So a little over a month ago I finally got my green card. So for the first time in 7 years of living in the US and periodically leaving it to visit my family, I wasn’t terrified that my visa documents wouldn’t be in order and I’d get denied entry and deported.
Predictably, this was the first time anything went seriously wrong with my entry process.
The trouble started when the passport officer asked me my occupation. I’d just had a really bad flight and a really long day, so I was very tired, and instead of saying “web developer”, like it says on my various immigration forms, I instead said “software developer”. Of course, you and I know that the latter is just a general form of the former, but
somebody whose educational attainments have qualified them to sit behind a desk stamping passports* he doesn’t. He just knew that my answer wasn’t exactly the same. So then he asked the incredibly subtle trick question “why were you arrested?” (I’ve never been arrested), and I knew I was screwed. “We’re gonna have to finish this on the other computer, make sure you are who you say you are” he says. “Hang on to this,” he says, handing back my precious green card, but he keeps my passport. “Stand over there and wait,” he says, pointing to the wall.
A minute later, a big guy with a gun strapped to his waist turns up and collects my passport, and motions for me to follow him. We go through two big, thick, steel doors that open by scanning his fingerprint, and I find myself in a room with a hundred other tired, confused immigrants. “Take a seat and wait here,” my companion says. He takes my passport into a room marked “Forensic lab”, then he leaves. I surmise that they think my passport is fake, but nobody says so explicitly.
There aren’t any seats to take, anyway. The long, narrow room has maybe a hundred chairs in it, but there are already 200 people in here, standing against the walls and in the corridors. They look like they’ve been here a while.
This is my nightmare. I’m a pretty nervous immigrant at the best of times — I check my wallet for the existence of my green card every couple of hours, I worry about every detail of every form. And now I’ve done something wrong, they think I’m a criminal, they’ve taken my passport away and they’ve locked me in a big scary room. I am freaking out.
I want to call my friends who are coming to pick me up at the airport to say I might be late, but there are big signs on the walls saying cellphones aren’t allowed. A couple people try, and get brusquely told to turn off their phones, or have them confiscated. So I go to the bathroom and send a text message from there: “Immigration issues. This could take hours.”
For the next 3 hours nothing else happens to me. Another hundred people are brought into the room, one by one. There are 7 desks for processing, but only 3 of them are manned — apparently it takes more than a backlog of several hundred people to justify a full staff — but the three who are present aren’t in any hurry, anyway. They keep taking breaks to crack off-color jokes about each other’s sex lives, and moan about how hard they’re having to work tonight.
When people’s names are called, most of the time they’re told to go — though go where is uncertain, since anybody who had a connecting flight has missed it, and nobody is around to tell us what to do about that. A couple people are told they’ve been denied entry, and are sent to another desk, presumably to be processed for deportation. One guy is read his rights, handcuffed, and hauled away. This is not helping me calm down.
There’s a water fountain in the room, and a soda machine, and a snack machine. There’s even a TV on the room, tuned to CNN. First it’s Piers Morgan, being irritating. Then Sanjay Gupta comes on, talking about how the biggest factor in American mortality rates is stress. I try to take deep breaths.
Finally my name is called. The officer asks my occupation again — I get it exactly right this time — and then a couple of questions about my visa history. My passport is legitimate, and so is the green card, so I’m free to go. “Welcome back to America,” he says, without any trace of irony.
"What went wrong?" I ask. "Is there anything I can do to prevent this happening again?" He seems sympathetic, but is unhelpful: "Well, there’s two systems. If it’s the first one, there’s a problem and we’re trying to fix it. If it’s USCIS that’s got screwed up, there’s nothing we can do." So as far as I know, this is going to happen every time I come back.
This is the experience of immigration in America, when your papers are in order and everything is fine, when every politician says that skilled immigrants are vital to the future of the country. Pointless, wasteful bureaucracy, with a big dose of humiliation thrown in for good measure.
Welcome back to America, indeed.
P.S. This post is getting quite a lot of discussion on Hacker News. Thanks to @craig_montuori for pointing me to PolitiHacks and The Immigrant Exodus, which documents entrepreneurs and other skilled workers who are leaving the United States because of bad immigration policies.
* Struck out for being needlessly rude and inflammatory.