Immigra is the Spanish word for immigration. Uttering this word in certain places is likely to send throngs of Hispanic men diving for a hiding place. It’s not funny, but it is true. Immigra is also the word I use for US Immigration & Customs stations encountered when entering the US.
Immigra used to be officially known as the INS, Immigration and Naturalization Services. Since 9/11 and the formation of the Dept of Homeland Security, it is now known as US Citizenship & Immigration Services of USCIS. Please indulge me as I continue to refer to it as Immigra.
My personal experience with Immigra has been mixed. Each time I have returned from the UK (3 times) or Australia (twice), the agents have been courteous and friendly, quickly clearing long lines of returning Americans. They look at your passport and your landing card, ask a few questions about your trip, then say, “Welcome home.” That’s the Immigration part of it, making sure you are eligible for entry. Then you go get your luggage and go through the Customs area. You stand in a second line and they ask more questions and either search your luggage or don’t. Coming home from the UK or Australia, mine has never been searched. I’ve always cleared Customs in Dallas returning from the UK and at LAX returning from Australia.
On my re-entries from Canada and Mexico, it’s been downright comical. I never saw the border agents encounter any obviously foreign-looking people at these crossings, so I don’t know how they treat them, particularly Mexicans. My one re-entry from Canada was in a car and James was with me. The smiling guard leaned in and said “everybody American in here?” James said “nope, Australian.” The guard’s face fell, as he thought he was going to have to do some work. When he looked at James’ passport and saw he had already been admitted, he was relieved and waived us through.
On two trips from the Caribbean, where we cleared Customs in San Juan, the experience has been horrible. Immigra there does not discriminate…they are downright mean to every single person who comes through there. They treat you as if coming through there is a priviledge and that you should be grateful to them if they let you back into your own country. Oddly, all the agents are Puerto Rican. Hrmmm.
Since James has been staying for an extended period, none of his experiences have been good. In fact, they’ve all been horrible because he is subjected to intense interrogation each time. Even if he were to have no problems, it is always a stressful moment, because I have to go through the “returning US Citizen” line, and he has to go through one of the 400 lines for foreign nationals, so we get separated. I clear quickly and have to wait on the other side for him. It always takes him quite a while and we never know if he will be turned away.
That’s all I’m going to say about that, but those of you who know us realize how difficult this is. Especially because we like to travel, and James refuses to travel outside the US because we don’t want to deal with this situation, and of course I agree with this position. It’s very ironic that in the land of freedom, one can feel quite constrained.
I believe that every American who has strong feelings about our Immigration policies should travel internationally a few times. Even just having friends from outside the US will help, because our foreign friends and colleagues do not like dealing with Immigra. Today, all entering foreign nationals are fingerprinted and photographed – essentially treated like a criminal. Not very good for business or tourism. Certain friends of ours refuse to come here to visit, and I don’t blame them one iota. Certain of my American friends, particularly those in love with the current administration, feel that those law-abiding foreigners with nothing to hide shouldn’t mind. Well, I agree that it’s not like they have to worry about being “caught” breaking a law or not gaining entry, but that’s not the point. The point is that we shouldn’t treat our friends like criminals. How would you like it if James & I patted you down and ran a criminal background check each time you came through our front door?
On my recent trip, entering the UK was no problem. Flying domestically within the UK is interesting, since they do photograph each boarding passenger (ALL). They destroy all records 48 hrs after the flight lands. This has more to do with the IRA than with other types of terrorism. You see, other parts of the world have been dealing with terrorism for many years before 9/11/01.
Leaving the UK was a different story. Everyone was polite, but it ended up being quite annoying. Perhaps I was more annoyed than usual since we had an issue getting to the correct terminal on a freezing cold bus since the trains weren’t working. Anyway, when we approached the AA counter, we first had to talk to one of four “security” agents. They identified themselves as AA employees, but I highly doubt this. They gave a long schpeel up front that took about two minutes (literally) to explain that they were going to ask some questions to help ensure my security and the security of others. The questions were along the lines of:
Have your bags been with you at all times since you packed them?
Has anyone you do not know given you anything to carry on the flight?
(some of you may recognize the first two as questions domestic carriers used to be forced by the FAA to ask, but after 9/11 the FAA finally acknowledged these questions were pointless since terrorists aren’t always completely honest)
Does your bag belong to you?
How long have you owned your bag?
…and other innane questions. None of these struck me as particularly useful. I did successfully confound the woman interviewing me, since the name tag on my bag reads “James Nunn.” She scolded me and put a paper nametag on the handle that had my name on it. I laughed.
Afterwards, we went to the AA counter, got our tickets lightning quick, then went to security. I have made a habit of taking off my belt and shoes and emptying my pockets and sending all that through the x-ray machine. I don’t want the metal detector going off, because if it does, you get the wand treatment and possibly patted down, and surprisingly I don’t enjoy being treated like a criminal. Well, despite the fact that I had nothing metal on my possession except the rivets on my Levi’s, the metal detector went off. I got kind of pissed off because, I had gone to all the trouble to take off my belt and shoes. I typically give off an attitude to let the security agents know that I’m pissed off, because I feel that is my right, and because it always makes me feel better, although not entirely compensated, for being inconvienced and embarrassed.
Then we were in the departure lounge area of Gatwick airport international terminal, which is a bit like a mall. We did some duty free shopping and had breakfast. Then we went back to our gate. They still do “random” searches in the UK so Paul and I got subjected. They searched my carryon – the guard was very nice (and kinda cute) so I didn’t mind while he complimented me on some of the music he found on my iPod. He completely ignored the GPS, the Palm Pilot and all the connecting cables and power cords in my briefcase. I ended up getting pissed again, because I don’t understand the point of this check if he’s going to look at things that are interesting to him but ignore stuff that is more potentially dangerous, or completely overlook other compartments of my luggage. Then I had to take my shoes off again for another inspection. I just about lost it. Arrrgggh! Oh well, maybe he simply thought I was cute and worth talking to.
Obviously things are different in different parts of the world, but I can’t help but think US authorities had a lot to do with my experiences leaving the UK, since entering was so easy. I also can’t help but get angry at all the tax dollars being spent on this “security” when to me I think all we’re doing is keeping honest people honest. I lock my door at night, with the realization that anyone who wanted to get in could easily do so. We have to have some kind of security checks, but I can’t help but think we could do a more reasonable job of it.