Another Foot Down the Slippery Slope

Yesterday the U.S. Federal government arrested a British Internet gambling executive as he changed planes in Texas on his way to Costa Rica. I don’t know how the Dallas airport is laid out, but he may not even have tried to clear customs.

I can’t help but wonder how the U.S. government even knew he’d be on the plane. Might it have something to do with the U.S.’s insistence that any plane landing in the U.S. provide complete details on all passengers to the U.S. government? We were told this was necessary to prevent terrorists from entering U.S. soil. Why am I not surprised to find it instead being used to prosecute victimless crimes and enforce the Bush administration’s questionable morals? Perhaps the EU shouldn’t have been so fast to cave in to U.S. demands that violated their own laws.

Meanwhile, in a practical sense, to all my friends outside the U.S., I have to warn you to stay away. In particular, do not change planes in the United States, even if your eventual destination is elsewhere. This is not an isolated incident. The U.S. government is routinely pulling international travelers off of planes that land here and maltreating them.

Just yesterday I was listening to an Indian at O’Hare airport describe the dangerous and humiliating experience his family experienced when their plane laid over in Miami on the way between India and another country. They weren’t planning to stay in the U.S., so they didn’t have visas. At first the authorities wouldn’t let them off the unairconditioned plane that sat in the Florida sun for hours. They finally agreed to let them off, only to cordon them in a small area surrounded by multiple armed guards who pointed their guns at the children. Europeans shouldn’t think this won’t happen to them because they’re white, either. I’ve heard similar tales from Germans, Poles, and others.

The reasons for this abuse vary. Sometimes it’s about immigration. Sometimes a name is similar to one on a terrorist watch list. Sometimes a Homeland Security officer just had a bad day, or doesn’t like the way a person is looking at them. It’s disgusting and it’s despicable, but it is the situation here right now; and you need to be aware of it before you buy your ticket.

Whatever the reasons, the U.S. is undergoing a severe bout of xenophobia at the moment, and it seems to be at its worst among the law enforcement officials at the border. Anyone who has the slightest typographical error in their documentation is likely to be treated like a terrorist, handcuffed, tossed in jail, and then sent home after a day or two of interrogation. Lufthansa stewardesses have started informally and unofficially reserving the better seats on the flights back from the U.S. for the crying and depressed German passengers who’ve been subjected to this.

I really wish it were different, but it isn’t. If you possibly can, avoid the U.S. right now. Go to conferences in other countries. Insist on direct flights, or flights that change planes in other countries. And if you do have to come, please make sure your paperwork is absolutely in order. Some of us would like to see you. Some of us enjoy having foreigners visit and even stay. However those aren’t the Americans working security at the airport. Those are the Americans who assume everyone is a terrorist until proven innocent. And those are the Americans you have to get by before you can see the rest of us. :-(

One Response to “Another Foot Down the Slippery Slope”

  1. Francois Says:

    The reason for all this trouble, is that the US requires anyone who lands on US soils to clear immigration (i.e. to enter the US) even if he/she is only in transit, meaning does not need or want to actually enter the US. US airports don’t have an “international zone” where you can stay in between flights: whenever you land in the US, you immediately get through immigration – no choice.

    Airports in most other countries have this notion of “international zone”. People can stay in this zone between flights, or even longer sometimes. There’s a guy who ended up living for 20 years in the international zone at Roissy Charles de Gaule in Paris (a movie was done on his case recently). So people are used to spend a few hours shopping in tax-free shops, without really thinking about the country they are going through…. This is the case in London, Paris, Dubai, Hong Kong… Except in the US. So people who come to the US just to change planes are often not aware that they will need a US visa just for the change of plane.

    In a “normal” situation, the US should naturally change how its airports work, by providing an international zone: but it’s certainly too tempting for homeland security to know (and to arrest) anyone going through planes on US soil… your advise is probably right… :(

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