U.S. Border Officials Often Profile Us When Traveling - And It's Not Making Anyone Safer
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.
In the early years post 9/11, immigration officials used to pretend these anti-terrorism checks were random and not a result of what is now widely accepted to be racial profiling. When we arrived at New York's Le Guardia airport from a London flight last year however, an embarrassed official said:
Look you know how the shit works, sorry I wish I could do something but…
On this trip to Chicago's airport, I watched as the Caucasian man who had caused so much fuss was quietly allowed to leave – ahead of us and many others. My husband grew irate and vocal about the unfairness of what was happening. The same duty supervisor bellowed at my husband to follow him immediately.
At this point, I was alarmed. You hear stories, and I immediately grew fearful. We had young children and what if things got out of hand? I mean where would it end, Gitmo? My fears inflamed when my eldest son tried to follow his father and was shouted at by a female immigration officer, who screamed in his face: "I have a gun." I questioned her aggressive tone and fortunately she backed down, claiming she only meant it was dangerous for him to be near the weapon. My son asked: "Mum, would she really shoot an innocent 10-year-old boy?
After a few minutes, my husband returned relatively unscathed. The supervisor had not been overly hostile but was clearly not telling the truth when he claimed the Caucasian man had been taken to have his luggage inspected. I had seen him walk off unaccompanied and as free as a bird – in stark contrast to the rest of us.
Another hour and a half and our turn came. A brief call to the state department in Washington followed, which is the usual form our checks take, and we were free to go. I was left feeling drained and traumatized by the ordeal, my husband equally weary but also angry he had missed a work appointment with a colleague. My poor children were simply exhausted and confused.
Of course I understand the need for security checks, the threat of terrorism is very real and as a frequent traveler, I want my family to benefit from these measures like any sensible person. However, the system cannot be working when immigration officials are wasting time on repeatedly stopping innocent people. Indeed half our male Muslim friends face similar checks. Surely it is critical that measures are properly intelligence-led and a thorough review of current clearly ineffective US counter-terrorism and immigration policies seems long overdue.
As we left the airport, my sons asked me whether this would happen to them "when they grow up". – I tried to be re-assuring, but in reality, I am far from optimistic. For them, this episode is part of what will undoubtedly be a painful rite of passage as they deal with prejudices growing up as young Muslim men in the west.