New Orleans My streak started in Canada in the fall, had my family sitting on floors in Houston coming back from Costa Rica for an hour, and pretty much became predictable when I was held up 8 of 9 times for “secondary security,” as I reentered the country. Having started another streak where I’m 4 for 4 or maybe even 5 for 5 without delays, it may be safe to finally share the experience of life on the caution “list” maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.
First, I have to say in the main that many Customs officers were great. The only exception being at the Canadian border, but you figure. I think they are bored and just looking for action, but that’s another story. Mostly the officers were frank and forthcoming. Many would laugh and be more candid than I’m sure the rules allowed. Once they had my SSN, several said it was clear that I was not the person being hunted, but, shrug, sorry about that, you still have to go to secondary. Pretty much you have to be a prick to work there it seemed to me, but it is probably the same guys on a different rotation, and, hey, they are looking for trouble.
Many knew ACORN and were big admirers. One asked for my autograph. Another doing a very careful luggage inspection came on an old business card and asked if he could keep it. Being picked up in Buffalo by Judy Duncan from ACORN Canada, who had a similar experience, when asked to state her business, said she was going to pick me up and that we were with ACORN International, and said in the famous line she can now deliver flawlessly: “Ma’am, we know ACORN.”
Mainly it’s a main in the butt though, even if there are some laughs, and even if I do understand that the price of international travel is high alert.
But, life within the bureaucracy is perhaps more bizarre. All of my Custom’s buddies would give me a form and say that I should reach out and get it straightened out. Ok! So you go on-line, you do a PDF of your passport and state the problem, you get a number in case you die waiting, and then nothing whatsoever happens for months. Houston, where the Customs folks are the friendliest, would laugh because they could see I had made the appeal on their computer screens, but everyone knew there was no timeline.
Finally I got a letter from a Jim Kennedy with “Traveler Redress Inquiry Program.” The letter was the most classic piece of Orwellian doublespeak I have ever seen, because it said ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ONE WAY OR ANOTHER about my problem. In fact one could say that the only thing it said is how I could go back on the website and start my inquiry all over again. The only way I know that the letter had any importance is the fact that I have not been stopped since May 21st, the date of the letter.
Here are the guts of this letter so you can share the full opaqueness of such an official response:
“We have completed our review of this matter. I appreciate this opportunity to respond to your concerns.
“DHS makes every effort to process travelers in the most efficient and professional manner possible without compromising our primary mission of protecting our Nation’s borders. In an effort to remain ever-vigilant and safeguard the American public, our ports operate under intense conditions.
“While I understand that these inspections can sometimes seem time-intensive, the effective protection of our Nation’s borders depends upon the thoroughness of this process. It is not our intent to subject the traveling public to unwarranted scrutiny. Occasionally, however, DHS may inconvenience law-abiding persons in our efforts to detect, deter, and mitigate threats to our homeland caused by the few individuals who are involve in illicit activities. We are aware that this process may sometimes be stressful, but in such cases we rely on the patience, cooperation, and understanding of travelers to ensure the effective protection of our borders.
“When DHS receives inquires such as yours, we conduct a thorough review of the matter. In cases where it is determined that a change or correction of records is warranted, be assured that such changes or corrections are made. If you continue to have concerns during CBP processing, we recommend that you request to speak to a supervisor on-site.”
Etc. So the comfort is in the very indirect “be assured that such changes or corrections are made.” I now get to carry with me this dog eared letter just like the one from a New Orleans hospital saying I have to have knee surgery that I toted to four or five draft physicals in different cities in the Vietnam era.
It’s a relief to have relief though even with no understand of WTF, but I was left still wondering: what’s up with all of those hyphens?