“We need to stop letting our public servants be our public masters.”
–Brandon Bryant From comments made near the end of the film Unmanned:America’s Drone Wars
Below are my comments responding to this piece by Francisco Goldman regarding his recent trip through U.S.Customs. Though my slavish need to toss myself at their feet has abated, I still admire writers and it is especially galling for me to read about his experience. I was very grateful for this piece, and for
the comments people have left in response. After reading about how frustrated all of us are, and how angry, I do not feel so alone.
Since my husband was deported by ICE in late July, I have had to fly back and forth from
the U.S. to Mexico five times—and return. I am white, so are my kids, one even has blue eyes. I took my husband’s last name so on paper we are the same color. ‘Deported by association,’ was a term I recently saw online.
Even though I get to see him on these trips and talk to him on the phone, there is
something about the way he went to work one day and didn’t come back, something
about how I had to figure out what to do with all the pieces of our life–without his usual competence and patient assistance–that makes me still feel like he died and I am again living the nightmare left over from Straight, back when lunatics, Oh My Brothers! were still controlling every aspect of my life.
Many of the comments in response to Goldman’s piece discuss race, and whether or not certain other races besides Latinos feel singled out for more abuse. I think it is worth pointing out that Customs agents are also of different races and some even speak with accents. This is not to say that I don’t think race is a factor when we talk about these abuses, and I will even go further and note that when I told my aunt about how we are consistently at the back of the plane and have these problems with the border patrol agents, she surmised that it was because my last name now ends with a z. She thinks my last name explains at best my being treated like a second class citizen, at worst a hostile enemy. I don’t want to believe this, but I am beginning to wonder.
The people who join me in these lines and checkpoints are like me—even if they don’t dress like me, even if they hold different political beliefs, even if their skin is a different color. They have kids who are tired and cranky, they have had necessary belongings confiscated, they are missing flights and have no credible avenue through with which to complain. The airlines, at least are expected to take some responsibility for missed flights and wasted time. Congress passed the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights,
but somehow the concerns addressed there don’t apply when you are at the mercy of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
All of us just want to go home. Some are on the verge of tears, some are already crying, some bunch their fists, but do nothing further just to get through the process without adding to the delay. From the Jamaican to the sorority girl returning from spring break, we are all stuck in the same place at the mercy of the same
In fairness I should note that the first time we came through Atlanta was impressive, we were welcomed back enthusiastically, and breezed through the process. I assumed that this was because I had so many suitcases I could hardly steer the cart. The agent even helped me with the cart and replaced my daughter’s car seat which had by then already fallen off the pile several times.
Another time coming through Houston I was frustrated by the fact that there were hardly any lanes open and an enormous backup of travelers. I am amazed that I made my flight at all, but I did—barely—so in the end I the waiting, the questions, the process in general was annoying and stressful but not traumatic.
On another trip through Detroit I had my daughters aged eight and four with me. This was before my surgery and we got to skip the line because I was in a wheelchair and in a great deal of pain. I was not cheating, though that was what I felt like everyone was thinking as we blew by them in line.
“What was your reason for visiting Mexico?”asked the Customs Agent, bending so he could address me.
“I am bringing my daughters back after visiting their father.”
“And why is he down there?”
I was hoping she wouldn’t say anything, but my eight year old puffed out her chest and said in a loud and clear voice, “He got deported.” She said this with defiance and I hoped he wouldn’t react. My younger one looked to her sister, then the agent, and hung her head mumbling, “Yeah.”
My daughter’s reactions reflect my own conflicted feelings about our government since my
husband was deported.
The customs agent looked to me and grinned, “I guess you’re not too happy with us then,
When dealing with ICE I arrived at the realization that I was dealing with people who not only don’t care, but enjoyed taunting me. They actually smile while tormenting people who are emotionally maxed out (separate post). I didn’t expect anything better, but still I had hoped for something that might pass for neutrality, if not compassion. Because after all, unlike the Mexican officials who I had initially feared–and who are consistently proving my fears unfounded–these people are my people. I wonder if they realize that they are teaching an entirely new generation of citizens to hate them, and by extension, their own government.
Picture this:thirty years from now the doctor at the rest home finds out you were once a customs agent. “By the way your eyes are watering I think you don’t like the new sandpaper liners we put in your Depends. Guess you’re not too happy with me right now, huh?”
Three weeks ago I returned from Mexico with my girls and we came through Atlanta again. I had an hour and fifteen minutes to connect. The line was so long we were backed up before we even got to the official section with the roped off lanes. Since we were not yet in the official holding pen, people were making calls to friends and family to tell them they were going to be late, and they didn’t know what was going to happen.
It is still astonishing to me that there is no system in place to deal with this. How hard would it be to have someone checking boarding passes for connecting flights and if necessary send them off to a section of agents who can prioritize them?
By the time I got up to the counter, I had officially missed our connecting flight. On top of this, the mistake I made was to bring a bag of food I had purchased on the plane. The thing about traveling with kids is that they get hungry. The other thing is that it is most excellent when they sleep through the entire flight. I
stupidly thought I could feed her the lunch we purchased on the plane at the airport since we were not going to have time to even stop for anything due to the short connection time.
“Why were you in Mexico?”
“Visiting my husband,” to head off the next question I added, “he got deported.”
The agent looked us over, said something to an agent halfway across the line, then looked
at his screen, “Have you ever lived in New Jersey?”
Bizarre questions like this make me wonder about the information they have, or if they
just make this stuff up as they go. “No.”
He gestured to the sandwich bag, “What’s in there?’
“Food I bought on the plane.”
“What is it?”
“Sandwich, chips, nuts. From the plane.”
On one trip through Mexican customs I was politely asked by a Mexican customs agent to throw away a bag of pretzels. I thought this was silly, but complied without complaint. I do know there are rules and we must follow them. In Mexico, the food I brought through the line, though it was not fresh fruit, or crawling with bugs that might infect their crops with some pestilence, is nevertheless confiscated and the whole stupid thing ends there.
Dumbass, next time don’t bring food through the customs line. Even if you bought it on the plane.
Fair enough, we are dealing with a large system that has been set up to accommodate an enormous volume of people who bring all sorts of weird stuff through and after all, the idea is to protect us from whatever weird substance someone might bring in. Right? Or maybe it is really to make sure we are all really fucking
grateful we get to live in a country that keeps us so safe from the bad guys. Who are they by the way?
Instead of taking the food, or even telling me that if I wished to keep the food I was going to have to go through a separate line, he writes the letter A on my form. The A would not be significant until later.
Once we arrive at the baggage area, I find the car seat was there, but the suitcase that we needed to bring through customs was not. I panicked, wondering what that meant. Could I even go through customs without it or would I have to wait in Atlanta however many days until the airline found it?
Dragging children and carry-on bags forward, I approached the agent at the next checkpoint and handed him my form. “The airline lost my luggage. I can’t bring it though here.”
He motioned to a separate room with a waiting area and another line and said, “Tell them
that up there.”
The line he was pointing me toward was marked ‘Agriculture.’ I got in the line, stared at the people ahead of me, studied the guy with a big plastic bag filled with something hard and wet in it and decided I was in the wrong place. I stepped out of the line and started toward several high desks behind which sat two agents doing paperwork but not dealing with the people seated in chairs in front of them, thinking they could answer my question.
You would think I had approached the desk with a knife drawn. “Ma’am,” the agent who had
directed me yelled, “get back in line.”
I was clearly confused, a frazzled woman with two children balancing a car seat and other assorted bags, attempting to ask a question. This was the moment when I began to feel afraid, threatened, trapped, and very small. A uniformed woman answered another lady’s question, and she shot back, “You won’t do that again will you?” When she breezed past me I asked why I was in the agriculture line if I had lost my luggage.
“What’s that?” She asked and pointed to the bag.
“Food from the plane.”
“Well now you have to go through this line with that.”
“What do I do about my luggage? It wasn’t on the carousel.” I pointed toward the empty carousel which could be seen through the window I stood next to.
“You will have to go see the airline about that when you make it through here.”
Here is something else I have thought about. If so many people come through with stupid stuff like food items purchased on the plane, so many that this agent is almost laughing about this scenario, wouldn’t it behoove everyone involved to put some sort of procedure in place to deal with this before passengers waste valuable time, and agents are paid however much money to deal with it?
I have worked with the public, I have worked with processes and policies and procedures, and people who never seem to get it. I understand that it is easy to become jaded, there are behaviors that are idiotic that people continue to repeat, but at those jobs, once it was determined that there was a problem that could be dealt with en masse, we did try to address it before it could come up again. Here agents delight in noting that this is a common problem and ridiculing you for being yet another person to have this problem. Which leads me to ask, if food purchased on the airplane really was a problem, like a real threat, wouldn’t they take it away from you before you made it through the first checkpoint?
While my girls who were at this point complaining quite loudly and quite often, “When are we going to be donnnnneeeeee?” I watched what was happening in the waiting area several feet away. These people got seats. I still wonder why they were there and had seats and we were herded into this agriculture line. They must have committed some really high level infraction like bringing in too many Rolexes or hiding their doggy-poo in their carry on. An agent was standing in front of a tall desk, talking to an agent behind it. He appeared relaxed, with his elbow on the counter and one leg hooked over the other. He said something to a nicely dressed older couple who were sitting in the chairs in front of him. The man stood up and took a step toward the agent.
“Sir, sit down!” The agent’s tone was somewhere between a bark and an order.
The man said something in a soft voice to the agent, who then moved toward him and said, “I
was talking to her, not you.” His tone was harsher, but it reminded me of the way my mother used to lower her voice and speak to our dingy Doberman when she started bouncing around and running in circles. “Sit. Down.”
The woman rose, the man sat, his shoulders curled over his knees. In any other scene this is someone who I would expect to see treated with extra respect. This was a man who was muscular enough to fill out the shoulders of his elegant sweater. He wore dark dress shoes with laces, and his cream trousers were of a heavy shimmery fabric. He wore shiny, but not too shiny jewelry, and his mostly grey hair was neatly cut and styled at the top. Here, in this place, though, it was OK to treat him as if he were a serf plotting murder instead of responding to a question. Unlike me, who offended them by not doing as instructed, he was responding to whatever it was the agent had said!
I was in a nightmare, like the president in Dreamscape who took a Valium and couldn’t wake up: I just had to ride it out. The panic sets in when you realize there is no way to opt out of this, not if you want to
ever see the light of day again.
After close to an hour, I made it to an agent at the head of the line who did nothing more than point me to another agent who was seated in front of a table with his hands folded in front of him. He offered a weak but warm smile. He looked at the sandwich bag and asked me the same questions. I gave the same answers, and then he sent my carry-on bags through a machine with a conveyor belt and
gestured for me to move around to the end of the machine.
Here I was met by one of two more agents, the one helping me seemed possibly apologetic, even friendly.“What’s this?”
“Food from the plane.”
“What’s in it?” He looked over the outside of the bag.
“A sandwich, and some chips, nuts that aren’t even opened still.” By this time all I wanted to do was to go to a hotel and cry.
“What kind of sandwich is it?”
He put his hand inside the bag and moved the plastic with his fingertips and then said, “Collect your bags here,” and pointed to our bags which had come through the screener.
“You mean I get to keep it?”
This is the part of all this that makes me the most insane and sad about the customs mess in general. The larger problem here was not the fact that some agents were bullying and scary. The problem wasn’t ONLY the laziness, or the callousness, or the frustration, the fact of the matter is that this system does not work.
In fact, it is beyond broken, it costs money. It costs the government money and it costs each of us individually money. It costs money in the form of all the salaries that have to be paid, and it costs us, the people who pay these salaries by way of tax dollars, immediate money by way of the cost of rebooking flights, hotel rooms, cabs to get to the hotels, food that needs to be purchased on layovers and whatever other incidentals are necessary. This does not even begin to calculate the other costs associated with missed work time and appointments that result due to the missed flights.
All because someone at the front of the line couldn’t do exactly the same thing that the guy at the end of the line did. If the problem is that we don’t have enough competent people to staff and manage a system like this, we shouldn’t have it to begin with.
This agent, as nice as he was, as apologetic as he seemed to be, didn’t even open the bag and dump everything out to make sure there wasn’t anything sinister inside. All of this, almost two hours since I had seen the first agent, the one who marked my form with an A, the agent who could have taken the food and NOT marked my form with the A, thereby saving me and my kids the time and hassle, not to mention his five fellow agents.
I have dealt with rude agents and decent agents. What strikes me is that they are also my fellow Americans. I have had lots of time standing in these lines to think about the system and the managers that have set up this process. We-The-People pay their salaries with money we work for. Money my husband worked for fifteen years for, and contrary to popular rhetoric, he did pay his taxes. All of these people whether they are doing a good job or a bad job, will all say they were just doing their jobs. Isn’t that what Eichmann said? At what point in his career did he start telling himself that?
Photo courtesy Wikipedia
In the end, this entire experience has opened my eyes. I used to live in a country where government officials could be lazy—just like me. They could make mistakes—just like me. They could be rude when provoked by idiots who wouldn’t follow procedures properly and chose to blame them instead of their own stupidity—just like me. But most of the time, they could be said to perform something like a useful service and my life went on. I shut my eyes to the fact that some races were treated unfairly, and some abuses occurred within the government, mostly outside our borders (like that should matter).
To top it off, thanks to Edward Snowden, it has been confirmed that since I have vented my rage and fear to family and friends over the telephone, the NSA has probably caught some key phrases and I could be being monitored for anything further that could be construed as worrisome. At what point would they decide to act on their suspicions? If they are as diligent, thorough and efficient as these Customs
agents, this concept is terrifying.
One reader said in her comment that she took the time to submit an official complaint and every
time after that was harassed each time she came through. If we can’t complain through the CBP’s processes and feel like they won’t retaliate, there is some comfort in knowing that there are other people who feel just as offended and are just as bothered as I am by this whole undignified and unreasonable process.
When I finally did make it to the airline counter, I was so tired I forgot to ask for a later flight in the afternoon and we ended up on a flight that meant we had to come back and do it all again in seven hours. We still had not even made it through TSA.
I almost cried when she told me that I still had to go through the huge snaking line twenty yards farther away. A couple next to me were visibly upset, the woman was crying and moving in circles. She was explaining something about contact lens solution and she had the same question I did, “Why do I have to go through TSA if we are leaving the airport?” I caught glimpses of her puffy red face the whole way through that line, her face mirroring my internal struggle not to completely freak out it in front of my kids, a battle I would later lose anyway over a malfunctioning drinking fountain (they confiscated our water bottle at TSA).
My question for the rude but competent airline attendant who was helping me was how they could get away with this?
“Das da gubmt.”
I knew that, but I just had to ask, and in that response and the way her face softened when she met my eyes, there was connection and understanding. I also stopped to wonder if I am the only one who thinks that isn’t good enough anymore.
Just because the president says it, doesn’t make it true. I was much older before I learned this. My kids watched the last State of the Union with me, you know the one where he talked about immigration reform? They know that their government lies to them and no longer cares if they get caught in that lie.
I used to feel safe as an American Citizen, not so much anymore. Both because of how I am treated by representatives of my own government, but also by the fact that the more I travel, the more I hear about Americans who say they are Canadians to avoid being treated badly or worse, just give up their citizenship altogether.
The sense that I am now a fundamentally different person has been growing with each pass through the checkpoints, and it solidified with this last trip. I am harassed and abused—as are my fellow Americans—we are treated as if we have done something wrong by returning to our own country, when all we want to do is make it home.
For the love of God I cannot figure out why this would be true, but I believe a new truth. The proof is in the actions of agencies like ICE, the people who issue passports through the State Department (separate post to follow), and now Customs and Border Patrol. The U.S. government is very heavily invested in separating families, but that is not enough, it then goes further with Customs and Border Protection by punishing them each time they manage to reunite.
God save the United States of America.