In brief research for this essay I have come across accounts of rude and unfair treatment, poor judgment, and discrimination by British and Canadian immigration officials among others. A Spanish, German, French or Italian language Internet search would most likely produce similar examples having taken place in continental Europe. Rigid immigration laws and blind bureaucratic adherence to their implementation amount to an invisible, red tape equivalent of physical barriers erected by governments around the world in order to define political spheres of influence and restrict movements of goods and people.
Examples are the Mexico – US border fence or the Israeli West Bank wall, the upcoming Israeli Egyptian wall, and the no longer standing Berlin Wall, the fall of which was celebrated with pomp and fanfare throughout the world last year. At the core of protectionist immigration policies lies the idea that health care, education, and professional opportunities are finite resources reserved for nations' citizens or residents and are in danger of being depleted by those deemed unworthy by the qualification process and therefore of lesser human value.
This forceful segregation on the part of the developed world is a panicked attempt to preserve its economic advantage and ethnic composition of a given country, in Israel's case, its national and religious purity. The restrictive immigration laws are generally economically and not racially motivated in my opinion; however, a quick look at a wealth distribution map of first, second and third worlds makes it apparent that a more liberal immigration attitude on the part of first world countries would tip the racial balance away from its original makeup of dominantly white constitution.
The United States attracts many desiring immigrants from around the world. In that sense, the country views itself as a victim of its own economic and political success. It therefore deems justifiable to hold a defensive immigration stance. The US maintains difficult to attain immigration criteria and the immigration process is expensive, lengthy, and arduous, all aspects of which were made factorially more difficult with the advent of the USA Patriot Act in 2001. Among the immigration processes of the developed countries, the US practices of the last decade are arguably the most repressive. If you travel only occasionally and are rooted in a single place, jumping through the hoops of US immigration is a foreign experience to you. The inefficiencies and outright failure of the brute force, rudimentary psychology which border control agents engage in, may surprise you. If you are in any way ambiguous residency wise, rely on visas and have not committed to one country as your home, or are a citizen of a nation where day to day living is a never ending struggle – this post is for you, in solidarity.
Multitudes of people whizzing through airports daily, wide and long across North America don't know about the "back room" behind the stalls of the stone faced immigration officials "greeting" visitors and citizens into the United States. If you are a US citizen — you have never seen one, unless you are visibly dark-haired, dark-eyed and dark-skinned and were racially profiled and therefore automatically classified as a threat or otherwise ended up on a no-fly list. It is very likely that you may not know that such rooms even exist at all international terminals in the US and at some Canadian airports where the Canadian flights are channeled into domestic gates. If you are a tourist – you are not aware of the back room either. That is, if you are visiting for a week or two and have secured the required visa. Residents – the green card holders and professionals on various types of work visas, roll through the back room at one point or another fairly smoothly yet without the courtesy due. To the rest of us who are not easily classifiable, commit the error of naive honesty, or whose paperwork is out of step with the suspected intent – the same offices become interrogation rooms, where coercive questioning and forceful intimidation take place.
I lined up in the long, winding queue indicated for visitors, my Canadian passport at hand, having disembarked off a Lot Polish airline flight from Warsaw to Chicago. I noted with irony how consistent all arrivals to the USA are, irregardless of the port of entry. US citizens and residents stand in a line apart which is always shorter and moves quicker than its languishing visitors' counterpart. On December 22, 2009 our line was made up of Poles, but also Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and others to whom Warsaw — as if the Iron Curtain has arcanely shifted further east — is the gateway to the West. The visitors' line I estimated, was tenfold longer than the other queue and unusually resistant.
The flat screens over the immigration stalls looped a "Welcome to the United States" video. "Propaganda," I observed to myself, looking at the images of healthy, happy, well assimilated people of color, images of African-American girls skipping rope in a sunlit park, and smiling, well dressed Central or South American Immigrants. I have learned to differentiate the fake PR face of the United States from the hard, street reality I witnessed firsthand while living in the country as a professional class visa holder on and off for the last 10 years. The flyover views of Manhattan, the mandatory inclusion of the Statue of Liberty, lest anyone forget what America professes to be, did not mix in images of homelessness, rampant obesity among the low income population, perennial theft and street vandalism, violent youth crime, prison overcrowding, and extreme poverty in hallmark cities such as San Francisco for example, where I used to live.
It was my turn to step up to the booth and face the immigration official. The usual questions followed: why am I coming to the United States, how long and where will I stay. Being a poor strategist and arriving with genuine, lawful intentions, I didn't think twice about telling it like it was: I was coming to stay with my boyfriend whom I have not seen in a long time. I was going to live with him and hoped to stay for several months. Tired after a long flight and unsuspecting, I spoke in casual, conversational manner. In retrospect I ought to have stuck to dry facts, for it soon became apparent that the job the immigration officials at the airport take upon themselves is to nail and indict and not to fairly adjudicate.
I was escorted to the back room for further questioning. I sat down, not yet excessively worried, and took a look around. There were others whose fate was swinging in the balance, while they waited too. I noted right away a young black woman on the bench in front of me, her back hunched, arms resting on her thighs, head hanging low. Three hours later, when I was set free, she still maintained her posture, as if immobilized by the weight of her predicament. During that entire time, her name was never called, not a single immigration official had approached her, and she never gave away a clue as to what her story might have been.
Out of Vancouver, when the dust has finally settled, I investigated what went wrong for me that night. Not a hint of explanation was given to me during or after the interrogation to assure the office of US Immigration had a one-sided, overwhelming position of power. I wasn't informed of the bureaucratic inconsistency my case presented. As a Canadian citizen I'd made the mistake of attempting to enter the United States on a visa waiver, whereas I should have applied for an entry visa after all due to my expectation to stay longer than the 90 days accounted for by the program. I was suspected of having a dual intent without accompanying, appropriate visa or in lay terms, intending to immigrate into the US illegally.
"What is it that you want?" asked the first female officer with an all-knowing smirk, leaning back in her chair and cocking her head. I looked at her apprehensively, sensing that I was presumed guilty before my personal situation was duly examined. "I don't think you are asking the right question, it isn't up to me to say what I want, it is up to you to tell me what I can or cannot do." I was scolded for getting smart and forcefully led on with the expected line of inquiry. "Do you want to work?" I collected myself and delivered a vague explanation of being "in transition," and how I expected to take the time of my stay in the US following a difficult apartment renovation project in Warsaw to reconnect with my boyfriend and decide on a direction in which I was going to take my life. So no, I did not intend to work, at least not right away and certainly not illegally. I proceeded to remind her what should have been glaringly obvious had she payed even the slightest attention to my immigration history as opposed to the stereotype she saw me as — that of an Eastern European woman with a marked accent coming to stay with her "boyfriend who has a job and will provide," perhaps a case of a Russian Bride.
I lived and worked in the States for seven years this time around while enjoying the H1B status twice, having had ample time to legally pursue a green card. I had made no such attempt. I consciously rejected the chance of becoming an American permanent resident. I simply did not want, or need to, having both a well respected Canadian citizenship and an EU passport. It wouldn't make any sense, given my history, to pursue the illegal alien route to US immigration. That irony was lost on my overzealous inquisitor. I couldn't point it out to her as I was rarely allowed to complete a sentence even in a direct attempt to answer questions.
It was time to get back to the benches, along with the others, and wait. A Latin American family with kids was brought in, then another. None of the families spoke among themselves, but remained reserved, knowing full well their lower hand. Routine, random checks it seemed, since they were processed and handed back their passports without a word before my second round of interrogation came up. A Russian woman in her mid-30s, wearing tall white boots, flowery knit stockings, elaborate coat, and too much makeup arrived and sat down. She was confident. Perhaps she, like I in the past — armed with a thick stack of corporate documents and visa processing approvals — was yet unaware of the precarious, fine line she was walking. I overheard the officers speak among themselves within her ears' reach, knowing she would not understand, that she had all the necessary invitations by the Russian Foundation. To their poorly disguised surprise, they had no grounds to detain her. An old man with a hearing aid, whom I had seen lost and confused earlier when he was being helped by an airport worker also turned up and nervously tried to explain in his limited English that his son lived and worked here and he came to visit his son. He bowed repeatedly on exit when handed back his passport, thankful, shaken, and teary-eyed. There was Mrs. Ferrera or Ferreira, a Spaniard or a South American, whose brother, husband or companion — an airline pilot — peeked in and asked: "You're still here?" to which she just shrugged and nodded, as if immigration detentions were something she has come to expect.
My name was called again. This time I was facing the first female officer and her supervisor, also a woman. The US border control watchdog was springing heads. The lights seemed to glow brighter, the entire experience started to take on a surreal quality. I realized that my words would make the difference between an allowed discretionary entry and a deportation. I repeated my story as I have recounted it previously. The supervisor kept interrupting. Questioning became personal, my relationship to my boyfriend quizzed, private arrangements and money matters combed through in embarrassing detail. I maintained that my stay would be a visit — not a migration. I was not listened to, believed or otherwise my story did not compute. The supervising officer summed it up: "You are not a bonified tourist," I was told, likely intending to convey that I did not deserve a special consideration. Sadly, that is precisely who I was. I arrived bona fide, never intending to break the law. While on a work visa in the past, I dutifully payed taxes, having had all the responsibilities of a resident but none of the privileges. With a squeaky clean immigration record, never having overstayed my visas, arriving as a tourist for the first time in a decade, my good faith was being violently questioned without justification. I was ordered to get back to the benches, once again.
I was summoned back, for the third time, sometime later. The US immigration personified this time by a three-headed, all female, bloodthirsty chimera — Cerberus— guarded the gates of Hades. The newly arrived third officer turned the interrogation up yet another notch. I was yelled at and heard myself say: "Please don't raise your voice, why are you trying to intimidate me?"
"If you feel intimidated that's your problem," was the response. I recall eventually hunching forward, resting my forearms on my thighs. Cerberus, sensing capitulation, slowly started sieving her words and the verdict. I held my breath. I was being graced with a two-week entry into the United States of America. One of the officers indicated that I should follow her to finalize the visa. She lectured me on having "an attitude and no respect for authority" which would be recorded in my file, while all I ever tried to accomplish was to calmly and respectfully answer questions I was being posed. She added: "I bet that have you had to deal with Polish authorities, you'd behave all together different." I waited for her to stamp my passport then looked her in the eye, shook my head in resigned disbelief and muttered, "Why do you assume so much, you don't even know me."
My personal story was recently, uncannily echoed by the story of a Nova Scotia woman Ayat Manna who was denied entry to the United States when flying to visit her husband. She was interrogated, yelled at and intimidated by the US immigration officials as I was, perhaps more, and was never told why she was being subjected to such treatment. It is clear that neither my incident nor hers are unique and that they weren't a case of a few bad apples among the immigration officers who took out their bad mood on random travelers. They are too similar. The abuse is systemic. The women officers were expressly trained and instructed to coerce and brutalize instead of investigate potential migratory transgressions. When did we as human beings, as citizens of the world, come to accept and condone a governing system that not only monitors and restricts our movements but keeps us from visiting loved ones?
As I was stepping of a gate and onto a San Francisco-Vancouver flight precisely two weeks later, an airline official took my boarding pass, checked my passport and smiled. "Going home?"
I nodded. "Yes I am, and please take that I-94."
"So you're not coming back?"
With great satisfaction I answered: "No, I am not," and lighter than air I floated on board.