Homeland 1.

© Words – Johnny Procter

The moment I saw the look on the face of officer Cardozo ( name changed ) of the US Customs and Borders Protection Agency I knew this wasn’t going to be a textbook entry into the United States through Newark airport. I’d experienced the post 9/11 “ joys “ of passing through Newark Customs many times before but the vibe this time around, as I stood there facing my immigration officer, struck me as somehow different. I’m not saying that at any of the previous times I’d ever been showered with a 21 gun salute ticker tape style welcome. Even a cursory smile and welcome to the USA had always seemed beyond the call of duty for all of the previous officers processing my previous entries into the country, but this time around, my spine sense was tingling over with the feeling that this particular officer had a problem with me even before I’d opened my mouth. For those who haven’t entered the United States via Newark airport before, I can sum it up as best as I can by saying that you’re made to feel as welcome as a fully reformed Run DMC would be turning up as the after dinner entertainment at a Klan Convention. No mobile phones, no cameras, no electronics full stop. The no electronics rule originally brought to my attention by a surly officer who for my heinous crime of listening to some music on my iPhone had me worrying that my connecting flight to Boston was going to be making a detour via Guantanamo Bay on my account.

/Homeland 2This is all fairly standard stuff in terms of your first moments setting foot in New Jersey. From the moment you get off the plane until you pass through immigration after answering a few set questions, providing your fingerprints and posing for a mug shot, but what ISN’T standard is finding yourself being grilled for half an hour, asked every question under the sun stopping short at what your inside leg size is, then carted off to a holding area and detained for an indefinite period of time beside, what may be to Homeland Security, an all-star team of suspect Al Qaeda and ISIS fanatics and fake Rolex selling ‘looky looky’ men!

Relations with my designated officer started off frosty and got even colder as we began our downhill descent. Having seen the couple in front of me appearing to have their entry rubber stamped and let through I waited to be called. This apparently was my first mistake as it turned out that I was also required to be in possession of not only my passport and my pre-filled out customs declaration form when entering the country but the power of ESP as was evident by the look on Agent Cardozo’s face when he motioned to me to step forward to the booth in the trans-international language way that screamed ‘well what are you fucking waiting for? ‘. Was my face red at that moment with me actually standing there thinking I was in the right by actually following the TSA rules set out in front of me in writing on the sign fixed to the booth he sat in which stated in big letters WAIT BEHIND THE LINE UNTIL CALLED?! The fact that I’d put this particular officer out so much by actually having to put him to the trouble of looking through the glass at me and then lift his arm to wave me towards him sitting in his booth was confirmed by his reaction when I handed my passport to him.

With a look that suggested that I was the one responsible for assassinating Abraham Lincoln and JFK, as well as masterminding the attack on the twin towers, he asked me where my customs declaration form was, alerting me to the fact that I’d neglected to hand it over with my passport, I quickly apologised while fishing it out for him. Too late for apologies it appeared however, as far as he was concerned the tone for this exchange had now been set as he sat there telling me that since I didn’t appear to be in any hurry to get my entry processed then he was going to take his time too. Never mind the fact that he and his colleagues were obviously busy trying to process the entry of hundreds of passengers still waiting in line from the numerous planes that had landed all around the same time. He evidently had a point to prove and this appeared to be the most important thing to him at that moment. So, as I waited there wondering if it was the valium and the long flight or if he’d actually said about taking his time, I got my answer to that with him sitting there making a show of doing nothing, leaving my passport on the counter, while he sat in silence reaching round to lift his bottle of snapple taking the slowest sip you’ve ever seen sipped.

Homeland 3.

Something funny John? He looked at me and asked … I’d laughed at what he did with his drink, such actions were always going to provide a reaction from me. I went with hilarity crossed with delirium. Tiredness mixed with confusion is an explosive cocktail and I was dealing with a Maersk container full of both.

No apparently not, I replied, before the silence descended on us once more.

Eventually he picked up my documents and decided to actually drop his act and finally begin to do his job. This started with the standard questions that are normally asked when passing through immigration. Purpose of visit ? How long is the visit ? Where will I be staying ? He then moved on to my occupation before returning back again to where I was staying. Already by this point a general standard 5 minute entry through immigration was now at the 30 minute mark with no sign that it was coming to an end, so I decided to ask him if there was a problem here which predictably brought the response ‘ I don’t know, you tell me?

Do you have a problem John? ‘ I followed this up by asking why I was still there being questioned. At this point I got a simple answer of ‘ because you’re wanting to enter my country and because I can ‘. After more silent staring intently at his monitor and some slick mouse moving and clicking he advised me that he had enough suspicion to detain me for further questioning and told me to wait while a colleague came to collect me. Against all better judgment I asked him what further questions they wanted to ask me and was given the predictable reply that I’d find out when I was asked them. Every time I asked a question it was a case of me metaphorically putting a Beckhamesque corner into the box for Officer Cardozo to knock it into the net with his reply. Quite the effective double act.

/Homeland 4.Led off to the holding area I was told to take a seat amongst what truly was a rogues gallery of Africans, Arabs and only one European citizen, me. Told to sit there and wait until called for interview, I was laughing at myself for my ability to magnetically summon such farcical moments in my life but looking around at my new surroundings this was definitely a new one! A hundred thoughts racing through my mind, ninety nine of them bordering on the unhinged, such as when are the orange jump suits coming out to, will they let me out for a smoke? There’s fucking officers with sub machine guns guarding the room but yeah I’m sure they’ll be alright for me to nip out for a cheeky Capstan forty like?!

At this point, sitting there alongside an assortment of Arabs and Africans who, on first impression, had been detained purely on racially profiled principles in such an obvious fashion it was almost a parody of itself. The thing is, in that moment, possibly it was a case of instinctive self preservation kicking in but looking at the others detained alongside myself, me? I couldn’t help agree with the obvious stereotypical tactics that were appearing to be displayed by Homeland Security in the sense of who they had selected to be shacked up in this room with me. The room I would definitely describe as being top heavy with moustaches, more than you’d find in the Panini Mexico 86 World Cup sticker book if you’re looking for some kind of ballpark figure. Apart from sharing the room with what appeared to be the combined Portuguese and Iraqi 86 squads I was the only non-moustached detainee. Apart from me, there were several very upset, alarmed and very animated ladies, everyone had at least one baby with them, this room wasn’t a quiet one. There seemed to be chaos everywhere with me sitting there trying to take it all in while trying to come up with some tactic to get myself back OUT of this madhouse.

Detaining me though anyway? Well surely that was just a mistake, some clerical error made by an overworked agent at the end of a double shift? I certainly didn’t belong here. I should be down at baggage reclaim getting my crotch sniffed by a dog by now?

Haver a Nice Flight.

Well that’s what I’d liked it to have been, but sitting beside my fellow detainees only served to show me how serious things had got for me. I watched each one come and go after being called for questioning, the majority of them reappearing under guard and visibly none too chuffed with the news they’d been given that they weren’t being granted entry and were now heading home on the next plane out of there. It wasn’t the happiest of rooms I’ll give it that, but it was the most captivating of car crashes, you needed 6 pairs of eyes and ears to fully take in everything that was going on, it all started to give me a sore head in the end. Due to the different amount of foreign languages that were filling the air I had no real inside track on what was actually being said half the time, sometimes you don’t need to know the finer details like that, though to know what’s going on when a Middle Eastern man spits in an armed officer’s face then spits on the floor while guns are frantically raised in his direction. Something like that doesn’t necessarily require much in the way of subtitles.

My designated officer finally called out my name from behind his desk and off I went for round two. Before we even got down to things I was disturbed by an Arab lady accompanied by 3 screaming kids who had decided to stage a sit- down protest, Three border patrol officers who had different ideas rushed her out of the holding area and away to Allah knows where, probably not Disneyland or skiing in Aspen? Calm restored, the new officer and I got down to the second interrogation. This in itself was the stuff of Groundhog Day as it involved nothing more than the same line of questions the previous officer, Cardozo, had taken me through.

/Wolf Airport control.jNext I had to pull up my bank details and show how much money I had in my account to prove I could subsidise myself during my stay. At no point through this exchange was I ever given the remotest idea if it was going well or not. Was I getting in wasn’t I? OK, I’m not the best poker player in the world and never will be but I can still read a person and Officer Placente ( once again changed ) was on another level. Getting myself through the interview while still not having a reason for why I was there at all I was told to go back while he made a final decision on granting me entry. The look on his face? Now this was a man who took pride in his job, absolutely relished the daily decision of does he let someone who has flown thousands of miles to be sitting there in front of him into “ his “ country or not? The ability to make or break a day in the most dramatic of ways. The look on his face as he sent me back to sit amongst “ the others “ for a split second broke character as I saw a nano glimpse of a smile, a blink and you miss the moment. Even then, what did the smile mean though, really? I didn’t know if that was a good thing or a very, very BAD thing. If he’s in the mood to give someone a break, and thinking back I can’t even tell what “ break “ I was even looking for in the first place?. His smile was of a ‘ it’s cool, you’ll be out of here in minutes ‘ nature… then again, what if he was smiling because he knew I was going to be home before the postcards?

A long wait later, the majority of which me analyzing and over-analyzing the officer’s smile I’d noticed, to the moment I arrived at where I started to become confused if “ smile “ was even a word in the English language or merely something I’d made up on my own, I was eventually called back to sit with Officer Placente. After all that had gone before over the hours I’d been held since I touched down, the final scene was, well it was a bit of an anti climax if I’m being honest. No dramatic lines being delivered by me or the officer handling my case, no tension filled pauses where two sets of eyes meet and try to work out the other’s thoughts, nothing at all. Just a passport being stamped and me being told to enjoy my stay while in America?! And that was that, on your way, mind how you go and oh we’re sincerely not sorry for all the hours we have held you!

I felt I’d had a moment stolen from me, thought at the very least I’d be in for a patronising lecture being explained the reason, or reasons, for why all of this had happened only to be eventually told that I could get into the country which would, of course, leave me viewing a satisfactory conclusion, it couldn’t have been further from that. Passport stamped now fuck right off and next up?! Picking up my passport from the desk and still confused that after all the time I’d been there we hadn’t had at least some sort of a showdown before the decision. I mumbled to him about how next year I may try Grozny or Kabul, reasoning they’d possibly be more welcoming than him and his TSA boots but even then I was just posturing and he knew it. His response that he could just as easily call me back for further questioning which would involve latex gloves was posturing too, well I assumed it was anyway.

Land of the free they say though?

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