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Returning from overseas travel: What it’s like for me, a U.S. citizen

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Since 9/11, I make sure to be at the airport at least two hours before my flight, regardless. I make sure that if I have any connecting flights abroad, that I have at least 1.5 hours in between. But most important, when I return from overseas travel and go through U.S. customs, I take a moment to tell myself, “They’re just doing their jobs.”

But it’s no longer OK. Here’s why. From a fellow Minnesotan.

I go through TSA once or twice a month. I am often traveling back from some amazing country. I believe I am blessed to be able to travel as such. When I return to my home country, the United States, I give my passport to a machine. It spits out my picture with a giant X across it and I’m asked to move to the non-U.S. citizen line.

I am a U.S. citizen. I am not allowed the courtesy of entering the country through the same passage as my fellow Americans.

I just need to have patience, I tell myself

I wait. The line is considerably longer. People from all over the world waiting to enter the greatest country in the world. I stand with them and wait. I have done this so many times before. I just need to have patience, I tell myself.

When I get to the TSA officer, I normally smile and say “hello” or “good morning,” depending on the time of day. The officer scans my passport. I wait for the oncoming questions …

“What was the reason for your travel?” Usually business.

“What countries have you traveled to?” Usually one. France, often.

“Who did you travel with?” Most often it’s just me.

“Was it business or pleasure?” Wait, didn’t he just ask that? Business, normally.

“Did you travel to other countries than France?” Uh, no, just France. It was a nice trip.

“So you were on holiday?” No, it was business. I mean the trip itself was pleasant.

“Did anyone join you on your trip?” No, it was just me.

Same questions, asked different ways — until recently

This goes on for a few minutes. Same basic three questions asked a few different ways. When I’m tired from a long trip, I forget I should just answer the questions and not add any color or small talk. That just keeps me there longer.

But on my most recent trip, something new was asked.

“Do you have dual citizenship with another country?” I paused. What? No. I was born in Minnesota. I’m a U.S. citizen.

Then, the same three questions again.

I was mad. But I controlled myself. When the officer was done with his questions, I finally got a “Welcome to the U.S.” But not a “Welcome home.”

Omar Abdelwahed
Omar Abdelwahed

I hear some of you …

“Omar, that’s the price of security. We need to keep our borders safe.”

I believed this for a time. But here’s the thing. I travel through the same TSA checkpoint twice a month. Some of the officers even recognize me and wave at me. If indeed we are practicing some advanced security measures, at minimum there would be records of my passages. My assumption has always been that when my passport is scanned, and all the stamps on my passport are checked, there is a historical record showing who I am and that I’ve answered the same three questions so many, many times before.

I hear some of you still …

“Well, you’re assuming a lot there. We can’t know what those exact security measures are and we need to keep the bad guys out. It’s inconvenient but necessary.”

I also believed this for a time …

Until one TSA agent told me the truth to my face: “It is your last name. That’s why.” I didn’t read that statement online. I didn’t hear it from a third party. He told me, directly. “It is your last name.”

As common as ‘Johnson’ in the U.S.

My last name, “Abdelwahed,” is as common in the Middle East as “Johnson” in the United States. My first name, “Omar,” is similarly as common as “John.” Quite literally, the entire security screening process through U.S. customs is to find the Arab equivalent of “John Johnson.”

It also helps if he has brown skin.

I am a Minnesotan, an American, born in Minneapolis. I was raised here. Ask yourself if this is OK.

“Why don’t you just sign-up for Global Entry and save yourself the hassle? It’s only $100!”

That would address an effect, but not the cause. I do not have issue with the time spent waiting in line, but rather with what amounts to institutionalized discrimination under the guise of “security.” I’ve been singled out countless times for my last name, asked repeatedly to leave the line for U.S. citizens, regardless how many times I’ve passed additional screening in the past, my name and face crossed out, literally, with a giant X. Clearly, these security measures do nothing but alienate and divide U.S. citizens because of erroneous assumptions of their backgrounds, all from scanning their last names.

I say “institutionalized discrimination” because I’ve never felt any hostility or suspicion from those who work in the TSA. They are just reading a script. They are doing their jobs. That script, the kiosks and computer systems are part of the institution, not of the employees who work for it. These institutional systems do not promote security. They promote discrimination.

What are passports for, again?

If indeed Global Entry is the solution, why not mandate it universally? Is this not an indication that the common screening performed by the automated kiosks and the script read by TSA agents are inaccurate? If Global Entry is the superior security measure, does it not make sense then to have everyone register beyond our normal passports? What are the passports for, again? I had thought registering for a passport led to proof of our U.S. citizenship.

It is interesting that U.S. Customs and Border Protection offer a $100 solution to travelers to avoid the normal TSA security screening process. If one could convert even a few percent of those who travel abroad every day into Global Entry registrants, that would be quite a successful business. If one alternatively fixed the TSA screening process, Global Entry would not be necessary and that revenue would be lost.

All of this was before the new executive order signed by President Donald Trump that increases security measures and closes borders to certain Arab countries and refugees. While you hopefully think of me, a fellow Minnesotan and American, in regards to this new order, I will be planning my next trip.

I’ll probably arrive three hours early this time.

Omar Abdelwahed is a software engineer and the Head of Studio at SoftBank Robotics America in San Francisco. Omar was born and raised in Minnesota and his career includes working at the corporate headquarters of Best Buy where he helped launch BestBuy.com. Omar is a proud (and somewhat tired) Vikings fan and longs for the day to see them win the Super Bowl.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by T Harty on 02/06/2017 - 09:12 am.

    A Bit Confusing Read

    I was a little confused reading the article because it’s so easy to confuse the various security folks at the airport look similar, but are quite different.

    TSA agents are the folks at the metal detectors, they have no police powers and actually have to summon the airport cops to make an arrest. Customer and Border Patrol (CPB) are the folks at Customs and Immigration and they do have police powers.

    “TSA Pre” (AKA precheck) is the program that lets you use the shorter line at the metal detectors and keep your shoes on. Global Entry is the program that let’s you skip the immigration line, though a CBP officer will still ask is you have anything to declare when exiting customs. Global Entry is $20 more than TSA Pre and includes TSA Pre membership. If you every have to go through Miami or New York Global Entry will save you a considerable amount of time just waiting in line. Most business travelers are in the program to save time in lines.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/06/2017 - 03:21 pm.

    Boy! Telling this native-born American citizen to try something else when he comes back to the USA is a neat way of avoiding the issue he brings up in this article: institutional discrimination on the basis of having an Arabic-sounding name.

    This is the anti-Muslim and unconstitutional discrimination that the Trump immigration ban makes legal, and on which our court system (Thank the Constitution for an independent judiciary to protect us from tyrants and dictators who use “I alone can fix this!” as a motto and promise!) is providing a very welcome check.

    I’m kind of proud to be a Minnesotan, with our Attorney General Lori Swanson joining Washington state in the lawsuit against the immigration ban. Seems to have legs!

  3. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 02/06/2017 - 10:46 am.

    Lock-down USA is here already don’t you know?

    …and if it hasn’t happened to you yet, do you carelessly assume “he must have done something wrong”, eh?…bet that thought.rests like an ugly shadow among a few?

    Wait till Aunt Emma Peterson takes a bus trip to attend a basement social at the Good God Lutheran perish somewhere just across the border in Canada…coming home all have their now activated I.D. cards at the ready when poor Emma can’t find hers as she digs nervously in her ‘pocket book, hand bag whatever?

    Two Homeland Security usher Emma out and into a black suv.

    All her fellow ladies aid associates stare down at her from the safety of the bus shaking their heads…then zoom off.

    Check point Charlie is here folks and lock-down USA is a creeping phenomena …and I suppose it won’t hit most of the populace, until security checks become as invasive at the local shopping mall… as at an airport ‘depot’?

    Do remember, the right of .privacy, civil liberty, due process too have developed four letter ‘acronyms’, for gone are those democratic policies. no longer guaranteed…

  4. Submitted by Brian Scholin on 02/06/2017 - 10:51 am.

    Everyone should experience this – in the right way.

    As an occasional global traveler over many years, I have been mildly annoyed by the changes in airport security in recent years. But I am a light-skinned, blond-to-white-haired, Northern European-American male, and was privileged to have never been subjected to anything beyond mild CBP annoyance.

    Then a year ago, I traveled to an area in China where I was, for my first time, not only a distinct minority, but a curiosity to most I encountered. It was a different experience, and it took me a while to figure it out. The “natives” didn’t look that unusual to me – just a foreign version of what I experience in parts of San Francisco, for example. But I was definitely “the other” to them, in a way that I had never before experienced. Sometimes, I was treated with great deference, but not by their version of CBP! They clearly had scripts written by the same guys who write them for Mr. Abdelwahed’s local CBP officials.

    This was a very enlightening experience for me. Everyone should know what it’s like to be treated as the other. It really encourages empathy. For me, it was a memorable part of my foreign travel experience. But if I had felt that treatment by my own nation, I’m not thinking I would have enjoyed it much at all.

    No one should have that experience. Even once!

  5. Submitted by Monique Venne on 02/06/2017 - 11:12 pm.

    So sorry

    I am a native-born US citizen, a descendant of French-Canadians who came to the United States around the turn of the 20th century for better economic opportunities. I traveled to Israel in 1999 on a two-week study trip conducted by United Theological Seminary, where I was a student. By the end of the two weeks, I was ready to come back–overwhelmed by the fast pace of the trip, tired of the unfamiliar food, and homesick for my husband and cats. Our transatlantic flight from Ben Guiron airport to JFK left at 3 AM. I wasn’t able to sleep much and got to customs just wanting a horizontal place to lie down. I answered the necessary questions and was surprised, after the agent stamped my passport, to hear “Welcome home.” I nearly cried, feeling so accepted by a representative of my government.

    I am so sorry that some US citizens do not experience this same feeling of inclusion when returning to their native country after an overseas trip. It shouldn’t matter what your name is, it shouldn’t matter what color your skin is, it shouldn’t matter what your religion is. If you hold a USA passport, you are a citizen and should be treated as such. Yes, there is a threat from terrorism, but the standard of being innocent until proven guilty seems not to be operative for citizens with Muslim-sounding names. As a Catholic, I am aware of the history of anti-Catholicism in this country, and wish that the US had outgrown persecution based on religion and national origin, especially after WWII and the Holocaust. There is a lot of work still left to do.

  6. Submitted by Chuck Densinger on 02/07/2017 - 08:45 am.

    What…Screening by NAME???

    I think it’s deplorable that you are profiled by name and, by implication, ethnicity, in the way that you are. No US Citizen should have to be repeatedly singled-out in this way based on name alone. Your citizenship should speak for itself.

    But from a national security perspective, I’m especially alarmed at the simplistic nature of this screening. NAME??? Name shouldn’t even be a consideration in security screening. None. ZERO.

    As someone who works in the field of advanced analytics and data science, I’m well-acquainted with industry-standard levels of data collection, management, and analysis. As data go, names are terrible sources of information. They’re not unique, they can include nicknames or abbreviations (though, not so with legal documents such as passports), and they reveal nothing about the person other than probable ethnicity. And even the latter is highly suspect in today’s increasingly blended societies.

    I certainly hope the national security infrastructure, including the TSA and Customs, have significantly richer data sets and analytics than your average retail or coffee chain…and I’m sure they do. So why even use name in their screening? If a study showed that would-be terrorists are more likely to wear gray, should we automatically do extra screening for everyone wearing gray?

    The logical fallacy is clear. If a terrorist organization wants to go undetected, it’s a trivial step to start with changing names, or recruiting people with less attention-getting names. Passports and other document numbers, facial recognition, flight records, detailed behavioral data, and, I have no doubt, additional significant intelligence data, should all make name an insignificant and nearly meaningless element in a screening process.

    If you’re looking from Omar Abdelwahed from a “watch list” country, and Omar Abdelwahed from MN, USA crosses your border — and you have years of detailed data on Omar A. from MN — you welcome him home and expend your energies elsewhere.

    It seems to me that it’s actually much safer for all of us when security and screening processes effectively leverage clean, abundant data, and smart use of analytics, rather than overscreening obviously known and harmless travelers.

  7. Submitted by Robin Rainford on 02/11/2017 - 11:32 pm.

    So Sorry, Omar

    As an adolescent reading the history of WWII, I was certain that I would have the courage to defy the powers that be and protect the vulnerable against unfair and unreasonable government power.

    I’m a frequent traveler. I go through US customs often and my goal is to move through quickly and get home. When I read your your letter earlier this week my first impulse was to respond. But then I stopped. Would my public reaction be somehow tied to my passport? Even though like you, I’m a native, would I be harassed and delayed re-entering the country?

    I’m sorry, Omar. You have no choice. The very least I can do is risk the unfair delays that you experience every time you enter our country.

    Robin Rainford

  8. Submitted by Hayat Mohamed on 08/08/2017 - 11:04 pm.

    This disgusting form of discrimination needs to stop

    I write this after waiting in the non-U.S. Citizen line at JFK for my third international return home after receiving an X on my passport. At first I thought it was due to the locations I’ve visited (the Middle East and south east Asia) but your article has confirmed my suspicions: my last name has landed me in essentially what is deemed the “suspicious” line accompanied by, for the most part, brown U.S. passport holding citizens. And for those blaming Trump, these tactics began during Obama’s presidency. I’m appalled and disgusted that this is happening to both U.S. born and naturalized citizens. This is in no way protecting America. It’s an egregious affront to our rights. I’m sorry this happens to you Omar and the thousands of other Americans that go through this everyday at the airport. From what I’ve read, Global Entry does not make you immune to these discriminatory practices. I know of several people who were detained despite having participated in Thr program. I have no hope that things will get better anytime soon but I do hope enough people can speak up about this tactic to incite change. Until then, keep your head up Omar.

  9. Submitted by Raymond Westwater on 08/25/2017 - 03:35 pm.

    Nature of the “institutional discrimination’

    For better or for worse, the selection of a passport holder for discriminatory examination appears to be by country of birth, thereby selecting naturalized citizens for further humiliation. I don’t understand why this story is underreported…

  10. Submitted by James Syed on 01/02/2018 - 02:29 am.

    Sad

    I totally agree with the author of this article.

    After 911, United States is not the United States that I used to know. Discrimination against Muslims is very common and it definitely shows at US borders. I have been living in the United States since 1990 and that is 27 years and I have been a citizen since 2003.

    It is shame that global entry is been denied to most Muslims even though they are US citizens just like anyone else, but their names and skin color usually or I should say mostly a problem especially after current president took over office.

    Why do we need to have global entry to come back to the US since we have our passports?

    Sometimes I had to sit 3+ hours at the airport after my 24 hour flight from Pakistan and answer silly questions in a room full of people. I felt detained for three hours at the airport again in that room with NO window, my cell phone been off, My cell phone been checked, my computer being checked, and the list goes on.

    I recently applied for global entry and was denied believe me or not even my CBP officer was surprized because he couldn’t find any violations of criminal, civil, agriculture, immigration or any other violations for that matter. When I asked CBP officer, he solved my mystery and told me very clearly because “I was denied because I was born in Pakistan and had traveled to Pakistan”.

    Very sad to see our country go in that direction.

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