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Crossing Convictions: Trains, Borders, and a Criminal Past

Canada United States Narrative
by Cullen Thomas Dec 17, 2014

Just before eight in the morning on September 6, I caught the Amtrak Adirondack Line at Penn Station, a ten-hour train journey up the Hudson River and the eastern edge of New York State, past Lake Champlain, snaking along a path carved into bluffs so that at times the rest of the train was visible through the windows ahead and behind me on the tracks above the water and the pines.

Destination Canada, Montreal, where I’d never been. I had no other purpose for the trip but to get out of the every day, stir my imagination, do some writing in a new city and country.

At around 6pm that evening, we passed Rouses Point, New York, a sleepy little outpost and the last stop Stateside. Just over the border is the Lacolle Inspection Station, run by the Agence de Services Frontaliers du Canada.

Just as the day’s fantastic light was fading, Canadian border officers in sturdy blue uniforms, with badges and guns, came aboard and began questioning each passenger. The agent nearest me was a short Asian-Canadian woman with glasses and a steady presence.

At a seat two rows in front of me, she thoroughly questioned a young German woman who had a French boyfriend that she’d met in New York where she was studying. She was on her way to visit him in Montreal. I thought of how even an average story could quickly start to sound complex and curious.

Soon this same officer was at my seat. I handed her my passport and customs declaration.

“Hi, what’s the purpose of your trip?”

I told her that I wanted to see Montreal, that I’d always heard good things about it.

“What do you do?”

“I’m a writer and teacher.”

“You’re a teacher?”

“I am.”

“And where are your bags?”

“Just that green one up top and my computer bag here.”

“How many days are you planning to stay?”

I was coming back Tuesday, in three days.

She gave me back my passport. I noted she didn’t stamp it and asked her for one.

“We usually don’t do it for Americans.”

“Really? I just like to have the record of the trip,” I tried pleasantly.

“I’ll come back when I finish the rest of the train,” she said.

But she didn’t want to stamp my passport, I soon learned, because they weren’t done with me yet. In fact, they’d been waiting for me.

“Come with us with your bags,” she told me, returning to my seat with another officer.

I thought about her questions from just before, my answers, as if I’d failed an exam. “I just want to see Montreal.” Did that sound like a line?

I saw only one other passenger on the packed train who’d been singled out, a young, tall, innocent-looking Asian guy. He was sitting in the main room of the border post, which was connected to the train platform by a white metal staircase and ramp.

There were two other female officers there, along with a male officer who had the aspect of a Canadian Bruce Willis, like John McClane, with a pleasingly shaped shaved head and a soft face. They led me into a back room. The entire station antiseptically clean, white, and bare.

I placed my two bags on the white table, sat down, and Officer Willis made a calm search through them. Then he sat down, crossing his legs. The officer who’d first questioned me on the train — Officer Karen, I’ll call her — stood across the table from me holding a sheet of paper. The train waited.

“Do you know why we pulled you off?” she asked me.

I was beginning to think I did.

“Have you ever been convicted of a crime?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said a bit painfully after a pause. “Twenty years ago I served three-and-a-half years in prison for a felony drug conviction in South Korea.”

Neither she nor Willis reacted to this—because evidently this is what they already knew and what was printed on the page Officer Karen held in her hands. She seemed to be checking this summary off as I recalled it.

“What drug?” she continued.

“Hashish. It was a reckless decision and I learned a hard lesson.” That was 1994, when I was 23. “I wrote my first book about it. I would never jeopardize myself like that again.”

Willis raised his eyebrows and nodded his head in a way that seemed to convey his sympathy or understanding. Other times he squinted at me trying to take my measure.

“Okay, but because of this you may be inadmissible,” Officer Karen leveled with me. “We may not be able to let you in.”

I was stunned, hadn’t anticipated this.

It’s not that I didn’t know that a crime, a conviction, and prison term, can follow one detrimentally forever, a collateral punishment often without end. But unlike most ex-cons I have little to complain about. My offense occurred on the other side of the world. As far as I know, the US State Department has a record of my incarceration, but it’s shielded by a privacy act that requires my consent. But then, as a writer, I’ve willingly told this story publicly.

I’ve traveled since serving my sentence, after which I was deported from South Korea and arrived back in New York, in 1997. On my trips afterward, that record had never come up, at either US or foreign customs. But of course it’s often enough been in the back of my mind: Do these authorities know or care? Will they trouble me over it? What restrictions could I face?

I went to Jamaica (of all places) for a friend’s wedding in 2000, and to Spain in 2001. Nothing, not a word about my prior offense. Those trips were pre-9/11, a different world of course. But I returned to Spain, the Canary Islands, for a story in 2008, and to England that same year. Again, not a word about my conviction was said to me by customs or any state authority either here or there.

“What were you charged with in Korea?” Officer Karen asked me.

“Possession, usage, and importation.”

No way they’re letting me in, I thought. Barred from Canada! I considered the lost money, the lost opportunity to finally visit Montreal, this harmless journey I’d planned to our friendly northern neighbor. And the train ride had been so beautiful, dazzling outside the windows.

“It’s good you were honest with us,” Willis said from his chair. “Lying to a border officer is automatic grounds for not letting you in.”

He mentioned that they prescreen all train and bus passengers. I’d set off their incoming radar.

“Is there anything else? Something more recent?” Officer Karen pressed on, standing firm on her side of the table.

I couldn’t believe it. They must know.

“Yes,” I said again, somewhat painfully, knowing that these facts could look distorted without context, how easy it is to judge a person for one part.

“In New York City I was arrested in February for having a smoke on the street. I was watching the NBA All-Star game, stepped outside just to have a smoke.”

No way they’re letting me in.

The reason I was cuffed and arrested then and not just given a small fine, had to see a judge the next day, was because I had a warrant out on an unpaid summons from 11 years before. That summons was for drinking a beer in a brown paper bag at the 4th Avenue subway stop in Park Slope, Brooklyn, when it had more grit. I sound like a lawbreaker, I was thinking (still now as I write), but it’s such an incomplete picture.

“How much marijuana did you have?” Officer Karen asked.

“A couple of grams.” I should have paid that summons; that was all on me, a trace of my anti-authoritarianism — a fury that prison fired — for which again I lost and paid, my night in the holding cell in the NYPD Midtown South Precinct a horror show, a sleepless night in squalor worse than I experienced in Korea 20 years before. But that’s another story.

“A couple? How many?” Officer Karen pressed.

“Two or three.”

“Two or three?”

“I don’t know. About that much. It was just a little bit,” I said, for the first time frustration creeping into my voice.

I reminded myself again that I was not presently in violation of the law. I was clean. This was all from my past, but it had outraced me here to the Canadian border.

“Because these offenses are related there may be a problem,” Officer Karen continued.

“I understand,” I said, recovering. “I respect what you do.”

“I’ll be back,” she said, leaving me with Willis.

What about other countries, will they let me in now or bar me too? What did this mean for my travel dreams, my freedom to come and go in the world?

I didn’t know it yet, but the day before, on September 5, The New York Times had published an article detailing the story of the rise and fall of the biggest marijuana trafficker in New York City history. One Jimmy Cournoyer, a French Canadian from Montreal, who had used that city as a staging ground for his operation, and the Canadian-New York border south of Montreal — not far from the very spot where I was then being interrogated — as a major conduit for his weed.

Whether this was a factor in my experience at the border, whether the officers even knew of the case or had it in mind, I can’t say.

In addition to the massive Cournoyer case, the New York-Canadian border has seen some other notable recent action: those AWOL Afghan soldiers training here who tried to flee into Canada at Niagara Falls; the Canadian woman caught at JFK with guns and pounds of pot.

I was thinking all is lost. Despite being in complete present compliance, I was persona non grata mainly due to a bad choice I’d made 20 years before, one for which I’d already paid a substantial price, my debt to society.

“My chances don’t seem good at all,” I commented to Willis.

“Hard to say. Let’s see,” he said, giving away nothing.

I asked him what was to happen to me if they turned me away.

“I can drop you off in the nearest town.” He meant on the New York side.

“And I just have to find my way from there?”

“I think Amtrak has a deal with the bus company.” But it was almost night now and when did the bus run and…I began to resolve myself to it. All I can do is roll with this, I thought. Let me face what comes.

Then Willis told me the story of a Canadian woman recently turned away at that same border crossing by American customs because she had on her record a shoplifting offense committed in the US more than thirty years earlier.

“They didn’t let her in, because what she took was worth a few hundred dollars. Her husband and the kids went ahead to Florida without her.”

Willis told me that he drove the woman back home, on the Canadian side.

“That was nice of you,” I said. He nodded. “She must have been distraught.”

“Oh, yeah. She was crying the whole way.”

Barring her was extreme and unnecessary, I offered. Willis raised his eyebrows and gently nodded. I liked him but wondered, Is he telling me this to say there’s no chance for me?

I thought about the tit for tat that can be part of these border affairs—our biometric requirements that provoked other nations to adopt the same, spitefully in some cases; diplomatic rows over individuals.

The prospect of being barred and turned away from Canada was certainly a shock to me, a disappointment, but I was already thinking about the larger ramifications, too. What about other countries, will they let me in now or bar me too? What did this mean for my travel dreams, my freedom to come and go in the world? Any curtailment of that would be the worst consequence of all.

“It’s amazing how this still haunts me,” I said to Willis, as we sat there waiting for my fate. “Even though I served my punishment, I’m still paying for it.” He nodded slowly in what I saw as understanding.

Finally, Officer Karen came back, still holding that paper in front of her.

“Was it a kilo?” she asked me. “How much was the conviction for in Korea?”

“Why, does that help my chances?” I answered. It felt surreal to be scrutinizing this distant story from what felt like another life. “In fact it was less than a kilo,” I went on. “It was 930 grams. The Filipinos I bought it from had short-changed me. The only reason I knew that was because it came up in court. They’d weighed it.”

“Can you show us something that proves it?” Officer Karen asked me. “Because the quantity matters in terms of our rules for admission.”

“I think so. I have documents on my computer.”

She left the room again and I took out my laptop and opened it. Rattled, hands a bit shaky, I searched for those files, any related to the case, but couldn’t in that moment recall what I’d titled them, not for the life of me. I knew I had scans of my original charge papers, in their forbidding Korean, which I couldn’t understand at the time, twenty years ago.

I mentioned that I felt bad holding up the entire train. Willis nodded again in commiseration.

I couldn’t find anything with the detail they wanted, despite all the files, the press, and related material on my computer. My mind was a blur. I was failing in the crucial moment. So be it, I thought.

Then Officer Karen returned again. “Here’s your passport,” she said. “We found something that proved what you were telling us.”

Inside it was stamped, a leafy oval: Canada Border Services Agency, Lacolle Station.

“Next time you should bring court papers,” she advised me.

What I need to do is travel with copies of my prison book, I thought, to have ready if necessary, physical evidence that I’m a writer and not a smuggler—my book a kind of preemptive moral calling card, complete with my remorse and regret, my appreciation for the harrowing experience.

There is a delicate, constant balance needed between strength and intelligence, freedom and security, civil rights and the law—these scales of opposing tensions, in individuals as in our institutions.

Willis and Officer Karen were balanced and fair with me. They didn’t threaten or condescend. Not for a moment did they act morally superior. I feel good knowing they’re out there doing this work, in the way they dealt with me.

“You’re free to go,” Officer Karen told me.

“Thank you, thank you,” I told them happily as I snatched up my bags and headed out of the room. Willis was now standing against the wall just outside the door. “Sir,” I said, throwing out my hand to him. We shook.

Officer Karen was by the computer in the main room where they must have Googled me. “Ma’am.” I shook her hand.

“Let them know that we’re finished,” she said. “The train can go.”

I scrambled back up the stairs and on board. Montreal awaited. Other passengers looked at me as I settled into my same seat and felt relief wash over me.

“You all right?” a young Amtrak attendant asked me playfully. “What happened?”

“It’s a long story,” I told him.

A Canadian couple from Toronto, who had just spent a wonderful week in New York City, their first visit, were in the seat in front of me. As I sat behind them breathing with new life, the grey-haired wife in jeans got up, leaned over, and whispered in my ear, “Did they strip search you?”

“No, thank goodness.”

“Sometimes they give Americans a real hard time.”

Not this traveler, I thought.

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