50 votes

So I went along.

Time for a story.

Some of you might remember that I was planning on going abroad. I intended to visit New York City with one of my best friends, setting foot in the United States for the first time in my life. I have had reservations about the actions and the state of politics of the US for a while, but I'm by no means an activist; I largely settle for small discussions regarding this topic, online or among friends. This means that I had not considered the current administration as a deterrent to my week-long trip.

For the sake of what I'm about to talk in the rest of this post, some additional personal details are needed for context. I am a EU citizen and a second-generation immigrant, child of a parent born in North Africa. I was fortunate enough not to have to go through having to acquire a "real" visa as my country is part of the ESTA program. This program is a fast track of sorts that allows a non-citizen to get clearance to get into the US by providing information through an online form. As I went through that automated process, I arrived at one step that worried me: they asked about being a citizen of another country. Now, I have both an EU ID and passport but I have double-nationality from my parent and so I also have ID and (an expired) passport from that country.

That country is not unstable or known to host terrorists or extremist organizations but I was wondering if I would be lumped in with immigrants from more troubled countries and so I hesitated to put that information at all. But then I figured that it would be a bad idea to lie and then have to explain why I lied if they figured out. And I didn't visit that country for a decade. So in the end I did input that info. This decision stayed with me and caused me anxiety until the end of the 72 hour waiting period. I thought about being denied while having already spent roughly a thousand bucks on the airplane ticket and the hotel. Fortunately in the end everything went through. That put my fears at ease.

Let us fast forward to the day of the trip. My friend and I had the good idea to stay up really late the night before even though our flight was outrageously early. I think I slept for 3 hours if that. And during the 8 hour flight I absolutely could not sleep despite my best efforts. This is just me setting the stage for some heavy sleep deprivation.

Arriving at JFK, we eventually stumble upon the horribly long queue for customs. When we got to an officer, my friend went first, giving his passport and scanning his fingerprints. I went just after him, doing the same. However, the officer seems to have an issue. They close their booth and ask me to follow them. My friend's watching and is like "wtf is going on", the only thing I manage to say is "welp later I guess", maybe not realizing what is going on.

My passport withheld, I'm led to a waiting room... and told to wait there, no reason given. The officer tells me that "it" should be quick. As I scan the room, I mostly see Arab or Asian people with an additional one or two white-passing people. I sit and get my phone out to message my friend where I am and what I was told, when an agent immediately tells me that no phone is allowed. I can only imagine how panicked my friend was getting at that point.

An hour passes.

With still no reason given for what I'm going to call an arrest, I then had had time enough time to see people go through, leave and for others to take their place all the while I listened to the officers talk to each other and interact with the visitors.

The ratio of people stayed mostly the same, meaning the majority was comprised of Arab and Asian people, roughly half didn't speak English at all. There were two types of processing. The first one was people waiting 20 minutes and getting called to a counter in the same room, getting their passport back and being allowed to leave. The second one was people waiting at least half an hour and getting summoned to go with an officer to an ominous corridor, staying at least half an hour and then being allowed to leave.

The officers at the counter chatted within themselves in a friendly manner, typing on their computer at the same time, a nice front immediately shattered by how they talked down to everyone. One elderly person went to get something in their luggage placed at the opposite end of the room when two officers yell at them to sit back down. An asian person was using their phone unaware of the restriction when an officer warns them: "Don't use your phone. Don't use your phone! Hey! Don't use your phone! Oh for the love of- DON'T. USE. YOUR. PHOOONE." Apparently talking slowly to a visitor in a foreign language means they can obviously understand what the office is saying and that they're just acting like they don't understand. And more variations of cliché American cop tropes.

A half hour passes - still no reason given.

My friend tries to approach the room to get information and I hear an officer asking firmly for him to go away. (Un)fortunately an officer finally summons me. They lead me into a room and I'm invited to sit down. The officer apologizes for the wait, and then begins an hour long interview. They are very friendly and ask what places I intend to visit, they ask me about my childhood, my parents, my relation to my other country, my education, my hobbies, my jobs. Then I'm asked to unlock my phone. They go through every app and ask me to explain what they all do. They capture my Facebook name, contact names, what is open in my browser, and more stuff that I can't see.

I cannot describe how distressing it is to see an officer of the law go through your phone. I could not predict if they would stumble problematic material or if they would interpret things the wrong way. This is why I hate people that say "oh I don't care about privacy, I've got nothing to hide". You think I have anything at all to hide?! I am a law-abiding citizen of my country, I have never harbored any intention of committing a crime in my entire life, I can't harm a fly for heaven's sake!

And finally after all of this I am allowed to go. I get to my friend and hug them and try to get out of this place as fast as possible.

Maybe you're wondering if I tried to oppose any of this? Hell no. Not using my phone, waiting without reason, giving an ungodly amount of personal information and give access to my phone to a stranger, I did not fight through any of this. Why? I was afraid. I was an alien going through customs in the Patriot Act era. It was very clear to me that if I tried to block any of this process I would not go out of that airport to the US. I have my principles in privacy, but I did not want to waste a literal thousand bucks and more of my time.

So I went along.

12 comments

  1. [4]
    zara
    Link
    Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry you had to go through that. There are a lot of Americans who unfortunately see this as just one of the consequences of the "fight against terrorism," but they also...

    Oh my goodness, I'm so sorry you had to go through that. There are a lot of Americans who unfortunately see this as just one of the consequences of the "fight against terrorism," but they also don't bother to hear about the human story behind it, like yours.

    At the very least, I hope you were safe during your trip and afterwards.

    8 votes
    1. [3]
      LukeZaz
      Link Parent
      Personally, I don't even see value in a "fight against terrorism" right now. I'm far from an expert, but from my point of view it really seems like some things done to prevent terrorism are...

      Personally, I don't even see value in a "fight against terrorism" right now. I'm far from an expert, but from my point of view it really seems like some things done to prevent terrorism are extremely disproportionate to the amount of terrorism actually occurring. Domestically*, agencies like the TSA cause problems for virtually everyone while doing nothing except provide the illusion of security. When it comes to things abroad, wars on terrorism just seem to destabilize countries and cause immense quantities of death, with hardly anything to show for it.

      This all said, this isn't something I've researched much at all, so I could very easily be wrong. It just feels like for all the fear being spread about terrorism, actions taken to prevent it sometimes seem to end up so extreme as to be more harmful in the long run than the thing they sought to prevent.

      * in the U.S, that is. I don't know about elsewhere.

      10 votes
      1. sublime_aenima
        Link Parent
        The fight against terrorism, similar to the war on drugs, is just catchy terms to justify racist and nationalistic ideals supported by the government and law enforcement. By making a big show of...

        The fight against terrorism, similar to the war on drugs, is just catchy terms to justify racist and nationalistic ideals supported by the government and law enforcement. By making a big show of force they reinforce fear of criminals and terrorists, thereby justifying their need for larger budgets and less privacy.

        I’ve flown with pocket knives and prototypes that look like bombs without any hiccups or secondary checks. However if flying with my wife or father in-law, we get stopped almost every time. It’s 100% racial profiling but it’s allowed because it’s “protecting” people who have statistically never left their state from an imagined threat. Just like the border wall that is popular amongst many republicans but opposed by most who actually live near the border.

        4 votes
      2. zara
        Link Parent
        I totally agree. I'm no expert either, but I haven't heard of much terrorism that was prevented because of the passing of laws like The Patriot Act.

        I totally agree. I'm no expert either, but I haven't heard of much terrorism that was prevented because of the passing of laws like The Patriot Act.

        1 vote
  2. [3]
    patience_limited
    Link
    As a U.S. citizen, you have my apologies, for what they're worth. I've been watching the steady erosion of civil liberties and privacy rights here practically since the Internet happened. From the...

    As a U.S. citizen, you have my apologies, for what they're worth.

    I've been watching the steady erosion of civil liberties and privacy rights here practically since the Internet happened. From the earliest attempts to backdoor All the Things, to the maximal incarceration, to the increasing numbers of subtle or overt authoritarian racists in public office and security services... It's been steady and gradual enough that most Americans just aren't viscerally aware of how badly things have deteriorated. Terrorism was simply the excuse for an acceleration of that creeping totalitarian bent.

    I've spent enough time in U.S. airports and ports of entry since 9/11 to know very well that your experience is not unique.

    You blame yourself for going along, but I'm far more culpable than you are. I've watched all the brown/accented/funny-named people get singled out for special attention in security lines. I've heard versions of your story from friends and acquaintances (U.S. citizens included). On multiple occasions, I've had to hastily prove I'm not brown or otherwise suspect enough to warrant extra attention.

    I've had the impulse to say something like, "Why are you pulling aside a couple with a baby, just because the mother is wearing a headscarf? Surely they can't be a security risk?", or, "That's the fourth dark-skinned guy you've taken away in the 15 minutes I've been here - do you mean only white people can travel today?" And every time, I've bitten my tongue and made excuses: "I've gotta get through and fix that hospital issue", or "I can't afford trouble".

    Travel is inherently stressful - we're all too absorbed in the importance of our agendas, the risks of failing to make our flights, and any number of other anxieties. That inner whine of fear just makes people more compliant when threatened by authorities who can jail, brutalize, or shoot.

    On a personal basis, I became quite... paranoid? [I don't think there was much in the Snowden disclosures that came as a surprise to me.] And I'm a law-abiding citizen these days, with (in theory at least) nothing to fear from law enforcement. There's nothing interesting to see, but I'm very disinterested in having anyone see it.

    I applied all the suggested security tips for international travelers.

    Everything, no matter how trivial, got encrypted with multifactor authentication. On a couple of occasions, I postal-mailed my token to my destination instead of having it on my person through the airport. I compartmentalized my social media and cloud accounts, keeping separate sets for family/friends, activism, work, security research, personal business, etc. While traveling, I carried a Chromebook logged in with an anodyne throwaway account; as much private information as possible stayed in the cloud under other accounts. The Chromebook got wiped after every use. The phone was a little more trouble, but I'd usually knock it back to basic work and personal accounts, with as few apps and as little stored data as possible.

    These are not steps the general public should ever have to take, let alone innocent holiday tourists. Having spent all that time on self-defense, I know it would have been better spent on more activism to ensure that no one has to endure what you did, or worse.

    8 votes
    1. [2]
      Sahasrahla
      Link Parent
      Imagine the equivalent of these privacy violations before smart phones were so widespread. What if visiting the US in 1980 required you to bring years of private correspondence and transcripts of...

      These are not steps the general public should ever have to take, let alone innocent holiday tourists.

      Imagine the equivalent of these privacy violations before smart phones were so widespread. What if visiting the US in 1980 required you to bring years of private correspondence and transcripts of your phone calls for border security to review? The idea would have seemed like a ridiculous conceit from a satire of the USSR or East Germany. Now, though, with social media + email + messaging apps and everyone carrying smart phones to access them, this kind of personal information is easily accessible to anyone who detains you and as such is expected.

      Personally I haven't travelled to the US years and I wonder what preparations would be needed. I don't have any social media tied to my real identity, would I look suspicious for not having a Facebook or Instagram account? Would I need to make sure to have a bunch of private conversations on my phone for them to read so it doesn't look like I'm hiding anything? What if I don't even have a smart phone, would that be enough to throw up some red flags? Like you said, these aren't the questions someone should be wondering if considering a visit to a country that holds itself up as a beacon of freedom and liberty.

      6 votes
      1. patience_limited
        Link Parent
        Inasmuch as various Tilders have complained about the excessive prevalence of U.S. news and politics, I'd hesitated to link this surveillance story. But in the name of counterterrorism, the U.S....

        Inasmuch as various Tilders have complained about the excessive prevalence of U.S. news and politics, I'd hesitated to link this surveillance story.

        But in the name of counterterrorism, the U.S. has built a surveillance state and a culture of submission to authority that threatens everyone, and sets an example for the worst anti-democratic overreaches.

        6 votes
  3. pallas
    Link
    US customs and immigration, unfortunately, has become increasingly problematic in its lack of decency and professionalism. As the first thing visitors experience in the country, it does much to...

    US customs and immigration, unfortunately, has become increasingly problematic in its lack of decency and professionalism. As the first thing visitors experience in the country, it does much to harm its reputation; I know people who won't return to the country as a result of it, and it is a consideration when choosing where to hold conferences.

    Even without ever having had any problems going through it, I've always found it the least pleasant experience of any developed country's border control, with the process and people always seeming to be intentionally and gratuitously unprofessional and hostile.

    6 votes
  4. skybrian
    Link
    That's quite an eye-opening experience! i don't think you should blame yourself for not coming up with anything unusual at the spur of the moment, though.

    That's quite an eye-opening experience! i don't think you should blame yourself for not coming up with anything unusual at the spur of the moment, though.

    5 votes
  5. envy
    Link
    I've been in that room. Sounds like it is even less pleasant than it was over a decade ago.

    I've been in that room. Sounds like it is even less pleasant than it was over a decade ago.

    5 votes
  6. Farun
    Link
    I travel to the US quite a bit and it's always such a bother. I'm pretty sure my passport got flagged at some point in the past, because I've been pulled out of the line like 6 out of 7 times....

    I travel to the US quite a bit and it's always such a bother. I'm pretty sure my passport got flagged at some point in the past, because I've been pulled out of the line like 6 out of 7 times. (I'm white as snow, so it's not a race thing and I'm from Germany, so the country shouldn't be it either). Even my last ESTA application had to be "manually checked".

    And even when you don't get pulled out, regular immigration isn't really that fun either. For some reason I always get the jokester TSA dude who goes all "We ain't gonna let you in anyways - S I K E". Real funny, considering a lot of my friends are American and I'd like to be able to continue visiting them.

    That being said, I have not had my phone/laptop searched yet and I hope it never comes to that. That's such a violation of privacy.

    5 votes
  7. mrbig
    Link
    Yeah. I kinda have this pride of not wanting to go places where I'm clearly unwanted. So I suppose that, unless things change drastically, I’ll never go to the US. Which is a shame because I love...

    Yeah. I kinda have this pride of not wanting to go places where I'm clearly unwanted. So I suppose that, unless things change drastically, I’ll never go to the US. Which is a shame because I love all things American.

    4 votes
  8. Removed by admin: 4 comments by 4 users
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