US Border Control: Where is the Middle Ground?

One of the benefits of living in a foreign country, besides the striking people and homemade dishes, is being able to display around-the-clock affection for your home country. Not that expats plunge onward in blind patriotism, in fact, it is the opposite. Many of us are aware of our country’s, dare I say, shortcomings, but choose to love her anyway. In my on-going effort to maintain my Americanism, I find I celebrate American holidays, such as the one today, a tad bit more than I would, even if I was in the states.

“In America… ” is a running joke in our house and you should hear Peppe try to mimic my southeast Texas twang when he repeats it. He is patient and understanding in allowing me to say what I want to about his country, no matter how harsh it might be, while defending my own with a, “In America we….”

Our latest conversation regarded the well-known Murder in Perugia, where American student Amanda Knox can legally be held up to one year without being charged for a crime. In America it is 48 hours.

Our debate flowed into discussion of the not-so-well-known incarceration of Catanzaro-native, Domenico Salerno. According to multiple reports, Salerno has made frequent visits to the Washington DC area where his American girlfriend lives. This apparently triggered an alarm for the border agent, who has full discretion regarding who can enter the US, and Salerno was stopped and questioned. There was some confusion regarding asylum, which the non-English speaking Salerno denied, and authorities later admitted was a mistake. However, Salerno was held for 10 DAYS in a Virginia jail.

According to Angelica De Cima, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection who spoke with the NY Times, there are more than 60 reasons a border agent can find someone inadmissible to the United States, including a hunch the person plans to work. A hunch. Are you kidding me?

She continued to say that because these “arriving aliens” are not considered to be in the United States, even when they are in custody, they have none of the legal rights even illegal immigrants have.

This case is disturbing to me for so many reasons, but admittedly the core of my issue with this concerns my Italian husband and his numerous entries into the US. Peppe and I had a four-year long distance relationship. He visited America – a lot!

Upon recalling the many times both of us have flown into new countries and/or returned to our own, we came to a startling and alarming conclusion. No country we have ever visited hassles foreigners like the US does.

Standard questions are expected, although here is a brief rundown of some of Pep’s own experiences entering the United States.

>> In 2002, Peppe planned to visit me in Texas for three months (as to not out-stay the 90-day legal visa waiver allowance). Upon entering the Atlanta airport, we were stalled for an hour while agents questioned Peppe about the nature of his extended-stay trip. They called me into the room and questioned me about the length of time I’d known him, what his father did for a living, what my father did and how much cash he was carrying. We were not allowed to make a phone call to my mother in Texas to inform her we missed our connecting flight. It was embarrassing.

>> In 2003, he was extensively searched before he entered the plane to return to Italy. At check-in, officers dumped his suitcases and had him refill them. I should add this was at the end of summer, when he had a very nice tan.

>> In 2007, Peppe flew to the states for our wedding. In the middle of “this” trip, he and I took a honeymoon vacation to Belize. He failed to carry his return ticket to Italy with him, since he would be returning to Texas for three days before his flight. He was held for over two hours, despite the fact he could point border guards to the exact website where his return ticket could be found. In his nearly-perfect English, he explained the situation, yet was asked repeatedly if he was from Mexico.

Possibly his worst mistake came when the border agent asked, yet again, if he was Mexican.

“No,” Pep replied. “As you can see from the passport you are holding, I am Italian.”

Well, a man can only take so much.

They eventually searched his wallet and questioned his Esso Rewards Card.

“What is this?” The man asked, holding up the wallet-sized card.

“We say “Esso” in Italian. You call it Exxon. It is a gas card.”

“Ah, ok then. You can go.”

I have flown into numerous countries in North America and Europe and have always felt welcomed by border agents. In fact, most of the time I feel welcomed by US agents when I reenter my country. All but one US guard in my recent memory, has joked with me, told me not to drink too much limoncello, or congratulated me on my engagement. Why can’t they extend that same courtesy to our visitors? Why do they greet me like a friend, but greet Peppe and other tourists with a snarly and distrusting attitude? I just want to know why. Yes, we want to be safe, but so does Germany, France, Italy, England, and Canada… just a few of the countries I’ve entered without being humiliated or mistreated. There has to be a middle ground. They just need to find it.

What have been your experiences with border control, both in the US and abroad? Has anyone you know been treated unfairly? What do you think of this?

22 Responses
  1. What a shame you had such trouble. I usually don’t have any trouble, but I’ve found that that boarder guards have no sense of humor. None – try to get one to smile – not a good idea.

  2. As I’ve told you, Cherrye, one Italian friend of mine was turned away from the US and had his visa canceled at Border Control b/c they felt like it; he was threatened with being expelled from the US for five years if he even tried to fight it (and of course wasn’t allowed to call anyone during his 2 days he was held there). Mah.

    The most disturbing part to this for me is that I really, truly don’t feel the US is any safer for all of these measures. The problem, to me, is enforcing (read: not continually passing new ones) immigration rules once people are inside the country–many of the 9/11 guys had entered the US legally but then overstayed the legal time permitted.

  3. I’ve been lucky, Nadine, and I always approach them with a positive attitude and a smile. I start chatting. It is upsetting to me how Pep has been treated.

    Michelle – I didnt realize your friend was held for 2 days. It upsets me the loop hole they’ve created where these people “aren’t really in the US, so they have no rights.” There is something wrong with that.

    As we also discussed, anyone can enter with a roundtrip ticket. They don’t HAVE to use it. That rule doesn’t help anything!

  4. Fortunately when my husband and I went to the US in the fall he had no problems with border control…it was ME that was interrogated, patted down and questioned for so long that we nearly missed our connection. Plus they made my husband leave the area and it was his first time in the states and had no idea what was going on or where to go. I was appalled at the way they treated me, a tax paying (for life!!) citizen. They asked me everything from why I chose to live in Italy, how I met my husband and a complete itinerary for our trip. He was extremely rude and condescending. I am totally ok with “random” screenings, but being a jerk is unnecessary. He even had the balls to ask me what my family thought of me marrying an Italian. WTF?! He finally let me go and I was so outraged-I’m NEVER flying into NY again after that, though I am sure this thing happens everywhere. UGH!

  5. Alisa

    I almost always get harrassed when trying to get back into the US. I hate it! All of my international travel is for work, and since I apparently look young or whatever, they don’t believe that I’m a professor. It’s ridiculous! I haven’t had quite what you and Pep have gone through, but it’s never been a smooth return, either. It’s so annoying!

  6. j

    We’ve been back and forth through Canada many times without a problem on either side, just the usual questions at customs. In fact, when my kids were little they called customs “questions”…as in “do we have to go through questions daddy?” But I had a scary experience in Mexico once involving a search by the Federales.

    Someone I know was crossing the boarder from Canada into the US and the customs official asked him where he was coming from. He answered, “Canada.” I’m not sure such humor is wise, but I agree, hassles at the boarder are absurd.

    I’m going to eat burghers now…enjoy the day!

  7. Oh, Jessica, that is horrible! Just horrible. I don’t know why it is any of their business if your parents like your husband or not. Jeez!

    Ha, ha, funny J. I’m not sure humor, or sarcasm, like Pep’s is wanted. LOVE the “questions” comment from your kiddos. I might start using that one, too!

    I’m sorry to hear that Alisa. That is so strange. No one bothers you when you arrive in the new countries, though, huh??

  8. Sally

    Just because someone is a customs agent, doesn’t mean they are culturally aware or even have travelled. I see more racism, sexism and discrimination today, particularly in younger people (20 somethings), than when I was in high school. It is just less blatant and more sophisticated to avoid litigation. And, now the excuse/reason/cloak is national security. I really dislike “redneck” mentality but this sentiment seems to be “in” at the moment and unfortunately, with American men of all age groups (They are ignorant and proud of it). Sadly, I am surrounded by it in the Central Valley.

  9. I’ve flown in & out of US (NYC to be exact) hundreds of times and have never had any problems, neither have my Italian guests.
    I’ve dealt with a few rude customs officers in Italy but nothing tragic. I think for us Americans it’s easy to come into Italy without being harassed because we’re American. I have a Russian and Japanese friend who live in Rome and have had hellish experiences at Fiumicino. We Americans are the “lucky foreigners who get waved through, but it’s not that way for everyone.
    That said, I think it really just depends on the customs officer you get- some are jerks, some aren’t, I don’t think it has anything to do with nationality or location.

  10. Um, shhh…but I totally overstayed the 90 days I was allowed in Italy. By a month. Not a single person in Italy nor the US questioned me. It really does pay to be a female traveling alone and looking very unassuming (little do they know…) 😉

    Paolo has yet to have a problem (knock on wood, he arrives on Saturday). But my ex who is from Trinidad would be stopped every time. And he had a green card! I’ve spent many hours waiting as I breezed through customs while he got interrogated. But, truthfully, I think it made me more mad than it made him. Sadly, it’s just a reality for foreigners entering the US.

  11. Great post, Cherrye, you raise some good questions/issues. I’ve never been hassled coming into the US, but I feel like apologizing to foreigners visiting the US these days whenever I go into the US-passport-holders line and watch all the other people in the exceedingly long “foreigners” line, the one that’s complete with fingerprinting machine and eye-scanners. I know this isn’t usually true, but I feel like if we treat people like criminals to begin with, they’re just going to prove us right at some point (if for no other reason than spite). I dearly hope that a change in administration this year will at least begin a healing process between us and the rest of the world, but I’m not holding my breath that even that kind of thing would trickle down to the TSA anytime soon.

  12. Rachele

    I was traveling back to Chicago with my fiance and our good friend(both Italian), my fiance was not stopped, but our friend that has (what americans consider your classic looking italian) with the dark hair, eyes and olive skin was stopped, questioned, couldn’t speak English…it was the worst. They thought he was south American. They were so rude!!! I told him “Benvenuti in America!”

  13. Oh, Sally. I know what you mean. Sometimes you just want to say, “ARE YOU FOR REAL!?!”

    Romerican – interesting point about it being easier for Americans. I always try to remember the border agents are just people, too and be friendly to them when I see them. A smile goes a long way!

    In London, Alisa?? Yikes!

    Ha ha, you are busted now, Maggie! I hope everything is ok when Paolo J Fox enters the US on Sat! (Ahhh, I *loved* that post!)

    I know what you mean, Jessica. Foreign people entering the US are treated so suspiciously. I hope you are right about your predicitions, and I hope it trickles down to the TSA sooner than we hope.

    Rachele – I am pretty sure Pep had so much trouble last time because they thought he was from Mexico. Our flight arrived at the same time as one from Monterrey.

  14. I agree with Romerican. I have never had a problem other than sometimes they will search my carry on because something looks weird on the x-ray (like a candle) but are very nice about it.

    Most people do not travel often esp. internationally. Unless you are flying for work, multiple trips raises a red flag. As an American flying to France I am sure I would be treated differently if I was visiting from Cameroon. I don’t think our border agents overall are any better or worse than other over worked, underpaid agents in other “first world” countries.

  15. My Italian husband is an American citizen now (thank goodness before 2001) but he still is unwilling to travel INSIDE the US without his passport. Like a lot of Italians he tans very well, and with his strong accent and dark tan, he seems to raise suspicion. Often he will ride the bus from Brownsville to Houston, and of course there is a checkpoint at Sarita, 100 miles inside the border. Here the agents board the bus with their drug-sniffing dog, and check out the passengers. When we drive through in our white Saturn, we just get waved through.

    Now, I grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There was never any reason required if the military police wanted to stop you… and as missionaries we couldn’t resort to bribery like many others. So instead we endured idiotic interrogations, searches that ranged from taking the car apart to just glancing through the vehicle, having our papers (including passports!) taken to the commandant. Many times these people were drunk, or drugged, or just desparate. In all cases, they were armed. I dreaded the trip between Kinshasa and Kimpese – our record was 14 stops in that 400 kilometer span.

  16. NYC, that reminds me of the time I was held up going through security because they thought I had a knife. Turns out it was the wing of a “travel angel” my mom had given me for the trip! lol

    Britni – GET there, girl!!! You travel a bunch!

    Amyemilia – 14 stops in 400 kilometers?? Dio Mio! Your poor hubby. I can’t wait til Pep and I are back in Texas, we’ll have to meet for cappuccini … or gelato!!

  17. I traveled to Europe several years ago with a high school group. I don’t recall any problems with that. I think they just hurried us through.

    My husband and I have traveled by car between the US and Canada a couple times. The first time we came back we were hassled a little. Not sure why. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in Peppe’s shoes!

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