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

When I 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.

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.

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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.

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“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 …

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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.

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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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