Friday, September 28, 2018

Losing my NEXUS pass

On Wednesday night, Vancouver Men's Chorus held auditions for new members. After rehearsal we adjourned to our regular watering hole to socialize with old and new chorines. It turns out two of the new guys are lawyers. Our bloc now outnumbers the gay dentists. 

Meeting new people gives me a chance to work on some of my familiar material. Yes, I've been singing with VMC for almost three years now. No, I live in the States. Yes, I really have three kids. No, I didn’t used to be married to a woman. Yes, technically I’m a lawyer. No, I'm not Jewish. Really. Yes, I grew up Mormon. Really Mormon. No, my 13-year old daughters aren’t twins, they were born two weeks apart and adopted separately. Yes, puberty is horrifying. No, I love driving to another country so I can sing in a gay chorus.

One of VMC's new lawyers eventually observed, “You must have a NEXUS pass.”

As described on the U.S. Custom & Border Patrol website, “the NEXUS program allows pre-screened travelers expedited processing when entering the United States and Canada.” After a background check and in-person interview, you’re allowed to use the express NEXUS traffic lane. As long as everyone in the car has a NEXUS pass, you can avoid the long lines at the hoi polloi border crossing.

I’ve spent most of my life living near the USA-Canada border. My parents go back and forth all the time. My brother commuted daily from Bellingham to his job in the Vancouver suburbs for years. Just this week, I was at rehearsal on Wednesday, and I’ll be back in Canada to sing in a performance this Saturday. For families like ours, NEXUS passes are very handy.

I used to have a NEXUS pass. 

Ordinarily when someone from VMC says he assumes I have a NEXUS pass, I just nod vaguely and change the subject. But because Dan and James are lawyers, I figured they could handle the truth. And I had a beer and time. So I told them the story of how I lost my NEXUS pass.

On my way home to Bellingham one afternoon last year, I was randomly selected for secondary screening. This had happened only two or three times in a lifetime of regular border crossings. The border agent kept my NEXUS pass. I parked my car, and sat in the waiting room with my book.

Eventually one of the boy scouts from Customs & Border Patrol invited me back behind the counter, where he left me alone in a windowless room. The walls were covered with patriotic posters. After a couple of hours, a deputy sheriff from the local Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office came into the room and introduced himself. 

Then he read me my Miranda rights.

The Miranda warnings originated in a 1966 United Supreme Court case called Miranda v. Arizona. I’ve been a lawyer for 28 years, including as an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. I’ve also seen a lot of TV and movies. I can recite the Miranda warnings by heart. ("You have the right to remain silent....") But I’d never heard them directed at me personally.

The deputy ended his speech by asking if I’d like to answer some questions.

Various thoughts ran through my head: “Surely there’s been a terrible misunderstanding?” “Aren’t lawyers just for guilty people?” “Is anyone who represents himself an idiot?” “Where will the kids go after school tomorrow if I’m in jail?”

I told the deputy “I guess it depends on the question.”

The sheriff's deputy placed seven small pills and two larger ones on the desk, and asked me to identify them. I told him the big ones were sugar-free breath mints, and the smaller ones were generic Ritalin pills. My daughter’s old ADHD doctor prescribed them for when her attention flagged late in the school day. Apparently the border guards found the pills when they searched my car.

The Ritalin pills are the smallest possible dose, just 5 mg. They’re very tiny. I have no recollection of how they ended up in the car. However, it’s easy to visualize a scene involving squabbling children, a harried dad, moving traffic, a loose cap, yelling, and imperfect cleanup.  

Technically it’s a customs violation to cross the border with prescription drugs if you aren’t also carrying the labeled bottle. I understand the feds are concerned about anything associated with amphetamine production. But maybe I'm just naive. Do our border boys often arrest minivan dads with stray Ritalin tablets for smuggling Canadian street drugs? 

Maybe I should have watched a few episodes of “Breaking Bad.”

The sheriff’s deputy sent me home, and told me to email him a picture of my daughter’s prescription bottle. His return email thanked me, and said they considered the matter closed.

Nevertheless, it’s been over a year now, and I still haven’t gotten my NEXUS pass back. But that’s another story. Or two.


  1. Thanks for posting this cautionary tale.

  2. Apparently the most common way to lose your NEXUS pass is to drive up to the customs booth while eating forbidden fresh fruit.