It happened over a year before Donald Trump became the president of the United States. I arrived at a huge American airport on a Sunday evening around 7 pm after an 11-hour flight from Europe. According to my biological clock it was 3 am. At that time of the night my brain does not work very well, my body temperature is at its slowest and I don’t look too attractive…
After standing in a queue for half an hour, it was my turn to meet an immigration officer. I forced myself to smile and said Good Evening. The middle-aged male officer with a short hair cut did not smile back. I handed him my documents, which I knew were in order. He took my finger prints, a photo, looked at the passport and visa, looked at his screen and asked:
“What do you work with?”
“I don’t work any more. I am retired”, I responded.
“Hmmm”, he said, and asked me to follow to a big hall-like room where the doors locked behind us.
He handed my documents to another uniformed officer asking him to sign me up and left. During our short walk I had tried to ask him what was wrong, but did not get any answer. From my world-traveling friends I knew that immigration officers have all powers at the borders and foreigners don’t have any rights. Therefore they don’t need to explain anything and one should restrain oneself by not asking too many questions, and absolutely not getting upset or angry with the uniformed officers.
There were about 80 other passengers already sitting and waiting for their turn to be interrogated and examined closer. We sat on uncomfortable orange plastic chairs in long rows, watched by a guard looking like a Nazi. Whenever he saw somebody taking up a phone or a computer he hurried to warn the person that use of electronic devices was strictly forbidden and if repeated the devices would be confiscated.
I did not have any need to contact anybody through electronic devices, because nobody was waiting for me the next 35 hours. However many other people were anxious, because they were either missing their connecting flights or had families and friends waiting for them in the arrival hall. Luckily after an hour or so representatives from different airlines came to look for their passengers, and they promised to deliver messages to those waiting in the arrival hall.
The representative for ‘my’ airline company explained to me in a friendly manner that if I was not allowed to enter the US, it was the responsibility of the airline company to bring me back to Denmark without delays. So my worst-case scenario was to be returned to Denmark in a nice airplane, which was not bad at all compared to the detention hall.
My main problem during the following five hours – in addition to tiredness – was thirst and some hunger. There was no water fountain or vending machines anywhere. Of course none of the other passengers had food or drinks with them either, unless the parents of small kids had something in their bags for their ever-hungry children. I did not see anybody eating or drinking. Some people talked with low voices, but most looked absorbed in their own thoughts and more or less resigned.
At one point I realized that they cannot possibly deny people from going to a rest room, and there would be water nearby that I could drink. Surely enough I was allowed to go to the rest room after leaving my phone with a desk officer. But I could not drink in the rest room. The water was warm and I could imagine how I would contract Legionella or some brain-eating amoeba from the warm water. Knowing that it takes a couple of days to become totally dehydrated I trusted I was not in eminent risk of dying from thirst. The little devil on my shoulder was whispering that I should make it known in the whole world that this mighty nation was treating foreign passengers like criminals and certainly broke some international laws by not offering them drinking water and something to eat.
There were three interrogating officers on duty that evening. We could all see them on the side of the room and those sitting closest could probably also hear what was going on. I could only see that some of the passengers were sitting opposite their officer for a long time, their documents were checked, some phone calls were made, some had to hand their hand luggage which was emptied on a side desk. This did not make sense to me, because I believed immigration officers don’t interfere with customs issues. Or maybe they do.
At some point one of the officers was asking all of us whether anyone of us was fluent in both English and Chinese and could interpret for an old couple and the immigration officer. Luckily someone volunteered. I hope the person was qualified enough to interpret so that the couple was not sent back to China due to interpretation errors…
Finally around midnight I was called to the interview table, behind which sat an impeccably dressed and coiffed woman in her early 40s. She took my documents, looked at the passport and then at the visa, looked through the other pages of the passport, looked briefly at a computer screen, put a stamp on one of the passport pages and wrote something there in handwriting, returned the passport to me and said smiling: “Welcome to the United States of America”.
It was over in less than two minutes. I walked out free of any further investigation.
What I learned from this experience is that anybody can have this kind of an experience even in many unexpected places, like the US. It can bring the nastiest possible feelings on the surface and you can hate the people and even the whole country where you experience this. But in the end of the day, you were just unlucky to meet an incompetent, low paid employee, who did not take a risk of letting a potential terrorist or drug mule into the country.