Saturday, March 05, 2005

Coming To America

I’m into the last fortnight (that equals two weeks) of my current stay here in America so it’ll soon be time to negotiate all the airport security procedures again in a fashion that gets me to the departure gate seconds before the plane is due to take off. Having said that, leaving the country is infinitely more stress-free than arriving so for those of you planning a trip here for the first time this summer, here’s a little something of what I went through back in January.

Negotiating admittance into the United States is an experience that never fails to turn me into a quivering wreck, full of unexplainable guilt and involuntary bowel movements. Post 9/11, the tension seems to have been cranked up considerably as machine readable passports are now a must together with the requirement to have sample fingerprints and photographs taken.

For me though, the trauma always begins on the plane when the ever-patient cabin crew circulate through the aisles distributing visa and customs forms that must be completed in readiness for the immigration interview.

Two forms are usually required by visitors arriving on holiday which will allow them up to 90 days in the States. The first is Form RUSMUGGLIN/DIAL911/Subsec-Betamax, a fairly straightforward Customs query asking if you’re bringing in any perishable goods/raw meat/livestock/class A drugs etc. Ticking “No” to most questions is the way to go here, unless you wish to declare your pet or your haggis.

The second form is Visa Waiver Form I-94WHOTHEHELLRU/Para(ia)-ECHO9ER and this is where the trouble starts. Despite having helpful boxes for each character of your name, address, passport number etc., you will inevitably write your date of birth in the wrong section or in the wrong format. After pestering the cabin crew for a replacement form, you’ll be concentrating so hard on using capital letters or not going over the lines with your pen (blue or black only), that you’ll completely forget how to spell your own name.

As you congratulate yourself on successfully completing your personal details on a third form, you realise that your neighbour is now filling in the reverse side. Here, a series of probing questions are listed, designed to check your eligibility for entry but instead, end up making you feel like you really don’t get out enough.

Have you ever sold drugs, been arrested, been a prostitute or procurer of prostitutes?” Arrested? Nope!

Have you ever participated in persecutions directed by the Nazi government of Germany; or have you ever participated in genocide?” Nope! But would I really tick “Yes” if I had?

Do you seek to enter the United States to engage in export control violations, subversive or terrorist activities, or any other unlawful purpose?” Ah now, good question but because they omitted a “well-you-see-it’s-a-bit-like-this” box, I just ticked “No” and started to prepare for the interrogation on landing.

Inching my way forward in the queue towards the robust-looking Immigration Official, I tried desperately to think of the most appropriate demeanor and attitude to make the inquisition as smooth as possible.

Right Neil, be cool. Informative but not too chatty. Smile but don’t try and tell any jokes. Avoid twitching, rapid gum chewing or suggestive winking. And whatever you do, don’t mention the fact that you’re in America to become an au pair to a friend who has two young sons and is going to slip you some cash-in-hand dollars every week.”

Eventually I was given permission to cross the line in the carpet and approach Roberta, my official interviewer. I swaggered forward in a manner that was meant to exude James Bond-like poise but instead, managed a passable impression of Mr. Bean on speed.

Roberta flicked through my passport and without looking up or changing expression asked, “So, Neil Sutherland? Any relation to Kiefer or Donald?”

I grinned inanely and shook my head not certain whether this was a genuine attempt at affability or a trick question. I knew her next query was going to be, “Are you here for business or pleasure?” and I had my one word answer all prepared when she threw me yet another verbal curve ball.

So what’s the purpose of your visit to the United States?”

Instantly losing the ability to construct a coherent sentence, I transformed into Yoda and mumbled something like “stopover brief friend help out writing holiday I am thanks.” Roberta frowned quizzically, clearly mesmerised by my charming accent and completed the remainder of her form-checking and passport-stamping without any additional flurry.

And I emerged shaking into the Miami sunshine ready to hide from the law, sip an overpriced coffee and take up smoking again.


At 5/3/05 6:49 pm, Blogger ropedncr said...

hilarious! have a safe trip. will you keep bloging when you get home?

At 10/3/05 9:39 am, Blogger DC said...


Is Roberta typical of US Immigration officials? If so,after your performance & still allowing you in , well God Bless America indeed !

Our experience at the US/Canadian border went a little like - "Sure we'll let you in to Canada - but don't expect to get back into the States - have an nice day now "


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