Thursday, 10 April 2008

No Guns, No Drugs and Not a Terrorist

It can be a bit of a gruff experience trying to enter the United States as a tourist, and there’s one thing certain on arrival at New York’s JFK airport – a surly welcome awaits the visitor.

And unless you’ve been lucky enough to make it off the ‘plane at double-quick speed, the chances are the first sight of the good old US of A will be from the back of a mighty queue agonisingly snaking its way back from passport control.

There’s no chance of line hopping. This is democracy at its most intense. Everyone seems to be a potential alien and is treated with the same suspicion. Young, very young, old, very old and of course all those in between, patiently awaiting their turn.

Odd really for a country that prides itself as a cultural melting pot and service at a speed. Somehow rather than greeting holidaymakers with outstretched arms, the US seems to have gone to the other extreme and it’s easy for the infrequent traveller to feel unwanted or even guilty for no reason whatsoever.

Without doubt September 11 has left its mark – not that immigration and customs was a cakewalk beforehand. Now however, there’s a tinge of the slightly offensive - at least to continental Europeans used to having their individual rights enshrined in data protection laws - all in the name of Homeland security.

The procedure is fairly straightforward, but be warned, these guys are not ones to be messed with. Clearly one prerequisite for becoming an immigration official is to have a low humour threshold.

Not even a winsome smile or tapping into the charm factor can raise the glimmer of good intent from these guys. They are serious with a capital “S”, so it’s best to say as little as possible and follow the posted instructions to the letter.

“Left index finger on the digital fingerprint screening pad, followed by right index finger. Look into the camera and don’t smile too hard. And when asked the purpose of your trip, don’t even think about a clever reply.”

And woe betides if there’s an error on the visa waiver application form or the customs declaration. No mistakes, no crossed-out corrections – otherwise it’ll simply be rejected; no questions asked no appeals accepted.

Everyone has been forewarned before disembarking from the ‘plane and there have been several chances to check and double check just in case.

All these regulations certainly made the news when they were introduced, but it has been fairly easy to dismiss them as just another daft US idea - along with the constitutional right to own a firearm, which is basically just unfathomable to most the other side of the Atlantic.

But when confronted with them for the first time, the realisation hits home as to just how seriously they’re being taken here.

While getting in to the States might require a struggle with patience, leaving is in wonderful contrast made so much easier.

Is the traveller being told something here or is that just paranoia setting in? But there was just a tad too much pleasure from the ground staff as they checked passports and boarding passes. Smiles all round and a delightful “Y’all have a good day” send-off.

Of course the security strip-off check is a bit of a palaver – no shoes, no belt and laptop, coat and carry-on all shoved through the scanner. Then with trousers making their own way southwards, it’s a hasty stagger through to the other side.

When all is said and done, even though the security checks – especially on arrival - might be a real pain and not an entirely pleasurable experience to say the very least, there is a point to them. And this is one visitor at least, who’ll bite his lip and patiently wait in line next time around.

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