U.S. Border Officials Often Profile Us When Traveling — And It's Not Making Anyone Safer
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With clockwork regularity since moving to the states from the UK soon after 9/11, whenever my family travels and returns to our adopted home, my husband is ominously asked to "step aside". His passport is then withheld for further "security checks" because we have been informed by the State Department that his name is similar to one on an American terrorist watch list.
It happened again a month ago. My husband, a consultant respirologist, and I were traveling with our three young children on a trip from Canada. We were taken to a cordoned off section of the Chicago airport where at least 100 mostly Muslim looking men (of South Asian/Arab appearance, many with beards) were all crammed together with no seats to spare. We learned a Jordanian flight had arrived before us.
While the children and I were cleared by immigration, we could hardly leave without my husband, so we slumped nearby on the floor and on a baggage trolley as we waited for his clearance. This normally takes up to an hour, but after half an hour something unprecedented occurred – a short bewildered looking man, Caucasian and sporting a neat white beard, approached the group.
I watched as his face slowly grew crimson with fury on realizing where he was heading. With no time to spare, immigration officials were summoned – including a supervisor. The man identified himself as an American who was returning home from his "holy land" and made it clear he "wished to leave immediately" as he "didn't fit the profile". Again, he insisted there had "been some mistake, you know perfectly well I don't fit the profile". There followed an imperious order to return his passport as his limo was waiting for him outside, as was his wife at home.
I was able to witness these exchanges at close hand. However, I turned from observer to participant when he made the following comment: "C'mon guys, do I look like a terrorist?" My outrage was boundless:
Excuse me – that's my husband over there. He's a physician who spends every working day healing the sick and trying to save lives. Does he look like a terrorist? Clearly this is your first time being stopped, but he's been going through this for over a decade.
As he stared at me blankly, I added: "Maybe you should see what it feels like to be suspected and targeted when you have done nothing wrong and are instead made to feel like a criminal and a caged animal."
To be fair to him, he had the grace to look a little shame-faced, but only momentarily. He turned back to the officials and demanded a phone as he wanted to speak to his congressman. He was an American citizen, and he had rights … conveniently ignoring the fact that most of the men waiting were also US citizens and green card holders – just the wrong color and creed.
The rest of the men caged in the waiting area became aware that some "white looking man" was causing a stink. Numerous voices were raised in unison – all insisting that he shouldn't bypass the queue and should be dealt with like everyone else. The tension was palpable. I could see that the officials feared the situation could get out of hand. Four or five officers rushed forward and shouted at the men to step back and "settle down". Immediately, the disgruntled Muslim posse was held at bay as hands hovered over holstered guns.
The first time we were targeted was in 2003 at Washington's Dulles International airport. Our friendly banter with an airline official at the check in desk instantly ended when my husband's passport details were entered into the computer. The woman checking us in signaled to a colleague, who without a word swiftly put a cordon (tape) around my husband and I and our son as we stood aghast, feeling like little more than pigs in a pen. It took an hour before he could prove he was not the person in question on the no fly list.