US Customs: smashed lamp

Statue of LibertyIn 2004, the last time I entered the US (between February 1995 and March 2004, I visited the US more often than I have any other country) I was halted for a baggage check.

I had brought my laptop with me. It was removed from my luggage and taken away. When I got it back, it had evidently been booted up and kept running for a while on its battery while they looked through the files I had saved on it to find out if I was a terrorist. Actually, they probably checked to confirm none of it was encrypted and then downloaded a complete copy for them to study at their leisure. Warrantless searches are legal at US border crossings for any reason or none.

This did not bother me at the time because I didn’t realise they intended to copy my hard drive.

What did bother me was that the customs agent assigned to search my luggage picked up items from it – I had come to visit the Grand Canyon, and had brought some British hiking supplies on the basis that I wasn’t sure what would be easy to buy in the South Rim village – and wanted to know, rudely and unpleasantly, “Why did you bring this?”

I was told later that US customs employees are encouraged to be as rude to incoming tourists as possible, in order to see if they can provoke some kind of suspicious response.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“”Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!”” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

Emma Lazarus’s poem has long been a rather bad joke. Unless you have a million dollars or are a uniquely-skilled scientist wanted by the US Defense Department, legal immigration to the US can take anything from 7 to 28 years and costs a lot of money.

I’ve loved visiting so many cities and other places and friends in the US and would happily go back, but I gather that crossing the US borders has got worse and worse since 2004. Illegal immigrants are of course the US’s preferred form of cheap labour – complaints that Americans “don’t want those kind of jobs” means that employers in many areas are no longer used to the idea that they have to pay acceptable wages to get legal employees: “two-career families” have been hiring illegal immigrants as cheap household employees for decades.

But if you just want to get in for a short stay, you don’t plan on working there, you have a return ticket and everything – no problem, right?

Well, probably not so long as you’re white – and know not to ask any questions, ever, when being yourself stopped, questioned, and searched.

Shahrukh Khan is regarded as one of the greatest and most influential actors in the history of Indian cinema. Shah Rukh Khan

“Whenever I start feeling arrogant about myself, I always take a trip to America. The immigration guys kick the star out of stardom,” [Shah Rukh Khan] said to laughter from the audience.

“They [immigration officials] always ask me how tall I am and I always lie and say 5ft 10 inches. Next time I am going to get more adventurous. [If they ask me] what colour are you, I am going to say white,” he said.

But if you’ve got a diplomatic passport you get through okay?

Meera Shankar, Indian Ambassador to the USWell, not if you’re dressing funny, in the kind of clothing that American security guards think indicates a terrorist. The Indian Ambassador to the US, Meera Shankar, was stopped and frisked by airport security in October 2010 after she showed them her diplomatic passport:

The Indian envoy was subjected to an enhanced security pat-down at the Jackson-Evers International Airport in Mississippi last weekend ostensibly because she was dressed in India’s national female attire, which is also her stock-in-outfit.

Shankar, who is nearing the end of her posting in Washington DC, was on her way back to Capital after an address to the Janos Radvanyi Chair in International Security Studies at Mississippi State University and other engagements in the state during her first visit there, including meetings with state government officials, when she ran into the security flap.

According to accounts in the local media, Shankar was escorted to the airport by a host representative and an airport security officer. At the security screening, she was asked to step aside for a pat-down although she had presented her diplomatic credentials, and despite having not set off any alarms when she passed through the metal detector. The ostensible reason for the secondary screening was her saree’d attire.

Mo Farah, Team GB gold medallistIf your surname is Farah and you were born in Somalia and you’re definitely not white?

Very suspicious. US immigration stop you almost every time.

Jamal Osman, a C4 journalist, says this happens to any man born in Somali – no matter what his citizenship:

I myself, have experienced the kind of tactics deployed by British officials such as detention, harassment and blackmail. Initially, I thought making official complaints would help. But after unsuccessful complaints to the Home Office and to my MP, I have come to realise that the experience is part of being a Somali. I just challenge British officials when they bother me. And as a journalist, who frequently travels to Africa, I come into contact with them more often than others.

Travelling on a British passport does not make any difference. Despite living in the UK for over 13 years, with no criminal offence (except the odd parking ticket), I get treated as a criminal. Immigration officers at Heathrow often hold me for between 15 minutes and two hours, depending on their mood.

When Mo Farah was training in the US before the 2012 Olympics:

“When we tried to get a residency visa, Nike obviously signed it all off and we thought it was going to be straightforward.

“We were in Portland on a tourist visa so had to leave and re-enter the country as a resident.

“So we flew to Toronto to stay for a few days, then come back in.

“But when we were there we got a letter telling us we’re under investigation as a terrorist threat and we would have to stay away for 90 days.

“We had only packed four days’ worth of clothes. We didn’t know what to do.”

Fortunately Farah’s running coach, Alberto Salazar, had the necessary contacts to ensure that a British citizen with the “wrong” colour skin and born in one of the “wrong” countries, would not be blocked from entering the US on a legal residency visa just because of his skin colour and place of birth.

“As luck would have it Alberto has a friend who works for the FBI. This guy happens to be a massive running fan, knew exactly who I was and got it sorted then and there.

“God knows what would have happened if he didn’t. We’d probably still be in Toronto.”

Had Farah been refused entry to the US on that occasion, no matter that he was legally entitled to enter, he would forever after have had to put down on his tourist visa waiver or any other visa application, that he had on one occasion been denied entrance to the US. That by itself, for someone without any special contacts or clout or money, would ensure they could never enter the US again on the visa waiver system and might never be able to get a visa. (Yes, this happens.)

And only when this kind of thing happens to people like the Ambassador to India, or to one of the world’s most famous film stars, or to an Olympic champion, does the world’s media ever pay attention.

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Filed under Racism, Travel

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