Lost in transit at the US border

Gerard Hindmarsh's brush with United States border officials left was brutish and humiliating.

Gerard Hindmarsh's brush with United States border officials left was brutish and humiliating.

OPINION: One of my morning rituals along with my first coffee for the day is checking Grabaseat for any supercheap airfares going.

And I see our national airline is flat out these days offering discount fares to the United States.

Not that surprising they're having trouble getting bums on seats to there in light of a string of border horror stories from innocent travellers. Most high profile in early February was the case of 70-year-old Australian children's author Mem Fox, who was detained at Los Angeles Airport on her way to a conference.

Her humiliating and insulting interrogation in front of other detainees was the result she reckoned of the "turbocharged power" given to the border agents after an executive order signed by President Donald Trump.

"Travel is a foretaste of hell" goes an old Central Asian proverb, and I had to endure exactly that during a stopover in San Francisco a few years back.

"So where are you going?" bellowed the overweight border  official, snatching my passport.

"Dublin," I replied.

"Dublin, Ohio; Dublin, California; Dublin, Georgia; Dublin, Indiana; Dublin, New Hampshire; Dublin, Texas, Dublin, Virginia. Which god-damn Dublin you travelling to?"

It always amazes me the way Yanks think they are the world.

"The real one, Dublin in Ireland," I replied. But he wasn't listening. Something had come up on his screen, and he didn't look happy.

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Everyone else herded through transit was being directed left, but suddenly I was ordered right, down a short corridor that led into a room with more than a dozen people, all seated and looking decidedly nervous.

Apart from a tattooed skinhead and a couple of Asians who looked like they could belong to the 14K Triad, we were all pretty much a cross section of the travelling public.

Black shirted guards with gun filled holsters teetered around a desk "manned" by a mean-looking female security official who promptly took my passport without saying a word. When I tried to explain that I was only in transit, and that my plane would be leaving in one hour and five minutes exactly, her lip curled up.

"Sit down!" she said in a similar way to how I talk to my dog when he jumps up on me.

Over the next 15 minutes, she barked out short staccato orders to the others.

"Stop using that mobile phone immediately!'

"Come here now!" pointing to someone.

"You are now on American territory. Asking questions is not permitted!" 

No one was going anywhere fast. Already I had given up on my plane and I had a bad feeling in my gut.

Finally, a real mean looking bastard came out and shouted out my name. He led me to a small room and said "Sit" as he checked out my file on the computer.

"You've been denied entry to the US before," he finally said.

"No I haven't!"

"Yes you have, 36 years ago, our embassy in Wellington turned you down. We don't have the actual details, but we just know your status, and you ain't gonna be allowed in my friend." Some friend I thought!

Slowly I worked it out, I'd been granted a temporary visa when I was in my early twenties, but never used it. Under the War on Terror, a temporary visa given because of a minor offence involving "moral turpitude" (in my case having smoked the dreaded weed) struck me out for a non-immigrant Visa Waiver, required even to just go through transit.

"Looks like you're on the next plane back to New Zealand," was his final decision. I wondered if it was my karma for getting gleeful delight from watching the TV series Border Security.

Ushered into another office, I made a last ditch plea to the head honcho, who luckily turned out to be the friendliest bastard out of all the mean bastards I met that day.

He listened to my win-win suggestion to put me on the next plane out, which I actually had a ticket for, and I promised that I would never come back. Friendly bastard thought for a few seconds, then waved his pen, saying; "Let him go. Just don't come back you hear!"

Let go didn't quite mean let go though, rather it meant being marched along to be fingerprinted, get my iris scanned and mugshot taken. My Aer Lingus plane was due to leave in exactly 12 minutes.

One kilometre isn't that far to run, but in that huge terminal it seemed to go on forever – dragging my bag, hemmed in my people and through one last onerous security check at which I had to empty all my pockets and remove my shoes and belt.

Three times the airport PA system carried an announcement: "Would Gerard Hindmarsh please board at Gate 62, your plane to Dublin is about to leave without you."

I got there in the nick of time, sweating profusely from the rush. The waiting 747 was packed and my seat was in the second row from the very back. Everybody stared at me in silence as I walked down the isle.

My face was now sweating so profusely that I just couldn't help dripping on people as I went past, and a flight attendant had to come after me, handing out paper towels to those who I had perspired upon.

I still recall how one Japanese woman passenger shrieked in horror when she got wet. When I finally sat down, another Asian woman beside me pushed her "Hostess Help" button and asked if she could be moved.     

But I was beyond embarrassment. I was just utterly relieved to be leaving Transit USA. And no way was I ever going back.  

 - Stuff


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