Sunday, July 26, 2009

First Impressions

This week, Toni is off on a jolly ;) so it's my turn to have a rant. not too difficult to think of at topic as I have just returned from the US where I--along with every other visitor--is a suspected terrorist:

When you meet someone for the first time, you generally like to make sure there is no broccolli stuck in your teeth, your shirt is buttoned straight and devoid of obvious stains and your fly is zipped. You want them to like you, so you extend your hand in a friendly manner, smile and say, "Pleased to meet you."

Unless, of course, you're the United States of America. America seems to go out of its way to intimidate, frighten, frustrate and generally alienate visitors who comes to its door. I realize I have banged on about this before, but I will keep banging on about it until their policy of organized thuggary ends.

Some years ago, I gave up flying into America because I resented being treated like a criminal in my own country. My work-around involved flying into Canada, which improved the experience in several ways; it was cheaper, the Canadians were a lot more pleased to see us and we got to see a bit of Canada in the bargain.

The best part was, driving into America beat flying into America hands down. The border guards were generally friendly and chatty and it was a pleasure crossing into the US and feeling I was home.

This time, however, our trip took place a few weeks after yet another escalation in the "let's keep out all the foreigners" laws, and it was anything but a pleasure. We approached the border as usual and I explained I was an American with a British wife, but instead of inviting us to inside so we could fill out the customary form, they confiscated our passports and ordered us to drive to a special building.

At the building, I was ordered to park my car. Then my keys were confiscated and we were ordered to yet another building.

I don't know how many of you are familiar with international travel, but when a border official takes away your passport, it leave you feeling very, very vulnerable, more than a little nervous and likely wishing you'd worn your yellow underwear.

I was merely feeling vulnerable and a bit pissed off that I was, once again, being treated like a criminal in my own country. I wasn't too nervous because it was, after all, America and to my knowledge they were not yet sending their own citizens to secret prisons, but if this had happened to me in, say, Albania, I'd be wishing I'd worn my brown pants.

Now I understand the need for security, but I don't see the need for such extreme behavior. You take someone's travel papers and car keys and you might as well handcuff them because, until you return those items, they are, de facto, your prisoner. I'm an American citizen; what did I do to merit that?

I apologize to my readers but I have to say this: "What the f@%k is wrong with you, America!!! When did you become so frightened and insecure that you feel you have to intimidate innocent people to make yourself feel better? You used to be strong and proud and sure of yourself but after one sucker punch you turned into the playground bully. Get a grip, will you?"

There, I feel better.

No, actually, I don't, and I won't until my country returns to being the land of the free and the home of the brave. Do they really want people to stop visiting and to start thinking of them as thuggish and reactionary? Are they happy that people who might have vacationed in America with their families and tourist dollars are now going to other destinations because they don’t want to be treated that way? Are they purposely seeking out the last drops of worldwide good will so they can turn them sour? That's such a shame, because America is a great place and I want people to know that, but it's hard to get past the trauma of actually getting in.

America’s motto may be "In God We Trust" but they should consider taking on board, "You only get one chance to make a first impression."


  1. I had no idea this happened and I must admit that it is daunting to have to go through that kind of treatment.
    Not that I'm likely to go.........

  2. Jeesh, I thought they lightened up. I'll be going over soon, see how they treat me at Dulles..... Crazy.

  3. Did they tell you why they did this?

  4. Gosh Mike, you're sounding suspiciously like a liberal. We've been arguing this point since 9/11 and the Patriot Act, knowing that things were becoming a bit extreme and some of our civil liberties were in jeopardy. I hope you just got an over-zealous guard and this is a one off but I would be awfully offended by what happened. It's a terrible feeling to be treated suspiciously in your own home.

  5. I suspect this happens to me because I have a British wife and am, therefore, a terrorist. Most people seem to have little problem, especially outside of NYC where they are a bit more friendly.

    But this was not a case of over-zealous guards; they were processing us and, no they did not explain why. Did the guards explain why they were taking people to Treblinka?

  6. Smitten: Liberal?!? Shhhhh! They'll throw me out of the Republican Party ;)

  7. Well, my (English) husband has experienced worse landing in Dallas, then he did the silly Essex boy thing and made a joke about it when of course escalated the intensity of the treatment making him sure he never wants to fly into Dallas again (but I doubt if landing in Mexico and driving across the border would be better a solution!).

    However, landing in Minneapolis is such an amazingly friendly experience that it more than makes up for anything experienced in Dallas. It's that 'Minnesota Nice' thing that everyone talks about. They may think you're suspicious but it would be unfriendly to suggest it.

    Try Minnesota next time, Mike!! ;)

  8. I'm in Canada close to the US border and sometimes we have to cross over. Now that we, as expats, are also Canadian citizens we can travel hassle free, with the right documents of course. But the hassle starts when we travel with our British visitors. They have to complete the paperwork, pay for the privilege and be photographed and finger printed. I think I can understand the reasons for this, the US wants to know who's coming and going. Sign of the times. They do have problems with illegals and terroritsts let's face it. I want them to be proactive, it makes me feel safer in a way. Usually we are treated courteously but there are often those who are ruder than necessary and we've met a few. But my worst experiences are ALWAYS without fail when I return to Canada after visiting England but that's a whole other comment. ;-)

  9. Funny because recently all our English guests have commented on the friendliness of the people at O'Hare. You must have been unlucky - or you had that strange look in your eye...

  10. Just came back into America at Boston, once again an utterly pleasant experience. They weren't even too hard on my British-passport-holding travelling companion--even though she took a holiday in Pakistan in 2007 and they asked about those stamps. You must just have had really unusually bad luck...

  11. My husband and I, both Americans, had our passports and car keys confiscated at the Canadian Border in Niagara Falls a few months ago. We were made to go to another building and wait until security cleared us. Nobody said why. I think they randomly choose a car and do an extra security check on it. Last year we were crossing the same border. We handed our passports to the guard and we were allowed to pass through without a hassle. When I was putting my passport away I realized my husband made a mistake. He brought my daughter's passport, not his, on the trip. I couldn't believe the guard let us go without question. I must admit the guard's carelessness made me wonder about US border security.

  12. I'm glad you've posted about this Mike...because...although I've had minimal contact with the US..I've always had this impression about US border security.

    I guess I've heard about it from friends and colleagues travelling there on business.

    Aren't the queues at airports lengthy? I often wonder about families travelling with small children...

  13. I've waited a few days to post, as this has never been my experience, nor have I seen/heard of it happening to others.

    We fly from Dulles to Heathrow, and while we've been picked once or twice to have the extra screening (at Heathrow both times), it's not something that has been in any way unpleasant.

    One time I was unlucky enough to get in line to be processed by the Alpha-Male of Customs Agents at Dulles. He mainly didn't like all the UK food products I was bringing back to the US so he sent me through Agricultural Customs.

    But the Ag Customs ladies loved going through all the stuff and their examination of the items turned into a big party! "Ooo, where'd you get that?"

    Sorry to anyone coming in who does have a bad experience though, the TSA agents are supposed to be polite. Doesn't always happen it seems...

  14. I'm really sorry you went through that! We had a similar experience when we popped over to the Canadian side of the border to see Niagara Falls and forgot our I66 form (before we got our green cards). On our return to the USA they treated us like prisoners and kept us for 3 hours (and fined us). Bastards. I think that mentality comes from higher-up as I've yet to meet any customs official that's pleasent.

  15. Hadriana's Treasures - how thoughtful of you to think about people with small children. Like me, for example.

    When we first arrived in the US, we flew into Memphis. The staff were friendly and not intimidating at all, contrary to what we'd been warned, but yes, the queues were long, and we'd been travelling for more hours than I can remember (from Scotland via Amsterdam). It was a trial, but at least we'd been warned.

    My 2 year old daughter charmed the immigration official (we were the very last in the line, so he had time for a bit of small talk). Every time he asked a question, or stamped a passport, she would ask "what's he saying?" or "what's he doing?" It became very comic, and he seemed to enjoy it.

  16. The annoying thing about this episode was that it was not a "one off" but the NORMAL processing. And it was the taking away of the passports and car keys that I object to. There is no reason for that unless you are being detained. Otherwise, the guards were cordial, especially when compared to the TSA screws.

  17. I've never had any trouble flying into LA with my Kiwi husband (or even when he was just my Kiwi boyfriend). My father-in-law, on the other hand, pretty much refuses to fly through the US now, since they started making him take off his shoes at security.

    I will give him that the welcome we receive in the US is nowhere near as nice as the reception we receive in New Zealand.

    The worst greeting I have ever received was my first flight into Heathrow. At the time I had an Irish boyfriend (no, I don't have anything against Amercian men, and dated some of them, too) and we were transiting on to Cork. He was through the line in 20 seconds. They kept me for almost 20 minutes and asked me lots of questions, including some they asked over and over with different wording- which is a particularly nasty thing to do to someone after an overnight flight. They were particularly interested in the fact that I was a grad student in biochemistry, which apparerently meant that I knew how to make bombs. I can understand that I probably fit a security profile they had. But it sure didn't make me feel like hurrying back to actually visit England. (I eventually did go back and visit England many years later, and had a lovely time.) It did, however, give me a new appreciation for what my hispanic friends put up with when they cross the US-Mexico border.

  18. Mike - file a complaint! The government won't know about this until people start complaining. We shouldn't take it as "par for the course" when entering our own country.
    Cloud - I have a feeling that you were under suspicion more because you were travelling with a boyfriend (and therefore going to marry himn for the Visa) than any terrorist threat. Although in '07, I happened to be AT Heathrow airport as a very serious bomb threat was announced - a week after the London bombings, so they have reason to be suspicious. Or maybe you were a prospective wife and terrorist. Double threat. ;-)

  19. I agree, a complaint should be filed with whatever agency is in charge of border patrol, Customs? TSA?

    As Expat says, how will anyone "in charge" know this isn't acceptable if they aren't sharply informed?

    Complain to the authorities--it's the American thing to do!

  20. I sometimes think they search the country for the most unsuitable people to fill these jobs. The last time I arrived in JFK (I know) with my English wife and her Mother we were met with one of the most intimidating and unpleasant officials that you could imagine. Why anyone should feel it necessary to be so curt and intimidating to an elderly lady is absolutely beyond me.

    Peter Bond


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