It’s early morning at Heathrow Airport. I’m at the American Airlines check-in desk with plenty of time to spare before my flight to Chicago. I’m visiting my wife and in-laws in Michigan. I’ve forgotten to get an ESTA, but I’m told this shouldn’t be a problem to fix.
For those who have never completed one, an ESTA is a $14 (or just $4 if you fail!) security screening that, if passed, entitles you to VISA free travel to the USA, 90 days at a time, for five years. It’s an extensive form, eight or nine computer screens of questions about you, your family, your movements, your employment status and so on. You get a response within 72 hours, although I was fortunate enough to get mine within thirty minutes.
It’s been several years since I last visited America so I didn’t know anything about this; the wasted half hour obtaining an ESTA was really my fault. However, I will say that for something so serious and official that a member of staff has to monitor (and definitely not help) me as I complete it, the site seems pretty buggy to me; it crashes my tablet and phone twice, and my laptop once.
Armed with confirmation of my ESTA approval, I head back to the AA desk to check in. I hand over my phone and my passport to a different staff member and explain that my sister-in-law, an AA employee, has booked me a standby ticket. The attendant duly pulls up my details, flicks through my passport in search of the photo page and stops before she gets there. Something has caught her eye.
“Where have you traveled from today?”
“Where are you going?”
“Do you have an ESTA or VISA?”
“Have you traveled from the Middle East today?”
“This stamp is for… Bahrain?”
“When were you there?”
“What did you do there?”
“Who did you go there with?”
I point out that I submitted this information to get the ESTA which was approved, but this falls on deaf ears. The questions continue, some of them get asked twice. A queue forms and snakes behind me.
I find the questions about Bahrain particularly curious. I should explain that a Bahraini employment visa stamp is not a clearly printed sticker like some others. It’s two large, smeary, wet ink-blot stamps on adjacent pages in a mixture of Arabic and English with a scrawly signature, presumably from someone important at the Bahraini labour board.
Our conversation seems to have attracted the attention of the attendant at the adjacent counter, who herself is serving a customer and pretending – though not very well – that she isn’t listening in on our exchange. Her absent-minded stare and ever decreasing typing speed give her away.
The queue gets longer. Time passes. I’m still here, still talking. I feel kind of bad, I think to myself. I’m not even checking-in any luggage.
Done with her customer and clearly not interested in serving of the others, the adjacent attendant comes over to my desk and asks her colleague for a recap of whatever of my situation the last customer has caused her to miss. I interrupt them to ask if there’s a problem. No, comes the reply; they continue talking for a little longer. Finally, the committee reaches a decision and issue me my ticket. I am unsure as to what, after almost 10 minutes, has convinced them to do this. I’m told that I’m going to have to run as the gate will soon close.
My gate is towards the far end of Terminal 3 and time isn’t on my side. I think of my wife, who is American and white when she flew from Bahrain to the USA via the Netherlands two months ago. As she was boarding the plane in Amsterdam, she had the following exchange with the American security staff before being permitted to fly:
“So you’ve come from Bahrain?”
“What did you do there?”
“I was studying and training to be a kindergarten teacher.”
“Oh, really? How fun!”
I clear airport security, get to the gate after a 10-minute semi-jog and find its glass doors locked. A member of staff inside comes to the door and tells me I’m too late, but as I’m on standby I can just go to the AA service desk and have the ticket changed for a flight due to depart in under an hour. I’m infuriated that I’ve wasted my time getting to the airport early only to miss my first flight (and possibly my connecting one) through no fault of my own.
The desk I am looking for is back in the main hub of Terminal 3, meaning I have to very quickly retrace my steps. I can feel my legs start to tire – one of my knees has not in the best condition of late and for the time being I’m not supposed to run excessively. Oh well.
At the service desk, I explain to the woman that I’ve been made to miss my original flight and, like me, she seems genuinely surprised that I’ve been here for so long but didn’t manage to board the plane.
“The people at the check-in desk spent ages asking me questions about the stamps in my passport. I cleared ESTA and I have a valid ticket but they just kept going on…”
“Really? But they shouldn’t be doing that down there.”
I wonder just where the appropriate place is for what happened and pray I manage to avoid it from now on.
“Yeah. Something about the Bahrain stamp in my passport.”
She is talking to me, passport between two fingers in one hand, tapping codes into the computer keyboard with the other, but stops when she hears this.
She then starts asking the same questions as the people downstairs.
“I am irked by the clumsy butting together of questions and answers that have led me to this point but can’t help but think that I was never going to win this one.“
I am midway through answering (or, I guess, interjecting with the answer when the order of the words in the question sound familiar) when I feel a person behind me, shuffling from one foot to the other. He’s the only other person in the queue. He’s in a hurry. He’s obviously been listening and pipes up:
“Oh, I’m having the same problem. Have you come from Bahrain?”
“No, but I lived there until recently. Where are you going?”
“Chicago. I’ve just got off a plane from Bahrain this morning, but I missed my flight because people kept asking me questions when I was transferring.”
I wonder if Bahrain is now on some kind of US super-blacklist and we just haven’t been informed. I remember that although Bahrain is an Islamic nation, it’s also part of the ‘intervention’ that other Islamic/Gulf states are currently staging on Qatar, and that the incumbent US President supports this. I wonder if there are any more people on this man’s last flight who will end up in this queue. Maybe, maybe not. One thing I can’t help but notice is that he, too, is a black man.
The questions – about when and why I was in Bahrain, why I’m going to the USA and for how long, about why I think they might have kept me so long – rumble on until I derail proceedings: “you know, I really don’t want to miss another flight”. A second ticket is issued and I’m off, but not before wishing the man behind me good luck.
Again I run for the gate to catch the day’s second departure to Chicago, which is directly opposite the one from an hour earlier.
My ticket and passport are checked, slowly, by one person at the entrance and then, three or four paces into the waiting area, by another.
Next, I am immediately sent to the left of the waiting area where I’m asked to remove my shoes, belt, and jacket (like airport security) and made to completely unpack my carry-on baggage. Literally every single item of clothing is unrolled, every device taken out of its case, every pocket fully unzipped and every surface exposed so as to be rubbed with a small white strip that picks up traces of explosives (I had more than enough time to ask them what it was all about, so I did).
The unpacking and repacking take about 10 minutes and I begin to wonder if I’m going to miss two planes this morning, not one. I am ushered over to a second desk for seat allocation some 15 metres away from where I just stood. Before allocating me a seat, the agent at this desk asks whether I’ve been tested for explosives. The specificity of this question didn’t strike me until a long time afterward: there were people in this queue, before and after me, who were not tested – fair enough, random checks happen – but none of them were asked, either. I tell the man, yes, but nonetheless, he proceeds to radio over to the first desk (the one 15 metres away that we can both see clearly) and wait for radioed confirmation to print my ticket. For whatever reason this is done it looks pretty ridiculous.
Finally, I am permitted to board the plane. I look behind and while there are still a couple of stragglers being rushed through the gate, the man from Bahrain is nowhere to be seen.
When I disembark in Chicago, I head straight to the Customs and Border Protection desk, mindful that I have a connection to Grand Rapids, my final destination, that’s due to leave in under an hour. When I’m called to the glass booth, I hand the officer my passport and completed landing card. He takes my fingerprints. We have to do them twice because they’re sweaty.
“Where are you going today?”
“Grand Rapids. I’m here for eight days visiting my in-laws”, I say without pausing, trying to speed up the now-tired-but-nonetheless-obligatory questions.
The officer begins flicking through my passport looking for the photograph page and stops two sides before, on the bright green (Arabic adorned) Saudi Arabia entry visa. He stops and peers up at me.
“You’ve been to Saudi Arabia?”
“No, that’s an entry visa.”
“But the date on here says July.”
I ask to take the passport back from him. He gives it to me and I explain: “It says that from the date of issue in July I have 90 days to enter the country. I’m going there to start work in September.”
“But sir, the date has passed. You must have been there.”
Internally, I face palm, and then repeat myself, pointing: “It’s an entry visa. I’m going there in a month before it expires, 90 days from the date of issue.”
“Where have you come from today? The Middle East?”
He calls up my details on his computer. I hand him back the passport.
“Ah, so it says here you flew on the 8:40 from Heathrow.”
“Yes. that’s right.”
“And you’re going to…”
Reading the screen: “These flights have someone else’s name and address on them as well as yours…”
“Yes, my sister-in-law works for AA and booked them for me”. I offer him her details and give him my plane ticket which, as a standby, looks markedly different from a standard one, but he is still unconvinced.
“But this isn’t the same name and address as your landing card.”
“My sister-in-law doesn’t live with the family at the landing card address. And my wife doesn’t work for AA.”
“Hmm. Are you flying from the US to Saudi Arabia?”
“No. I’m here for a week. I’ve got to go home before going there.”
“And home is…”
“And you’re staying with your in-laws in the United States?”
“Yes, my wife and in-laws will meet me in Michigan.”
“So your wife isn’t with you today?”
“That’s right. She lives here. She’s American.”
“Why didn’t she come with you?”
“She had to study in the US until last week.”
“And she didn’t come back to you after that?”
Wait, so she finishes studying in the US, then flies to the UK so that we fly back to the US again a week later arm in arm? A pause, and more flicking through the passport.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a teacher.”
“Where do you work?”
“I worked in Bahrain until last month.”
He pauses again and then flicks faster.
I take back the passport and show him. “Yes, here’s the work visa stamp from last year, and here’s the exit visa stamp from a month ago.”
“So… you’re unemployed and trying to enter the United States?”
Another internal facepalm. I can scarcely believe we’re going there.
“…I guess, yeah. To visit my family.”
“And your wife isn’t with you.”
“Sir, can you come this way, please?”
I am irked by the clumsy butting together of questions and answers that have led me to this point but can’t help but think that I was never going to win this one. I don’t actually care right now if I get sent home – no, more than that: I very seriously want to be sent home. I’m escorted across the row of glass booths to a walled-off area for interviewing. As I walk in, another officer booms at me that I need to keep my phone in my pocket and sit down (apparently it’s an airport-wide ban, even though the airport has free Wi-Fi reception that everyone outside of this room is taking advantage of).
“I will confidently assert that no white person has ever been asked: “Where are you from?“
Inside the doorway is a central waiting area with lots of wooden benches facing a long counter. A corridor lined with interview rooms forms a ring on three sides around the edge of the counter and waiting area. Armed officers patrol the space, each one clutching a wad of passports, speaking only to butcher the names of the detainees as they summon them for their interviews.
I take my seat, but not before looking around. Every officer that paces through this area is white. Aside from the one woman sat on the first bench whose name when called sounds Polish or maybe Russian, every person in the waiting area is non-white. There’s the Indian student, arriving for the start of school and being told she’ll need to go home to get an entirely new visa; the black man with a North American accent that I can’t place, who is being queried on his children, his employment status, and whether his registered address in the state “is legit”; waiting behind me are travellers of (I think) South East Asian, East African, and Hispanic descent. I take out a book from my bag, the Korean translation of a Cormac McCarthy play, and accept that this might take a while.
After 10 minutes, an officer is stood in the hallway holding my passport. She manages to bark my first name, gives up midway through my last name, a diminuendo that reduces the final syllables to an elongated mumble, and instead resorts to my photograph and a pointed first digit to usher me to an interview room. We’re sat in a tiny office at either side of a computer desk. The officer has my records up on the screen and a blue biro and a piece of paper to take notes.
There are all the Wh- questions about Bahrain from earlier, although they get a new lease of life when the officer realizes that my ‘wife’ is American. I have to give information about people that both she and I have worked with while we were out there. She scribbles it on the paper.
I am asked about where my wife and I met and I’m recalling in detail how we lived across the street from one another in a small Korean town, that we met in church (I secretly hope that this puts the whole religion thing to bed) and, yes, they do speak some English out there…
“Do you have plans to stay and work here?”
“No. I’m here for 8 days.”
“How much money are you carrying?”
“Bank cards, credit cards, about £30.”
“You have no US dollars.”
“No. I’m meeting my wife at the other end.”
This doesn’t seem to make sense to her.
“But why wouldn’t you carry your own money?”
“She’s my wife. She’s an American citizen with a US bank account.”
She holds her gaze and I take this as a prompt to keep explaining.
“When she came to the UK we did the same in reverse.”
“Why didn’t you buy your own ticket?”
“My sister-in-law works for AA. She bought it and I paid her back.”
“So you couldn’t just buy your own?”
“Not at a third of the price like she can, no.”
In large letters the woman scribbles in the centre of the blank paper: HAS NO MONEY.
After a rundown of my teaching career in which she writes down all the countries, I’ve taught in, the particulars of my wedding come under scrutiny. When I explain that my wife and I married in Gibraltar for ease of paperwork, the officer expresses genuine surprise that we didn’t come to the USA to tie the knot. I think this is a joke, surely. Truth be told, of our home countries it is, on paper at least, easier for us to marry in the US than the UK. But I wonder: what would have happened if this officer was working on the day we flew in?
We move on to my background:
“You’ve come from Bahrain, you’re going to Saudi Arabia. So where is home?”
“And you’re a British citizen?”
“You’ve not been a citizen of any other country?”
“No. I’m born and bred Brit.”
“You’re originally from there? Then what about your parents?”
“They’re also British citizens.”
My ears prick up. I think I’m about to be asked where I’m really from.
“They didn’t come from anywhere?”
Oh no. I am. My parents have always had British passports and have never had to change them.
“No. They were born in St. Vincent.”
I remember that my cousin, who was also born in St. Vincent, now lives in the UK and has served in the British Armed Forces for nearly a decade.
At this point, I will confidently assert that no white person has ever been asked: “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” The irony is, of course, that the United States (not to be confused with the states and peoples that were on that same land long before it) began as a nation of largely white European immigrants. I’d be extremely surprised to hear my wife had been questioned on her Finnish roots or my wife’s grandmother on her Welsh heritage (and I was actually born and raised there).
“So that’s not the UK then, right? When’s the last time you went there?”
“1993. When I was ten.”
“And what was it like, what did you do there?”
“A family holiday…?”
The next part runs more like a narrative from that old show This Is Your Life, where the presenter walks a famous person through anecdotes from their past. She gets a level of mileage out of this family trip that would be impressive if I wasn’t already absolutely livid.
She asks about my grandfather’s farm, what he grew there (“Breadfruit? Bananas?”). I’m going on about ‘black sand beaches and a dormant volcano’ and she’s probably hearing ‘training camps and secret mountain tunnels’. I’m asked how much I remember about St. Vincent and I’m explaining that so many family members attended the reunion – 24 years ago – that one night we had to go and kill an extra goat to make curry, something that my young cousins and I were totally repulsed by. My sister would later remark that the officer probably thought that we were killing goats as target practice, like that scene with the sheep in Four Lions.
The officer tries a new line of inquiry about Saudi Arabia.
It transpires that it is preposterous that I would live and work there rather than the USA, the inviting destination that it so clearly is. Is this a mind game? And the plans my wife and I have to work in different countries until next year seems to give the officer renewed vigor. I can’t check the time on my phone, but I resign myself to the fact that I’m going to miss my connecting flight and await the next barrage of questions.
“Do you have children?”
“You don’t have children with your wife?”
“Do you have children with anyone other than your wife?”
“And you’re going to be working in Saudi Arabia?”
“And your wife is coming with you?”
“No. She won’t be eligible to work there until the new year, so she’s going to China until then. She’s leaving next week, at which point I’m going home.”
“That’s gotta suck right?”
“So during your holidays, you’ll meet up, right?”
“Will that be in the USA?”
“No way!” The words jump of out me. “Thailand, Korea, Japan, maybe the Philippines… somewhere… else.”
“Do you want children?”
“…At some point, yes…?”
“So… how are you going to have children if you’re in Saudi Arabia and she’s in China?”
“We’re not planning on having them now…?”
She continues with the baby talk for a while. Who knew that this place doubled as a Family Planning clinic? Maybe Customs and Border Protection is a euphemism.
“You know you can’t have babies if you’re not in the same country right?” she laughs.
And then, flatly: “Yes, I am aware of the biological process”.
“OK. So you said she’s just got a teaching license. Does that make her eligible to work in the US?”
“I presume so, it’s through an American university”.
“So she’ll want to work closer to home right?”
“No. Actually, with the license and experience under her belt, she’ll be eligible to work in Saudi and that’s where we’re going to both be.”
“For how long?”
“Hopefully a few years.”
And then the clincher. Her eyes rest on me: “How are you going to have babies if you’re not coming to the US permanently. If you’re married to an American where else would you have them?”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing.
“You will be unsurprised to learn that I have no desire to return to the USA. I just don’t need to be in America.“
I wonder if the officer has watched the news at all in the last few years. If names like Crutcher, Garner, Sterling, and Brown are familiar to her. I remember my wife and I being in disbelief, saddened, enraged, reading news reports about them and others like them. I reply firmly: “We’re not coming here to have children”.
She isn’t finished though. In fact, her tone makes her seem almost perplexed: “Then where are you guys going to end up?”
I am seething. I can feel myself burning up. I have never heard such staggering arrogance. Am I on the way to being told that ‘American babies are the best babies’? And – let’s play Devil’s Advocate here – if indeed this is the case, it’s a very specific type of American baby, isn’t it?
“Somewhere in mainland Europe, maybe-”
She interrupts. “Yeah, not Saudi Arabia, right? Yeah, that’s good, to go somewhere better. You should do that.”
I almost laugh when I think that until now I’ve never been treated as deplorable in an Islamic country as I have here today, but I manage to continue. “Actually, my wife told me she’s not interested in us living here.”
I know the officer will have heard something like this hundreds of times, but this is true.
In the week before our wedding, my wife and I were watching news coverage of the murder of Philando Castile by a white police officer in Minnesota. Members of Castile’s community played out an all-too-familiar scene: an impassioned street corner rally, his grieving partner stood central on a makeshift stage demanding that his death be the last of its kind. Demanding fairness. Demanding security and liberty for all.
My wife, tearing up, turned to me and said, “I don’t want to be one of those women. I don’t want that for us. We can’t live there.”
And then, for reasons I will never know, the officer has heard enough, takes the stamp on the table and issues my 90-day tourist visa. I am given my passport and told I am free to enter the country.
Once I leave the interview area I check the time on my phone. I have been detained for almost an hour. I’ve missed my connecting flight, and my in-laws still don’t know what’s happened to me. I send them a message.
“Sorry for the delay, I’ve just come out of being detained and questioned for almost an hour. You’re probably on your way to Grand Rapids already but I’m leaving Chicago now. I’m sure your part of America is lovely but next time can we just meet in Canada please?”
You will be unsurprised to learn that I have no desire to return to the USA. I just don’t need to be in America – I don’t NEED America – that badly, certainly not so much that I’m OK with the possibility of something like this happening again. I do not write this to disrespect any Americans reading this. It is my wife’s home; much of my own beloved family reside along the east coast; my in-laws are great. No, I say this because I have never been so angry, felt so mistreated, or felt such indignation. All because of a calculated process of victimization that masquerades as border security and purports to defend liberty but instead ingrains prejudice.
It has been very illuminating to hear the range of responses from different people to whom I’ve recounted this story. Some think it unfortunate but warranted in a post 9/11 world, evidence that the authorities are following due process and keeping the US and its citizens safe. It’s been suggested by others that Bahrain and Saudi Arabia simply aren’t a good look (though the incumbent President’s first foreign tour would never give you that impression). A few feel deeply embarrassed; a few, like me, feel outraged. Others still just find it comical or even absurd. A large part of me thinks that’s because it is so far-fetched. It would never happen to them and thus it must be beyond the limits of reality. It must be a joke. Sadly not.
As my sister pointed out when I returned home, if the CBP officer were trying to find a terrorist, or identify me as someone who was going to abuse my tourist visa in some way, she seemed to be asking a lot of (what I felt were) redundant questions, and not actually listening for any of the answers. I have never had such a meandering and time-consuming conversation that went absolutely nowhere. I felt like all that was missing was a family photo album full of cheesy childhood holiday snaps.
And let’s be honest: the conversation and lines of questioning are rotted through with racial profiling. My answers were rendered irrelevant, shoehorned as they were into the mold marked ‘non-white threat to white safety’. Yes, all countries have a right and a duty to protect their borders, but to me, the episode is little more than an official exercise in discrimination.
One thing I learned, though, is that I now have to find a new sweet spot. One between a) proving that you’re British when you’re black-and-thus-not-British-enough, b) proving that you’ve not been tainted (read: radicalised) by Islam whilst working in the Middle East (perhaps that day I’d been mistaken for a Muslim?) and c) proving that by marrying an American you aspire to the ideals of a very specific section of someone else’s society, one that is privileged, prejudiced and racially sterilised. And all this in a country that doesn’t really want people like you there, whether or not you were born within its borders. I guess, in entering the United States, I join the ranks of its least protected, least respected people groups.
Dear United States: It seems to be mutually agreed, then, that we’re both safer when we’re not in each other’s company. And I want you to know that I’m OK with that.
Featured image courtesy of flyertalk.com