that X is mistaken, but they’re even more pissed now (and excited because they think they’ve got me).
The agents ask how I think it looks to them. I shrug my shoulders. I’m taken inside by goofy prick and told to sit on a wooden bench. After about ten or fifteen minutes, a door opens at the end of the building and I’m called down. Another agent introduces himself too me and shakes my hand. He’s the first person to not act like a complete asshole to me since I arrived at the border.
I’m escorted to a room – the agent who was in the booth when I first arrived at the border accompanies myself and Nice agent. I’m again questioned on why I’m trying to enter the U.S., and warned of the dire consequences if they find out I’m lying. I do my best to explain what I have been going to Nashville for more than 11 years to do to record, without ever having a problem.
I’m informed that it is illegal to pitch songs in Nashville as this constitutes working in the U.S. No matter how much I try to explain that I am spending money in Nashville, not making money, the agents just don’t get it. Nor can they explain to me how pitching songs is working, other than because they say it is (of course, they are completely wrong).
Nice agent informs me I have been travelling to the U.S. illegally for 11 years (although I have told the border officials what I am up to every time I cross, and no one has every made much of a fuss). Nice agent asks about X’s text, again. I try to explain that X likely doesn’t understand the music business, and must have meant my recording sessions.
I am warned again what will happen if I’m lying. This is my last chance, I’m told (again). If they find out I am lying, I will be charged, blah, blah, blah. I tell them I understand. Nice agent tells me that they will check my Facebook (including any posts I’ve deleted), that they will call every bar and record company in Nashville and ask if I have ever been paid to perform (okay). If they find out I have, he says, I will be charged and banned for life.
By this point, I don’t even want to enter the U.S. anymore.
After a round of good cop bad cop with Nice agent and booth agent, Nice agent takes me back out to holding area and disappears into the back. He reappears about 15 minutes later and asks my height. “It’s on my license,” I tell him. “You don’t know your height?” he asks. “No,” I tell him. He’s surprised. He then asks me my weight (which I also don’t know) and writes down my eye and hair colour.
I’m told to sit, he will be back to get me in a few minutes to fingerprint me. I’m not under arrest, he explains, but I have to be fingerprinted and photographed, then they will be sending me back to Canada. He tells me I will not be able to enter the U.S. again until one of my business contacts sponsors me into the country. He says he will explain it to me once I am fingerprinted. I’m again told to sit and wait.
Eventually, I’m lead to a room with a jail cell and computer equipment. Nice agent explains I will now be fingerprinted. I ask why I am being printed. He explains that since 9/11 anyone who is refused entry to the US has to be printed and photographed. We go through the process and I’m escorted back out to the waiting area. After about twenty minutes, nice agent calls me to follow him.
Nice agent takes me out to the lobby and gives me back my passport, license and other stuff – he also gives me paperwork to give to customs on the Canadian side explaining why I have been denied entry. Goofy prick, who has calmed down (likely after relieving his hard-on) and is nicer now that he’s not in the presence of Big and Little Rambo, escorts me to my car and encourages me to get a sponsor.
On the Canadian side, the border agent shakes her head when I tell her why I was turned back and shares a harrowing story of her own. She tells me it could have been far worse, and I know she’s right; I’m just happy to be back in my home country. Nashville can wait.
(Editor’s note: after more than a year of hoop-jumping, the author was able to return to the U.S., although the crossing was anything but smooth.)