(Un)welcome to the United States

Since 9/11 I've reentered the United States from travel abroad more than a dozen times. Each time, it is more unpleasant.

Many people I've met in other countries who have traveled to the US have remarked to me how difficult it is to get a visa to visit the US, and once they arrive, how unpleasant is is to be interrogated by the border agents.

This is how our entry into the US went yesterday. And we're American citizens who had just driven for two days across northern Ontario to get from New York to Michigan–the most direct route home to Minnesota.

After waiting in a line of cars for over half an hour on the Sault Ste. Marie bridge:

We hand our passports to the agent.

Where are you going? (Note: no “hello” or any other pleasant greeting.}

Where are you coming from?
Niagara Falls.

Why were you in Canada?
It's the shortest distance from New York to Minnesota.

Why the rental car?
We don't own a car.

What do you do?
We're retired.

What did you do before you retired?
We were publishers.

What are you bringing in from Canada?

Ok, you can go.

If they treat US citizens like this, imagine how a visitor feels when they enter our country. And, this is not an isolated incident. I would tell you about flying from Madrid to Miami in July, but you probably wouldn't believe it.

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35 thoughts on “(Un)welcome to the United States”

  1. Every time we checked into a hotel in India, they asked us how many days we’d be in the country, why we came, where we’d just come from, where we were going next, and in some cases, what we did for work. (Retired was definitely the best answer.) Then a little camera eye would pop up behind the desk and take our pictures.

  2. It is nuts.

    Travel and tourism is a huge part of the US economy and it is considered an export for accounting purposes.

    Just making it easier for people to travel to the US would be one of the easiest things we could do to help the economy….and we would actually spend less money.

    • Absolutely, Gary. I don’t think vigilance would be compromised by a smile and a modicum of courtesy. As it is, the first impression visitors get of our country is that we’re supercilious assholes, which we probably are, but we don’t have to be so damn obvious about it.

  3. Long before 9/11, the travel guide series Let’s Go offered a simple suggestion for dealing with U.S. Customs: Always get in the line with the officer who looks like Wilford Brimley. It was solid advice at the time. You could almost always find one such codger working at the major inspection stations, at least at the airports. As long you didn’t trigger his spidey sense, you could count on him waving you through. Those were the days.

    I seem to recall there were once guidelines that required CBP officers to welcome visitors to the United States and welcome residents home. I’ve heard the welcome a few times when returning home but not in the past several years. Perhaps CBP started sharing a charm school with the TSA.

  4. About 15 years ago, I returned from a month-long business trip to South America. At the time, I worked for Arthur Andersen which had a large professional development center in the Chicago suburbs. That alone brought thousands of employees from around the world into Chicago. I do recall being greeted with, “Welcome Home” by the Customs Agent. Perhaps he saw “Arthur Andersen” on so many passports and visas that he didn’t think I was suspicious. Maybe he would have reacted differently after Enron.

    When I drove across lower Ontario in 1977 – moving from Syracuse to St. Louis, I was fortunate to have easy-going Customs officers at both the Canadian and US entry points. My 1966 Ford Galaxie – a boat of a car – was packed so tightly that there was only enough room for me to sit in it. The Canadian agent questioned me about the contents – books, a black and white TV, a hi-fi record player, pots, pans, dishes, clothes, a guitar, a sewing machine – and then told me I was lucky to get her, and not one of the older male agents (Wilford Brimley types?) who would have made me unpack the car and pay a duty to guarantee that I wasn’t selling anything — as if it had value — while I was in Canada. When I got to Windsor, the US agent was amazed that I had been allowed into Canada.

    My only international travel since 9/11 has been from British Columbia into the US at Vancouver. I don’t recall any incidents, but it has been several years.

  5. No probs here in Cordoba! What a place to be.
    Re the border control. No different to us Aussies going UK in the 70’s & 80’s trying to get in on visitors visas and being interrogated about us maybe working there. How much money we had etc… Lucky I had partiality , no probs mate just slave away for 40 hours a week for £50.00 . To add insult to injury rent each week was £25.00. That left me £25.00 for food and tube fare, which was £15.00 a week. Now I know what monty python meant when they gestured ” we use to live in a shoebox and we were lucky”

  6. Sorry I didn’t see this sooner.

    My story:

    “Why were you in China?” asked the passport control officer, a woman with the appearance and disposition of a prison matron.

    “None of your business,” I said.

    Her eyes widened in disbelief.

    “Excuse me?” she asked.

    I.e. looking for trouble in the right place.

    • Dave, I’m not surprised. At the same time, I’m just going to answer their questions and get it over with as soon as possible. Especially when the answer is tourism, and no I’m not bringing anything back. As my father once said to me, “There’s really no percentage in arguing with people with a gun.” I might add, there’s also no percentage in arguing with someone who has no need to argue back with you but can detain you for as long as he likes.

  7. Even when I was in the Merchant Navy and we harboured in several ports in the Gulf and East coast it took around 5 hours to clear American customs
    Yet the strange thing was we traveled to Latvia,former USSR and it only took 1 hour to clear customs and Immigration
    That must surely tell you something
    I have for a long time considered the USA more paranoid,stemming from the Hoover days

  8. I lived in the US 1984/5 and travelled abroad a few times in that period. Each time I returned , I was routinely greeted by the passport control officer with “Welcome Back”. As I recall, back then US citizens didn’t need to go through passport control or it was superficial. There was no passport /customs control, if you were leaving the US. I haven’t been back since but I have been to other parts of the world. In most countries, the officials say nothing unless there is a problem. The friendliest officials I’ve met in recent times were in New Zealand, where ironically we did have a problem, because one of their sniffer dogs detected something in a bag. It turned out to be due to the previous presence of a ripe banana, which we had dumped (due to quarantine rules), but the bag still retained the odour. The officer was very pleasant throughout the proceedings and we all had a good laugh about the banana.

    • Howard, all I can say is 9/11 changed everything. What I don’t get though, is with all the computers and invasive date practices, that they can’t look at their computer screens and see I’ve been in and out of the US about 20 times in my life and so far I haven’t caused any problems except the occasional snotty comment in print about the Bush administration.

      • Tom, it just goes to show that it’s only great to have technology if you have humans that are smart enough or willing to use it. Everything I read about 9/11 indicates that the US government had collected all the data necessary to prevent it but didn’t have anyone smart enough to connect it. As a pilot I can tell you that landing is the great challenge and the first thing a pilot wants to do, when he gets familiar with a new plane type. I’d be very suspicious of anyone not wanting to practice landing. To quote pilot humor, takeoff is optional, landing is mandatory.

          • Tom, good article. Was there no comment from the instructors of the other hijackers or did they play their part better than Moussaoui? You can see the theme in the story – before 9/11 everyone, no matter how eccentric was innocent and nobody wanted to look into other possibilities. Now, everyone is treated like a criminal until proven otherwise. I’ve read that many people travelling from Europe to S America prefer to avoid routes via the USA, because even transit passengers are subject to unwelcome attention.

  9. That’s nothing, try going through the border in the UK as a permanent resident Aussie married to a Brit. I get that and some, eg; are you still married, how long have you been married for, where did you get married, why did you get married etc. My natural reaction is to point out that we have the same Queen as head of state where the non-English speaking EU mob walk in unchallenged. Makes it even sweeter when we smash them in the cricket!! If I get a real nasty one I’ll deliberately speak in the most obnoxious Aussie accent just to gee them up!

    • I sympathise. My wife gets similar treatment. Even to Brits, they’ve become more frosty. I travelled with my son to UK and his UK passport had expired. Rather than renew it in Australia at double the UK cost, he travelled on his Oz passport. UK immigration were at a bit of a loss and he was accused of travelling on an “invalid travel document” but they let us through.
      A friend in Oz is a UK citizen but travels on visits to UK on his Oz passport. I’m tempted to do the same, when my UK passport expires.

      • Yes, Howard, I’ve heard the Brits are not especially cordial toward Aussies, which seems so odd given their history. Maybe they think you’re all still convicts. Funny story though: an English friend of mine visited Australia a few years ago and was asked by the Aussie immigration agent if he’d ever been convicted of a felony. (My friend had neglected to tick the box on the immigration form.) My friend replied, “I didn’t realize it was still a requirement.”

  10. Anyone who thinks travelling across borders into America is difficult, needs to take a trip to Russia. If you are an American, not only do you need a Visa to visit Russia, but when you get there you have to register at the police or post office, and after you leave whoever you visited has to go back to the police or post office and fill out paperwork that you have left.

    • John, but we’re American citizens. And, with Global Entry Trusted Traveler status, which should show on his computer when he runs our passports. The point was more that it wouldn’t cost much to ask the agents to give a simple bit of courtesy to their own fellow countrymen. And, I think we’re still on relatively good terms with Canada, a country that’s not exactly known for breeding or encouraging terrorism. It wasn’t like we were coming in from Iran. Finally, try being an Hispanic person trying to enter the U.S. For a lot of them, the answer seems to be just “No,” not just you have to register, etc.

      • Tom, I understand your point of view, and I certainly don’t consider myself to be racially biased, but you have to admit there is an illegal immigrant problem in the US (probably much more around our Southern borders than Canada). It does anger me that illegal immigrants get benifits that my wife can’t get and she is a LEGAL immigrant.

  11. We’re American citizens living in the UK, and before we got UK citizenship my partner was asked, “Why do you have permanent leave to remain.”

    “Because the Home Office gave it to me,” she said.

    Which sounded better than “none of your business.”

    • Good one Ellen.
      The stupidity of the rising xenophobia in developed countries in particular is that tourism contributes to the economy and so does immigration, legal or not. Most developed countries could do with more immigration to support their ageing populations. Immigrants don’t take away jobs they create them, A friend from long ago once said to me “it’s easier to be a success in another country” and based on experience, he was absolutely right, so let’s all emigrate :-)

  12. Ellen and Howard, thanks for commenting. We were just in Sweden, and had a cab ride from an African immigrant who had been in the country for 20 years. His English was excellent (not that’s any different from most Swedes.) He said he’d come to Sweden to work, and cab driving was his “retirement” job. He said the Swedes welcome immigration, because they need someone to work to pay all the high taxes.

    • It’s similar in France and other mainland West European countries, despite efforts of media to hype the contrary. In France you meet some many different races living together in harmony. They have one thing in common. They all speak perfect French. It’s just taxes in France which take a big chunk of income but the social security charges. Still at the end of working life, there is a decent pension and the French do know how to enjoy their lives.

  13. When we returned from Germany this past summer, we were pulled for extra screening in Frankfurt simply because we were traveling to the States. Honestly, I felt like we were returning to a police state. There are many things I prefer about the U.S. above European countries, but every time we re-enter the country, I am reminded of the things I dislike about it.

  14. Good evening!

    Reading your essay and the comments made me realize why the Crosby-Nash song “Immigration Man”, from 1971, is so apt. I flew from Philadelphia, PA, to Spokane, WA in 2010 for a family reunion in Nelson, BC, Canada.. My aunt and uncle drove us from the airport to BC. On the return trip, after the usual questions, the (female) CBP agent said “Welcome Home”. I thought that was nice.

    • I don’t think there’s any doubt that, as a rule, Canadians are more courteous than Americans, especially when you’re talking about someone wearing a badge of some sort. That said, I did get a bit of a quizzing by the Canadian border agent when we drove into Canada on this trip. It started off with, “Didn’t you see that stop sign?” I’d run one just ahead of his booth. Oops, not a good start. He was forgiving however.

  15. Good morning (or afternoon or evening, whatever your case might be),

    Compared to the U.S. agent, the Canadian agent waved us in, like, “Come on in! We love Americans!”


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