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.