The Other American Wall
You never forget your first American. I met mine when I was 21. They were a couple visiting London for the first time who sat in a pub with a map before them, confused by the serpentine roads. I helped them to plot a tour across London, and ended up visiting them in San Diego, a city I loved. We are still friends today.
Over the next few years I visited the USA more and more, fell in love with its generous, energetic people and eventually ended up living on the West Coast, where I lived for three years. It was hard work, and I didn’t get to see the country as I thought I would because there was never any free time. Americans work insane hours, and as a foreigner I worked even harder to keep up.
When I returned to the UK I developed a problem getting in and out of the US. I still had a green card and a social security number. I didn’t want them but there was then no process in place for surrendering them, so on each trip I would spend hours in the interrogation room. There was always suspicion from the officers; why would you want to leave the greatest country on earth?
The entry process began to affect how I felt about the place. To get into this charming, warm, welcoming land you had to pass through a demeaning barrier of institutional aggression and insolence. The sheer threat and discomfort of the process put me off. It was like stepping back in time. I didn’t fancy dealing with an entry process that mimicked Russia in the 1950s.
I thought; this isn’t about security. In London I’ve lived with acts of terrorism being committed on my doorstep all my life, from IRA bombs to the terrible attacks of 7/7 which I missed by a whisker. Being shouted at by a child with a gun is something that normally only happens in totalitarian states.
I suspect that ordinary Americans who welcome friends from around the world don’t know how horrible the entry process can be. Why would they? We don’t in the UK, happily passing in and out as citizens.
This week an Australian children’s author was pulled over at LAX immigration and interrogated, and wrote about it, accurately describing the process of being threatened and treated like a child for hours. Yesterday a leading French historian arrived in the US for a conference and was detained for 10 hours by US immigration officials before being threatened with deportation – he had been born in Egypt. Two years ago my partner was picked at random and interrogated for four hours at US immigration. He had internal flights booked for meetings and missed them all, which wrecked the trip.
Even so, this year I was gearing up to give it another go. I haven’t been back to New York in 12 years, and thought it was time.
Then Trump got elected and the security barriers went back up. Travel companies just announced that tourism to the US has been cut in half overnight. I have a lot of Middle Eastern stamps in my passport, and presumably some kind of flag about my former residential status, so I would definitely be forced to spend hours at immigration. In a country formed almost entirely by immigrants, this doesn’t compute.
When I was young I thought of America as the future. Now its president has marooned it in the past. As much as I’d enjoy visiting again I don’t need the aggravation, so my affair with its people – who continue to delight and surprise me – will continue to be long distance.
Trump doesn’t need to build a wall. For non-Americans it’s already there.