Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Farcical Tragedy of Border Security

Curmie recently drove to the closest international airport to pick up an exchange student who’ll be spending most of the spring semester at Curmie’s university. No biggie, right? Well, the student in question was held up by Homeland Security (or whoever) for quite a while. How long? Well, from the moment the plane was listed on the arrivals board as having arrived until the young woman finally emerged into the publicly-accessible lobby was 10 hours and 11 minutes. (10/11: one better than 9/11, apparently.)

Curmie even knew she’d been stopped only because a little over two and a half hours after arrival, she sent a Facebook message to her mother, who in turn Facebooked Curmie. Good thing, too, because the student’s phone was confiscated soon thereafter. (She eventually got it back.) From the moment Curmie knew the student had already been detained until she was released from Immigration: about seven and a half hours, during which she was shuffled from room to room but not given any real information about her status until around midnight, over nine hours into her ordeal.

And of course there was no way anyone in the International Arrivals terminal—as depressingly boring a space as Curmie has seen in a long while—was going to be of any help. There are no airline desks, so it’s impossible to know if someone even boarded the plane. The “information desk” is about as self-negating a description as the “People’s Democratic Republic of Korea” (whyever would Curmie think of that regime in this connection?). There’s a courtesy phone that allegedly connects to the Border Patrol/Customs/Immigration/Homeland Security offices. Any phone call goes straight to voicemail, however. There is no one to talk to in person. The place is Kafkaesque.

In other words, the only way Curmie even knew the exchange student had arrived was that Facebook message that made it through before the quintessential representatives of what those in Curmie’s generation used to call “the Man” showed off what manly men they truly are by finding a soft-spoken post-adolescent woman on her first flight anywhere ever, and cutting her off from all communication. Don’t you feel safer already, Gentle Reader? I mean, after all, Curmie is not one to advocate profiling, but if he were, he could certainly think of no one more terrifying, more likely to wreak havoc on American society as we know it, than a 19-year-old white Christian female British citizen with a stereotypically Scottish surname and a student visa so she could study scene painting in the States. Hell, she might weigh as much as 115 pounds after a big meal. Now you’re trembling in mortal terror, aren’t you, Gentle Reader?

And, of course, her ordeal was completely justified. After all, she had broken a rule. The heinous crime against humanity she had committed surely justifies indefinite incarceration at the very least: although her passport and visa were fine, she brought a photocopy of a form instead of the original. Break out the rack! Release the hounds! Prepare the guillotine! (By the way, the director of the Office of International Programs at Curmie’s university says that it’s not at all uncommon for foreign students not to have that form at all.)

So this is a British national’s first experience of the United States: bullying, intentional humiliation, isolation, denial of the ability to communicate with friends and family, sleep deprivation (Amnesty International calls most of those torture, by the way). And for what? To protect anyone from anything? No, they knew all along they were going to let her into the country. This shit is sport for these sick fucks. Seriously, how awful must your life be if you get your jollies pushing around nervous, exhausted young women at the end of their first flight ever?

Of course, one thing that happens when you’re standing around waiting for hours on end is that you make friends with other folks suffering the same fate. I don’t expect to be on the Christmas card list of any of these folks, but we were comrades once… the large African-American man who shrugged and said he understood why he would be profiled, but couldn’t figure why his mother-in-law should have any trouble returning from Guatemala; the federal agent (!) who couldn’t get any more answers than the rest of us could; the young woman who was trying to keep her 2-year-old son occupied while waiting for her mother, who was visiting from Romania (and speaks no English)—only after six hours did the geniuses behind the partitions decide that if they wanted their routine questions answered, maybe they really should allow a no doubt intimidated middle-aged woman to call her daughter, who could translate.

Most of all, I’ll remember the African-American man about my age whose wife was on the same flight as Curmie’s student…. Or at least she was supposed to be on that flight. At least our student had managed to get word to me, indirectly, that she was being detained. This poor man didn’t know for certain that his wife had even landed in the US—she could have missed the flight at Heathrow, for all he knew… and if she did, and hadn’t called… his mind had to have been racing to all the horrible possibilities. Chances are, she emerged a couple minutes after our student, but Curmie had a two-and-a-half-hour drive ahead, and, much as he sympathized with the man’s plight, he didn’t stick around to commiserate.

To be fair to the agents involved, they appear to have been hopelessly understaffed—at one point, we were told, there were only two agents trying to handle the influx of a half dozen jumbo jets. And whereas the average DHS agent isn’t necessarily the sharpest knife in the drawer, they’re bound by stupid rules and regulations that actively discourage detached discretion, let alone compassion or empathy. Should human feeling trump national security? Of course not. But should it be a default condition in the absence of any evidence whatsoever that a traveler has committed an offense greater than failing to negotiate the arcana of government bureaucracy? Curmie thinks so.

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