Welcome to America, Scumbag

Bruce Bawer, an American who lives in Norway with his domestic partner, adds to the litany of European complaints about the US customs service:

Every one of my closest friends here in Oslo has had at least one unpleasant experience at US passport control. One of them, a musician who has twice won the Norwegian equivalent of the Grammys and who is an entirely civilized and presentable person, was once asked by an immigration officer: ”What drugs are you taking? When was the last time you were in prison?” I’ve lost track of the number of Europeans whose most disagreeable memories of the US are of their treatment by these people. I spend a lot of time defending America from unfair criticism by Europeans, but this situation is indefensible.

I’ve lost track too.  High-handed, insulting behavior by U.S. customs officials has enraged thousands, if not millions, of law-abiding Europeans in the past few years (not to mention the non-Europeans).  The experience fills the visitor with impotent rage, and permanently stains their image of the U.S.  I think the problem is this: (1) poorly-educated, provincial U.S. customs officials guards unable to tell who might be a real threat and unable (or unwilling) to grasp how their behavior will strike  foreign visitors; plus (2) a sense of danger and enhanced authority coming from the fact that they’ve probably been told hundreds of times that they’re the "front line of defense" against foreign terrorists.

5 thoughts on “Welcome to America, Scumbag

  1. I must say that I have never had any such experience, although 4 visits to the US since 9/11 may not be enough of a empirical basis here. Each time, immigration and customs officials were reasonably polite and respectful, probably more so than officials I’ve met on most other borders. Some behavior strikes me as a bit odd, though: Like asking if you have a written invitation to the conference you are attending – and then letting you pass without any further questions when you say simply “no” (happened both my wife and myself). But that’s hardly a reason to complain. (And nowhere near as funny as those forms that ask you if you are a Nazi, terrorist, war criminal, drug-trafficker, or whatever.)
    Having said all that, racial profiling does occur. A friend of Turkish origin, born in Germany and a naturalized German citizen, who travels to the US a lot on business, is getting “grilled” every time about why he has a Syrian immigration stamp from a couple of years ago in his passport. This has never happened to his wife, my wife or myself, although we have the same stamp. But then we’re all blonds. 😉
    One final comment about Bruce Bawer’s story (the part not quoted ). I can certainly understand his frustration about that officer’s unfriendliness, but on a factual level she was right. They were obviously asking about family members recognized under US, and not Norwegian law – period. Also, if he was so sure about his partner’s status, they should have been in the same line. Calling him a family member on the form and then standing in a different line simply isn’t consistent. This is not to excuse any rude, homophobic behavior, of course. But that’s just not the same kind of unfair discrimination others complained about.


  2. “Also, if he was so sure about his partner’s status, they should have been in the same line. Calling him a family member on the form and then standing in a different line simply isn’t consistent.”

    Why so, when there is one line for US citizens and one line for not-US citizens? Is it really such an inconceivable and inconsistent situation that family members have different citizenships?


  3. hm. It has been ages since I last traveled to the US (March 1994, I think). From what I remember, customs officers would give tourists pouring in at the gates the occasional stern look and now and then ask slightly uncomfortable questions, but all in all, I don’t recall any bad experiences with them. I was just another faceless tourist who very obviously didn’t pose any security threat whatsoever, especially not with a nine-hour flight just behind me and three hours of sleep the night before… so they just waved me through after a quick browse through my passport.

    Things really must have changed. But still being just your average law-abiding German tourist, I am not worried I will ever really run into any serious trouble on my next trip to the US. Ask me what you want, I never did a bad thing in my life, and if you feel you have to ask me about my (non-existent) drug use habits to establish that fact, so be it.


  4. I’m not sure it ever was pleasant dealing eith the INS but things seem to have taken a dive post 9/11. 9/11 has made the US a more suspicious contry, but is it any wonder? Many of the people who flew those planes came from our good friends in Europe, or at least were harbored there with nobody the wiser.

    Add to that the endless moaning and bitching from points trans-Atlantic – it seems about everything, but about the INS in particular. It’s enough to give an official a ‘tude!

    There is really no excuse for many of the stories we hear, but some of it makes a kind of sense. The German of Turkish origin is probably going to have to endure scrutiny until he changes his passport.

    Why? Because while it makes no sense, in this case, being concerned about a Turk who has visited Syria recently (or Afghanistan, or Iran, or Pakistan) makes some sense. People go to those places for innocent reasons and for less innocent reasons. A bit of grilling is only to be expected even if it’s ‘racial profiling’ and therefore not to be tolerated.

    Well, sorry. But the demographics of terrorism are pretty obvious in the modern age, and muslims with a trail leading to certain places ring bells.


  5. Dulles Airport. And we were Americans. The personnel acted as they were in a chronic state of emergency that called for fear and panic on all our parts. The man in front of me said of one of the workers, “He can’t help it. He’s an asshole.” Then he looked around nervously. I gave him a big smile and then we both laughed.


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