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Visiting the U.S. is truly a trial these days

“Read the form!” the immigration agent snapped. “What does it say?”

She was a dark-haired woman, wearing a badge with a Spanish surname beginning with Q.

Her finger was pointing to a paragraph above the signature on the visa waiver application form.

It said, “I hereby waive any rights to review or appeal of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer’s determination as to my admissibility, or to contest, other than on the basis of an application for asylum, any action in deportation.”

We had just arrived from London. Q was putting on the frighteners at the very start of our interview in the cell-bare office at Miami International Airport. She did not want to hear any explanation from me. Her quarry was Margaret, my wife, sitting on the only other plastic chair. I had to stand.

Q passed the green form across the desk to Margaret and demanded that she read all the questions out loud. She knew the officer was interested only in her answer to the penultimate question, but Q had made it clear there was to be no deviation from standard procedure.

A ‘no’ in every box
So Margaret dutifully read out each of the seven groupings. She had ticked the No box to all. She had no communicable disease. She wasn’t a drug addict, criminal, spy, terrorist, kidnapper, nor seeking work or immunity from prosecution.

“And as far as I am aware, I have never been denied a U.S. visa,” she insisted.

Q flourished some printouts containing Margaret’s passport photographs. “You made applications for a visa in 2002 and twice in 2004. I don’t see a visa in your passport. So you were denied a visa. You lied.”

A male officer entered the room and ordered me to stand out of his path, against the far wall. “Yeah, where’s the visa?” he snapped. Clearly, he had not read the poster announcing Homeland Security’s policy of politeness to strangers.

Margaret started to weep: “I don’t tell lies. No one has ever told me I have been denied a visa.”

The journey had started so well. We had been upgraded to business class so we were among the first off the plane in Miami, and near the head of the queue at immigration control. A new hall has been added at Miami International so that lines for inbound British travelers are not as long as they used to be.

The delay in the past has been caused by machines failing to register the fingerprints of one of us. Defective machines? Maybe. The pattern of whorls blurring with age like the rest of our bodies so that each silver haired, long toothed, pendulous eared, double chinned, droopy shouldered, collapsed stomach pensioner loses all individual identity? Probably.

Prints registered successfully
But the fingerprint machines have been upgraded, and LED lights that turn to green or yellow inform you at once when your prints have been registered successfully. For a brief, exhilarating moment it seemed that we were both through without delay.

This time, “the fingerprints were fine,” said the border control officer, “but there is a flag against Mrs. Rodgers.”

As he led us to the back of the hall, my mind raced over all the possible crimes my wife might have committed. Fifty years of failing to love, honour and obey me implicitly at all times was surely no bar to a country where such old-fashioned marriage vows had long been abandoned.

More than likely, she had made a mistake filling in the green form given to her on the aircraft. She had had to be reminded to sign it by the official directing lines to border control.

Had she entered some different answer to the set of identical questions on the preflight form which I had been obliged to submit on her behalf when booking the flights? It was too late to check because the form and her passport were in the firm grasp of the officer leading us to our fate.

Facing Q, growing more and more angry
Now, facing Q, I tried not to get angry, knowing it would make matters worse, but I was impelled to make a protest. “You can see my wife is elderly, but you may not know she has a weak heart and high blood pressure. This stress is doing her harm. Why don’t you let me explain?

“I’m the one who filled out her preflight form. I’m the one who applied for our visas. The embassy said it wanted more information before it would grant them. I was told specifically that we had NOT been denied visas — merely that our applications would remain pending and our passports stamped ‘application received.’

“I decided not to continue with the process, that’s all! We have been giving you the same answers every year since 2004, and nobody has queried them until now.”

Of course, no one had tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit until 12 days earlier, nor had Homeland Security been publicly rebuked by President Obama. Neither of the intimidating Border Protection officers was prepared to mention that.

“If there is no visa, then you were denied one,” the man insisted. “Why don’t you admit it?”

In bullying mode
It was false logic, but I knew it would be a waste of time trying to explain it. They were in bullying mode and would be satisfied with nothing but complete capitulation on our part.

Margaret’s sobbing was making Q uncomfortable. She suggested I get her some water from a fountain at the end of the corridor. When I returned, the man had gone and Q’s manner had softened.

“I’m giving you the chance to amend your answer,” she told Margaret. All she had to do was check the Yes box “and add your initials and you can go through.”

Margaret agreed on the understanding that she was not admitting to lying.

“The same applies to you,” Q barked at me. Then she let us go.

Love affair with U.S. is over
The war on tourism has killed my love affair with America. I now dread flying to the United States. On our last three visits, it has taken more than two hours to clear immigration controls. Some might argue that this does not seem too arduous an inconvenience to keep innocent citizens safe.

But after 15 hours of traveling — beginning with a 6 a.m. alarm call at home — and with the knowledge that a rental car had still to be collected for a death-defying 60-mile drive in rush-hour traffic along I-95 from Miami to our house, even the most experienced travelers can begin to weary.

I don’t want to visit the States any more. Obama’s presidency has not brought a lessening of tension. Security measures have become more onerous for travelers. If only the economy would improve and allow us to sell our house …
John Rodgers, a retired journalist, lives in London. He and his wife, Margaret, also have a home in Florida and typically visit several times a year.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/14/2010 - 04:46 pm.

    Depending on the port of entry, a local “culture” can grow up among immigration officials in which they feel free to act like petty tyrants.

    This happened in Portland, Oregon, a few years ago, where the immigration officials were notorious for sending back or even jailing Asian visitors on the flimsiest of excuses. The local Asian-American press printed several horror stories of people who had been sent back on the next plane because they couldn’t speak English (no interpreters on site) or because the agents couldn’t be bothered to make a phone call to someone who could vouch for them. A Chinese business visitor was jailed because the officials thought that her passport looked “too heavily used.”

    Sad to say, it took a horror story involving a European to bring about some action. The head of the local immigration was fired, and things settled down. Still, there were idiots who wrote in to the local paper, praising Portland Immigration for “keeping terrorists out.” Right, terrorists in the form of Chinese grandmothers, Japanese teenagers, and Korean executives.

    However, it sounds as if Miami now has its share of petty tyrants, too.

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