This land is your land? Re-entering America.

Here is the embarrassment:

I get off the plane in Amsterdam and see a sign asking me to choose door A or B depending on whether or not I have anything to declare. I do not, so I choose the “nothing to declare” door. I walk right out into the street where I am part of everyone else and no longer sequestered behind an imaginary boundary that separates the fliers from the non-fliers. I can just get in a car and drive away.

Entering Iceland, the same thing.

Now, welcome to America:

We get off the plane and are herded into a holding area. These are Americans, Germans, Icelanders, and a smattering of other folks. Blessedly, most speak English, so the lack of signage in any language other than English is not a great problem. But the young men shouting orders to us in rapid-fire English are. They seem to see themselves as police officers or para-military, so they hector and badger and shout out in humorless, flat tones, telling us to get in line, have our passports ready, and not to use our cell phones or take photographs. If your English isn’t good enough for you to understand their particular patois, you are shouted at even more aggressively, as if you might be thinking of making a direct contact with Osama Bin Laden or planning to beam cell phone photos back to some angry mullah who is mapping the interiors of all American airports. And God help you if you don’t understand at all and cross one of the lines or walk into some area in violation of the shouted orders.

Now, keep in mind that these are tired travelers who are, or were, excited to get to America, the land of freedom and opportunity. Their English is imperfect, they don’t know where their baggage is, they don’t know if or where the people who are there to meet them are, they don’t know what is happening, and they don’t know how long they’ll be held in containment. All they know is that they are being yelled at and told to stand in line and not do anything that might hint of documentation or communication. Some of them are eighty years old.

The lines, of which there are four, funnel into three booth areas, where a humorless young man or women asks some questions, scrutinizes passports, makes everyone not American — little kids and eighty year olds included — ink their fingers and give two fingerprints, then remove any glasses and stand still for photographing. Children are crying; businessmen are grumbling; the elderly are in wheel chairs or standing at their walkers. But you’d better not move — it might be a terrorist rush or an attempt to send a satellite signal to the caves of Tora Bora.

The line moves glacially. Each person takes anywhere from one to five minutes. There are three lines and probably three hundred folks. Do the math. Then imagine you’re a young mother with a two year old and an infant, or an eighty year old in a walker.

Oh, and lest you think you can crab and complain, right past the booths is a wall covered with one way glass. Should you make a ruckus or show exasperation, I am sure that other humorless folks are duly noting it and photographing you or sending signals to the booths to flag your passport or mark an “x” by your name.

In general, you have found yourself in a world where there is a subterranean current of anger that has been formalized into procedure, where you feel watched and mistrusted, and where you feel that the government is not your friend, and you are not theirs. You are, in effect, guilty until proven innocent.

I wanted to shout out to the people who only minutes before had been laughing and talking excitedly about visiting the Mall of America or going to see their relatives in Iowa that this is not America, that we are not like this.

But I couldn’t. It would have been a subversive act.

And all I could think of as I watched the excited faces of the little children lose their smiles and fill with worry and concern, is that if this is what takes place for a group of mostly Icelanders arriving at a B level airport in a Scandinavian/German city in the middle of America, what is it like for a Middle Easterner or southeast Asian arriving in Detroit or New York or Chicago O’Hare?

It was a sad and sobering experience, and not one that made me proud to be an American.

Sorry, Woody. This land is no longer “made for you and me,” it’s made up of “us” and “them.” And everyone entering America is “them” until proven otherwise.

4 comments

  1. Peter says:

    In defense, I have to say that even if it felt like entering a prison, passing through USA security on my first trip to US was actually more pleasant than I imagined. No body cavity check, no extensive questioning, the security guard were actually rather helpful when I asked them some information about my connecting flight.

  2. Keith says:

    I recently returned from Turkey to Dulles airport near Washington DC. While it did take a while to process the 300 or so passengers on my flight, there was a clear queue system with a pleasant guard directing people to the next available booth, of which there were several. The system was reasonably quick, efficient and low stress, although not understanding English would make it rather more confusing. Perhaps the airports with high international traffic have dome better setting up the system?

  3. Kim says:

    For my family and me, leaving the United States was horrific! We were simply going to Mexico for a family Christmas get away. It began with my 87 year old mother setting off the metal detector. Even with a note from her doctor saying she has an artificial hip and he being in a wheelchair, she was pulled aside, wanded and patted down. She’s about 4’10” and looks like what she is–a little old lady. Next, my son, who was 15 at the time, was pulled aside because his name came up on a “terror watch list.” I stood by helplessly as he was patted down and his backpack was unceremoniously dumped (but not repacked). He was behind some glass so there was no way I could get to him. Bless his heart, he took it all and never flinched.

    Coming back into the country was exciting too. We had the crabbiest customs worker in the history of the world. He actually threw a paperclip at my mother in her wheelchair. I kid you not! None of us felt like we could do or say anything lest we be sent upstream!

    Welcome to America–or not.

  4. Maryann says:

    Not all entries are the same …. it really depends on the city. At least that has been my experience. The past two years I have lived in China and have re-entered the country several times with some entries being on the West coast and others in my home state. I must say that the entry going through LAX was the best. We were in one of those long lines going through immigration and at the head of that line was a friendly voice welcoming us to America, happy to see us and directing the next person in line to the next free agent. By far, that experience made me feel welcome and I felt glad that I was home. However, on most occasions, I must re-enter through my midwestern state where the experience is similar to what Kent describes. It is very intimidating and one wonders if he or she will make it through the process. Everytime it is the same at this entry city and I have re-entered here several times….after traveling for more than 20+ hours, it sure would be nice to come home to a friendly face and voice.

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