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At JFK

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I travelled to Egypt two weeks ago and arrived home at JFK on Saturday, 28 January, around noon. I am from Iran and have been a US citizen since 2015. Last summer, returning from Europe, the electronic passport machine let me straight through. This time however the machine didn’t let me through and I had to stand in line to see a Customs and Border Protection officer. For the fifteen minutes I was waiting, I didn’t see a single white person among us. The line of US citizens denied automatic entry were all, without exception, black and brown people who predominantly seemed Muslim. In front of me was a Muslim Indian man who had lived in the US for over ten years. Behind me was a Muslim Sudanese-American woman who was back from visiting her family in Sudan.

When I got to the front of the queue, the officer told me the passport number they had in their records matched an old passport I had lost and their records were not updated with my new passport number. Therefore the passport I was travelling on was not valid. He admitted that it could be an error on their side, but I had to go for a secondary evaluation regardless. He handed my passport to another officer who accompanied me into a room packed with travellers who hadn’t been granted entry.

Everyone had had their documents taken away. A family from Saudi Arabia, a group of Indians and a Turkish woman were all nervously waiting to be called. An elderly Iranian couple who had arrived four hours earlier with their green cards were still waiting to be called. There was no bathroom. Most people did not have a US cellphone and had no way to tell the people waiting to meet them that they had arrived but were being held at passport control. Those who did have cellphones were reading the news about President Trump’s executive order banning the citizens of seven Muslim majority countries from entering the US.

I was called forward after a short wait. The officer asked me where I lived, who I lived with and what my profession was. I’ve never been asked anything like that by an immigration officer before. He also asked why I had travelled to Egypt and where I stayed. He didn’t write down any of my answers. The questioning seemed to be mostly a display of authority and intimidation. Eventually he let me through. I asked him if I could take messages from the people still waiting to be interviewed to the people who’d come to meet them, but he wouldn’t allow me back into the room.

There was a large crowd of people waiting to meet their friends and relatives in the arrivals hall. Some of them had been there for hours. The airport staff couldn’t answer any questions. The uncertainty and chaos only added to the general nervousness. Nobody could do anything other than wait. The protests started a few hours later.

The scene at JFK yesterday was unlike anything I had seen before in the US. For the first time in many years, I was reminded of my childhood in Iran, when the intelligence services would knock on doors, enter people’s houses and ask random questions. The America I came back to yesterday doesn’t feel like the country I left two weeks ago.

Comments

  1. Graucho says:

    At some point the penny will drop that Mr T. and his entourage actually get off on all the protests and furor they create, like badly behaved teenage delinquents. Something Mr. T. has been for a long, long time. In a previous column I opined that voting the Republicans out at the mid-term elections was the only effective protest and got the usual pooh-poohs about the irrelevance of voting. Well the political right has never underestimated its relevance which is why Mr. T. is in the White House and Mrs. C. is not.

    • JamesBaldwin says:

      They may well get off on the protests, but that doesn’t mean the protests aren’t effective, as you seem to imply (correct me if I’m wrong!) Continual protest highlights the injustice in Trump’s orders, and extended periods of civil disorder will undermine any president’s authority and legitimacy. Trump starts his tenure as one of the most unpopular incoming Presidents in history (perhaps the most unpopular?) Most Americans didn’t vote for him, and many of his voters didn’t particularly like him. His base of genuine support is quite small. Protest can chip away at this and turn many of his reluctant voters against him.

      Moreover, protest is not separate from electoral politics. The Republicans’ success in the 2010 and 2012 congressional elections came after the Tea Party protests. The Tea Party helped energize activists and channel discontent, which is crucial to winning elections.

      • Graucho says:

        I sincerely hope that you are right.

      • michael bosley says:

        To echo JamesBaldwin’s comment:

        Popular protest is not usually aimed primarily at changing the mind of a single individual, however powerful.

        People are marching, rallying, and the rest with more than one audience in mind. They are showing Trump’s fair-weather supporters that there might be cost to supporting him. They are sending a message of solidarity to the people Trump is trying to isolate and frighten. They are reassuring themselves and each other that there IS resistance and that they don’t need to hide away and hope nothing too bad happens until the next time the ballot boxes open.

        More power to them.

  2. Graucho says:

    There is one question to ask Mr. T. or any of the muppets that get put up to support this executive order. “Why have travelers from Saudi Arabia not been banned ?”. Keep asking it again and again until the message gets through that this man is far more interested in protecting his business interests than protecting the U.S.A.

    • Joshua K says:

      The glaring exemption of Saudi nationals defeats the object of Trump’s ban on its own terms. But I’d be more interested in hearing why the BBC decided not to highlight the anomaly amid its blanket coverage of Trump’s ban.

  3. tigerwiles says:

    It is striking that none of the top four Muslim-majority nations (in order: Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Egypt) are on the list, despite them all having active Salafist terror groups, nor is Saudi Arabia, which contributed most of the 9/11 team. The ban is clearly a political gesture; it has Steve Bannon’s fingerprints all over it.

    • tigerwiles says:

      The cynic in me thinks that the protesters at the airports are just playing a part in Steve Bannon’s political theatre: he offered them the bait and they went for it.


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