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.


12 comments on “The Other American Wall”

  1. Martin Tolley says:

    Why when we need to build bridges do we want to build walls?

  2. John Peacock says:

    W/r/t getting into the UK, though, there’s also this: I suspect that a job in immigration control appeals to a certain type of person.

  3. Paul Graham says:

    The difference in entering the U.S. as a tourist or by going through the U.S. Citizens channel is amazing. My first visit with my now (dual national) wife was a revelation. The interrogation as described by Admin was replaced by not quite a red carpet but certainly a friendlier “welcome back” , I have thankfully been spared any bother by travelling in and out of the U.S. with her ever since.

  4. Mary S. says:

    Try being an American business person going to Canada or the UK to teach a class or roll-out a piece of software at a UK or Canadian branch of your company Hours of fun at immigration.

  5. Bill says:

    I am truly sorry to hear this.

  6. Brooke says:

    I suspect that ordinary Americans who welcome friends from around the world don’t know how horrible the entry process can be.

    Depends on who is the ordinary American. Perhaps you have not heard that Muhammad Ali, Jr. born and raised in Philadelphia (a US citizen) and his mother (also US citizen) were detained at the Ft. Lauderdale airport? This is routine for people of color, Catholic, Protestant, Muslin or atheist, and the LGBT community. And it did not start with Trump.

    Please consider postponing a trip to the United States.

  7. Kathejo Bohlman says:

    As an american now living overseas for 17 years and having traveled a fair amount before that, plus being married to an ‘alien’, I have to sadly agree with everything you’ve said. I used to steal myself for every re-entry into the US. I still do. I used to feel the need to apologise to my foreign in-laws every time they braved the hideous treatment at JFK imigration when we lived in NY. Things are going to have to change a lot before I will consider going to the US during the next four years.

  8. admin says:

    Yes I did, Brooke – it made the papers here. I have the passport stamps from Hell, not a problem anywhere else but I think it would be in the US right now.

  9. John says:

    I watched Trump’s speech last night with a mixture of surprise and anger. Surprise because he actually managed to sound eloquent as he stuck to his well written speech filled with the usual platitudes and clichés. Only rarely did veer from his teleprompter (which he assured his followers that he would never use if he was elected) and treat us to extemporaneous uses of his favorite adjective “fantastic” and unnecessary ad libbing with his own personal opinions of what he was reading. But I grew angry as I heard more and more references to THE ENEMY. At one point he used the phrase “exterminate this vile enemy from the planet”. I could only think of 1940s pulp magazine writing. It was like dialogue from some histrionic science fiction/fantasy story not the rhetoric one would expect from a President. I also learned about the creation of a new division of Homeland Security called VOICE which stands for Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement. This is supposed to help victims of crime “get justice”. But by specifically labeling it “immigrant crime” it tells us the purpose is completely different.

  10. Brooke says:

    It’s not your passport that is from hell. See New Yorker magazine cover and inside article on what is now being termed the “grand strategy,” Russian takeover of US political structure.
    @John, Amy Davidson has a nice analysis of Trump’s speech at New Yorker site.

    Really need new B&M mystery! March 23 can’t come fast enough.

  11. SteveB says:

    I’ve heard all the horror stories about US immigration but I jst wanted to say that on my first visit to the US back in 1981 I think the guy at JFK said, Welcome to my country. And I’ve never forgotten that!

  12. Helen Martin says:

    I know that Canadian immigration isn’t all “welcome to my country” and I’m really afraid that we will align our practices with the US in order to keep peace with them. I think Mr. Peacock is correct – a job with the kind of power immigration officers have would certainly appeal to people with tendencies to bully. After all the people they’re handling are foreigners, “aliens”, and possible trouble makers.
    My husband used to have to travel to the States to make presentations to the ICC and to the transportation boards in the western states. Crossing the border could delay him no matter what documentation, public notices and so on he took. It was faster if I was with him

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