Friday, June 13, 2014

Back from NYC - and why it might be my last trip to the States

As the 2013 Tony Awards drew to a close, I sat there, on the couch, thinking to myself how wonderful it would be to be in the audience and witness the best of the best on Broadway get awarded for their hard work.

And then I thought to myself - well, why can't I?

Hence, my ultimate trip to NYC started being planned. I got online with my BFF of 30-some-odd years and said "Let's celebrate being fabulous and 40 in our Mecca." Having never traveled together, and with our birthdays a mere 35 days apart, we figured it would be the perfect trip.

I spent a year conversing with old friends in New York, surfing for places to stay, and eagerly awaiting the moment that the 2014 Tony tickets went on sale. I planned and researched and bought tickets and would spend hours dreaming and plotting the ultimate birthday trip.

The day I was to fly out of Toronto to New York was a sunny one. I was packed, prepped and had everything in place.

I checked in to my flight the night before. Done.

My stomach was a bundle of nerves as I approached the airport. In the last 20 years, I'd only ever driven across the border. It was to be a short flight - and I loved flying - but I was still apprehensive. I tend to babble and say the wrong thing at the most inopportune times.

I got my boarding pass and was eagerly anticipating passing through customs so I could finally have a coffee - which I opted not to get before going through because handling a hot coffee and two bags was a juggling task I would not have excelled at.

The first round of customs couldn't clear me. I couldn't figure out why, but wasn't phased. I went to the second stage. And I waited. And I watched the clock. And I waited some more. I wasn't worried. There was still plenty of time to catch my flight. Finally, my name was called. I went up, I was respectful. I answered all the questions asked of me truthfully and honestly. They took my fingerprints, which, again, didn't set off any bells, as I hadn't flown into the US post 9/11 as of yet, so I didn't think it was a bad thing.

Until my luggage tag was ripped off my suitcase. Well, to me that just meant I was going to miss my flight and I would catch the next one out. No big deal. I refused to panic. This was my vacation and it was going to be glorious.

And then the customs officer said those words.

"I'm sorry, but we cannot allow you to enter the United States."

I fell to my knees, my eyes welling up with tears, and my breath refusing to come. A year of planning, of even GOING to the US periodically, and suddenly I wasn't allowed? I didn't understand.

The culprit was two shoplifting charges from TWENTY YEARS AGO. According to the US border patrol, these are crimes of "moral turpitude" and as such would prevent me from entering the country.

Yes, I do have those charges on me. But, as I pointed out, they were TWENTY YEARS AGO. They occurred during a pretty dark time in my life. I've been clear ever since. For God's sake, I've been coming and going from the United States at least once a year for the last twenty. But because I flew, they now are aware of this charge, and I am no longer allowed to enter.

I begged to speak to a supervisor. I pleaded with tears running down my face, and my breath coming in sobs. But she wouldn't allow me to. She just said that the answer would be the same, and sent me on my way.

After informing my travel companion (who was leaving the next day) of the problem, she came and got me and took me to the US Consulate. Where I was informed that only the border patrol can take care of this issue.

A call to a lawyer who specializes in this, and $300 later (for the phone consultation), he offered to file a parole form on my behalf, but it would cost $1500 to do that, and another $1500 if he succeeded. Well, there was no way I could afford that. So, I did what every grown up would do - I printed out my receipts for my Tony tickets, the correspondence with the Broadway Across America people (for the Tony tickets) and my credit card statement as well. And then my mother and I drove down to the border, hoping to find someone who was willing to listen.

When I managed to speak to someone, I was informed that the parole forms the lawyer was talking about were only issued for humanitarian reasons - ie/ a family member dying or dead in the US and a funeral to attend. I almost lost all hope, but the gentleman was willing to listen, and to speak to his supervisor. It then went one level higher, and after three hours of pleading my case, examination of my documents and discussion, I was allowed to go. I had a parole for the length of my trip, plus a day in case there were return travel issues.

I was incredibly grateful. This trip meant the world to me, and I would be able to see one of my dreams come true.

But now, if I ever want to travel to the US again, I need to get what is called a waiver. Which involves gathering my court records (again, twenty years old), a background check, a fingerprint card, a written statement from me about how I've "rehabilitated" (like all this time without incident isn't enough), and $585 US. Once I have all that, it has to be approved. This process could take anywhere from six to twelve months, AND the waiver could be valid from one month to five years. Which means that whenever they decide it's up, I have to do it ALL. OVER. AGAIN.

What equals to two misdemeanors in the US means I have this label on me for the rest of my life, unless I manage to secure a pardon. And apparently those can only come from the President or a US governor. Never mind that a pardon in Canada means NOTHING to them.

So that means no more weekend trips with the family to Buffalo for shopping. No more trips to Disney or anywhere in Florida, where the memories of good times with my father are very strong and prevalent. No trips to catch a musical on Broadway, or even to see good friends.

Meanwhile, there are shootings all over the United States, people sneaking over the border from Mexico, and people with WORSE criminal records than mine being let in on a daily basis.

If I had just driven to Buffalo or taken the bus to NYC, this wouldn't be an issue. As I've pointed out, I've been down and back at least once a year for the last twenty. But because I decided to fly, my entire traveling future is limited.

I think the United States government has a lot more to worry about than a person who made two little mistakes. My government has chosen to look past it. My employers have chosen to look past it, recognizing that while I wasn't technically a child, I was still young, and learning my way in the world.

So, now I have to decide if it's worth it at all. And there's a part of me saying no. But then I remember all the good times I might be missing out on, and the memorable places I'll never get to see again. And then that part of me says yes.

I'm torn.