I was a (Minor) Threat to National Security

I am back Stateside from Canada but not before an intense confrontation with border officials. No, really. It wasn't that bad. But I did get caught. I honestly declared on my U.S. Customs' form that I intended to bring back a small amount of cooked, vacuum-sealed "smoked meat" (pastrami, for you Yanks) from a certain deli in Montreal and was told by a particularly humorless border guard that I could not do so as all types of "meat" from Canada is quarantined for entry into the U.S.

"But it's for a sandwich for my father, I pleaded," as if that argument trumps federal regulatory law. Not impressed, the Custom official then said, perhaps hoping to get me for perjury as well as pastrami smuggling, "sir, is it a sandwich or a whole brisket?" I copped to a whole brisket, from the famous Schwartz's deli in Montreal, and swear I could see the entire Customs' team licking its collective chops as I hauled the six-pound delicacy out of my bag and left it there on the table. It was either that or become a cause celebre for the sake of salted, cured meats and while there is nothing better in the world to eat than an old-fashioned "medium" smoked meat sandwich I certainly wasn't willing to miss my flight for it (much less be held between borders for it).

The real question though came when I told the Custom official that she should give me points for honesty (and, remember, this is all taking place at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning) allow me to take my non-Mad-Cow-disease-riddled package through. She said forget it. So then I said, angrily, "well then next time I just won't declare it" because you are punishing me for being honest about declaring an item that is no more a threat to our safety than the bagels I'm also bringing back. And that got her really angry, too. She reminded me that lying on a Customs form is itself a federal offense. So there we were. I backed down. She got the brisket. I got to come back home. No man is above the law. And no good deed goes unpunished.

By Andrew Cohen |  June 19, 2006; 7:00 AM ET
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Could have been much worse. I attempted to get a beautiful dried salami in from Italy; I was caught by the Beagle patrol, an outfit with an excellent PR team, i.e. you can't get angry at the adorable puppy causing your delicious grub's confiscation. When the dog flipped out on my bag from the duty free shop (where, of course, I was told that I could carry the salami back whereever I wanted) The customs agent asked what was in it. I was honest, said, "Sausage!" The customs agent proceeded to write "Sausage!??" on my bag in chalk, I proceeded then to my only intensive customs search ever.

Posted by: kav | June 19, 2006 07:41 AM

at least you got to keep the bagels. montreal bagels are the best. and being a fellow montreal-born u.s. citizen, i agree. the border patrol agents in montreal are impressively without humor.

Posted by: michelle | June 19, 2006 11:03 AM

Imagine, not being allowed to bring into the United States something that is not allowed to be brought into the United States. Imagine, customs officials who decide to follow the regulations rather than determine for themselves which regulations should be followed and which should not. You poor man, I am not sure how you withstood such trauma at such an early morning hour.

How are you being punished for your honesty? Oh, I see, Customs officials should confiscate what they find that has not been declared, but should allow you to bring in prohibited items because you were honest enough to admit to having them. And how honest were you? You said: "But it's for a sandwich for my father," clearly implying just a small amount of meat for "a" (i.e., one) sandwich, but later "copped to a whole brisket," recognizing that you had been a little less than completely truthful.

I have no idea whether the rule in question is necessary, questionable, or just downright silly, but I do have a very firm idea that the Customs officials have a duty to enforce that rule, and that it is very selfish on your part to ask them to ignore it.

Posted by: wally | June 19, 2006 01:29 PM

Will I be charged with aiding and abetting because of my request of you last week? What am I going to do with all this black bread I bought in anticipation?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | June 19, 2006 02:01 PM

Well, I think you were being punished for having medium instead of lean. While you were there, you should have asked them if party sandwiches from Snowdon Deli would have passed the test. Maybe it's time for you to change your eating habits!!!

Posted by: hommedecire | June 19, 2006 05:04 PM

I flew back from Iceland one time with some reindeer sausage in my suitcase. The customs agent was engrossed in conversation with his colleague as he distractedly searched my bag, but sure enough, he asked me, "is that a reindeer sausage in your suitcase?"

I couldn't stop myself. I knew that the consequences of a flippant answer could be disastrous, but when was I ever going to have a setup line like that again? Lord help me, I told him, "no, I'm just glad to see you."

Fortunately, he was too distracted to pay attention to me. If memory serves, he didn't even confiscate my sausage.

Posted by: Tom T. | June 19, 2006 06:46 PM

Oh that's nothing. I tried to sneak a baby back from China. The Customs dogs smelled something in my bag and I admitted to the agent that I had a baby in it. They put me through the most vicious search I could imagine. Strip searched even! And I did not get to keep the baby.

Posted by: Jones | June 25, 2006 12:35 PM

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