Monday, January 12, 2009

Another US citizen with repeated problems returning to the US

Last Friday I blogged about a travel writer's experience in requesting his travel files from the USA government. I also referred to the problems that many people encounter when returning to the US, because they are incorrectly listed on the US government's "watch lists", or they have names similar to those on the lists. Coincidentally, there was another article on this issue in yesterday's Dallas Morning News, reprinted from The Washington Post. Juan Fernando Gomez is a director in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region for Chemonics, a Washington-based international development consulting firm. He describes his feelings thus:

I call it the little room. In most cases it's actually not that small, but my claustrophobia seems to kick in as soon as the immigration officer separates me from the other passengers on my flight and escorts me through a door into my own private travel hell.....

.......The real terror begins when my toes touch the yellow line, where I wait to be called forward. Approaching the immigration officer before being summoned could make me appear too eager (and often earns me a stern reprimand). On the other hand, any hesitation could be interpreted as a sign that I'm afraid of facing the law. So I walk up to the officer and nonchalantly hand over my bright blue passport. Seconds feel like hours as he starts hitting the "page down" key on his computer, scanning screen after screen, periodically glancing at me and my passport. This is when I break out in a cold sweat, which makes the officer even more dubious. When he reaches for a yellow highlighter and marks my customs slip, I know I'm headed to the little room.

Mr. Gomez describes the delays and security checks that he must endure every time he enters the US. He understand why, to a degree:

My name is common in Latin America, the Spanish equivalent of John Smith. It also seems to be particularly popular among law-breakers. I once sneaked a peek at an immigration officer's computer and saw an entire screen full of my doppelgangers. Who knows how many of them were bad guys and how many were law-abiding saps like me?

It doesn't help that my travel habits are similar to those of people who actually belong on a watch list. I grew up in MedellĂ­n, Colombia, during the height of the Pablo Escobar drug wars and have worked for the better part of the past decade in some of the most dangerous places in the world. In countries such as Afghanistan and Colombia, I help farmers find legal, profitable and sustainable alternatives to growing coca and poppies, the raw material for cocaine and heroin. So I guess it's understandable that my passport -- packed with added pages and stamps marking my entry into and exit from countries such as Cambodia, Bolivia and Haiti -- raises eyebrows.

I realize that DHS needs to screen passengers, but does it really need to detain US citizens repeatedly?

For the full text of the article, click on the headline above.

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