Cold Shoulder in the US

The New U.S. President Will Have to Repair the Country’s Image of Arrogance and Disrespect for Foreigners

News | Marlies Dachler | June 2008

New arrivees wait in line at immigration at John F. Kennedy in New York (Photo: Marlies Dachler)

I had been to the United States once before 9/11. This spring, however, the experience was strange from the beginning.

It started in Vienna, when, after I had gone through passport and security controls, an Austrian employee told me that I didn’t have a valid ticket – the same one I had just checked in with. The plane would have to leave without me, they said. I was frantic and started yelling at the agent. Spinning the truth a little, I said I was on a business trip and waved my press pass at them, which worked miracles. They called United Airlines, who admitted they had forgotten to inform Austrian about my booking.

Almost nine hours later, the plane touched down at Dulles International Airport. Landing at the same time as a huge Virgin Atlantic plane, we had to stand on the gangway for at least half an hour waiting for the bus.

I took the opportunity to fill out the immigration form. "Are you planning on conducting any terrorist activities in the US," it asked? I started giggling. If I were planning on bombing the white house, I probably wouldn’t tell them.

Standing on the gangway, exhausted from the flight, we faced another two hours queuing at passport control. I started reading the instructions on the form, and found out that if I were inside the country in my capacity as a journalist, without a journalist’s visa, I could get arrested and be denied entry for the rest of my life.

I started feeling afraid – and not just because of the 20-some policemen yelling and pointing weapons at people who stepped out of line.

Finally, it was my turn. I presented all the documents to the woman, who had just taken over from a colleague with scowl to sink 1000 ships. However, this woman seemed really insecure, muttering under her breath that she hadn’t worked with that software before.

Randomly pressing buttons and calling for help, she started asking me questions. Where was I going to stay? Had I already booked my flight back to Austria? What was the purpose of my visit? Was I pregnant? I felt like saying that with a 64 cm waist, I couldn’t possibly be giving birth any time soon, let alone within the next three months of my visa. However, even I know when to keep my mouth shut.

The interrogation continued, while the woman finally figured out how to take the required photograph. After that, she took my fingerprints (which I had to show her) and I was finally able to enter the United States.

Welcome to the land of immigrants, the melting pot of the world!

My friend Michelle had been waiting for me outside for hours. I apologized, even though I knew it wasn’t my fault. She is half-Pilipino and said that she should have known. But when she enters the country, the border officials are friendly, don’t even look at the passport, and say: "Welcome home!"

My experience left me wondering at how much prejudice there is on travelers entering the US. I am an Austrian, a Catholic white woman with a very good command of the English language. If I had to go through such a process of intimidation, what happens to Arabs? Or Africans?

According to the Discover American Partnership, a travel industry group, time-consuming and humiliating procedures at US airports and the country’s poor image can be blamed for a 17 percent decline in overseas travel to the United States. In a late 2007 New York Times article, Jonathan Tisch, chairmen of the influential Travel Business Roundtable stated that entry requirements and immigration procedures to the US were the worst in the world, urging immigration officials to be more polite, and government officials to rethink immigration policies.

I remembered a funny story one of my teachers, a Palestinian born in Jerusalem with a French passport, once told me. He had to go to the US to give a lecture about the Arab-Israeli conflict in the state of New York. Because it had become more and more difficult for Arabs to enter the country after 9/11, he decided to fly into Toronto, and cross the border on the ground, which he had been told was much easier.

At the border, the policeman looked at his first name in the passport, Ibrahim, and stared cursing at the stupidity of the French: "Ah those Frogs can’t even spell Abraham correctly!" he said in contempt. The officer’s stupidity had saved him, and he entered the country as a Jew, which was apparently no problem at all.

I couldn’t stop wondering. After I had checked in for my flight to St. Louis, I had to drop off my suitcase behind the check-in counters, where they were x-rayed and opened in cases of suspicion. To my surprise, I watched as the three security personal – a Sikh in a turban, an Arab-looking man with a Yasser Arafat scarf and, and an black American – were happily going through some women’s underwear, discussing which string thong was the sexiest. I felt even more betrayed.

Fortunately, the U.S. presidential elections are not far off. A new president will have a lot to do to repair the country’s current image of arrogance and disrespect for others and return to its position as a role model world wide for tolerance and human rights it once had.

For a start, it’s just good manners.

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