The queue snaked around the cavernous hall, following the serpentine path cordoned off to keep the crowds in an ordered line. Every now and then we shuffled forward a few paces and then stopped again. The clock ticked slowly. A television screen repeated a “Welcome to America” video. I looked down at the four passports in my hand: two blue, two maroon. My daughter and I, US citizens, were waiting in the entry queue with my wife and her mother, both Irish.
In front and behind us stood hundreds of visitors to the US: a family from Italy, an older couple from Germany, a group of young travelers from Brazil, a large group from Korea, a family from Lebanon, etc. The English flight crew from a British Airways flight waited in a separate queue. All of us were waiting on one immigration official. The clock ticked slowly.
I looked down the hall. There were over 40 counters. One was staffed in the visitors section. Six were staffed in the citizens section. Two large groups of citizens and permanent residents came through the hall and were processed while we waited.
After an hour and a half, the attendant personnel started sending visitors to the citizens section, as there were no more citizens coming through the hall. Our queue started moving faster and my family was eventually standing in front of an immigration officer. He looked at our two US passports briefly and then moved to the two Irish ones. He ignored the ESTA pre-approval printouts we had and asked my wife to put her hand on the fingerprint scanner. He barked at her when she moved her hand away, thinking her prints had been read: “Don’t move until I tell you to!” He then read her prints and then asked her to look into the camera. A minute after, my wife politely asked if he had done with her prints. He then asked my mother-in-law to come to the front. He scolded her for having dry fingertips which couldn’t be read by the scanner. He offered no assistance to her or gave her anything other than curt orders.
Two hours after entering the hall, we left and entered America. My mother-in-law asked if her expression had given away what she thought of the whole experience. We were all pretty fed up at the unpleasant experience and compared it to the welcome we’d received in other countries during our travels. We were white, English-speaking, Christian and half of us were US citizens. If our experience was that unpleasant, what must it be like for different groups?
The immigration officials are responsible for US border control, but they are also the first experience visitors get of the country. Wouldn’t it be good for America’s reputation if they presented a friendlier face and treated visitors like guests rather than criminals?
Sigh. God bless America…