|John F Kennedy Airport New York Daily News/Jesse Ward
“We need to ask you a few more questions. Come this way sir,” the buzz cut-sporting customs agent said firmly, as he led me away from the other passengers. Of course I know the drill. I have been profiled at airports all around the world for the past 20 years since my teenage days.
“I always get the VIP treatment,” I said in jest, as I followed him.
“It has nothing to do with the country you came from?” he asked sarcastically.
Me: “Should it?”
Me: “Do you know major US cities are more dangerous than Beirut? Do you know 5 times more people get murdered in Chicago than where I came from?
Agent: “Well, we enforce the law there too.”
Me: “Do you profile all passengers coming from Chicago?”
He didn’t reply as he walked me into a room called “CBP Admissibility Review Area.”
Agent: Place your bag here (points to doorway) and take a seat over there.
I didn’t feel comfortable leaving my bag unattended at the open doorway to baggage claim, so I moved it about half a foot away from the door so I could keep in eye on it.
Agent. Don’t move your bag sir! Leave it there!
So I took my seat in the waiting area– among the fellow dark-skinned people– as I have so many times before. Arabs and South Asians usually occupy this space. Rarely do you see a white person here.
A few minutes later, I was summoned by another agent at a desk. I was asked a series of questions starting with the classic: How long have you been abroad? This one is never easy to answer for people who actually live abroad or spend a lot of time moving around. So I gave him a brief summary of my life story. The years I lived in different cities in the US and in Beirut, how they overlapped, etc. For fun, I threw in which universities I went to in towns small and large and what years I graduated and attended those schools.
Then more questions. What do you do? Who do you work for? Have you been to Syria or Iran by any chance? Have you been in the military? Have been in any military (add look of suspicion for emphasis).
Does this guy really think I am James Bond??
I mean what position is he in to “review” my “admissibility” as a US citizen? Should I have showed him my family lineage papers. That my grandfather was in the Navy during Pearl Harbor? Or that my grandmother traces her family back to a relative who fought with George Washington in the revolutionary war?
After being released and as I was waiting for my bag, I asked an African-American customs agent walking out of the room. “How many white people go in there,” I said half-joking.
Agent: A lot surprisingly.
Me: I don’t mean skin color, but also ethnicity.
Agent: Oh you should see when flights come from Latin America. There’s a lot of Jose’s in there.
Look, I just saw a white person go in there. That’s one white person out of four. That’s a pretty good ratio.
Me: Sounds a bit lop-sided to me.
Agent: I got to get back to work, good luck!
Of course my routine 20 minute experience is nothing compared to 2-3 hours regularly faced by Americans who share the same name with those “on a list” like Huffpost journalist Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, who recently wrote about his chronic and abusive experiences in the ‘brown people room.’
Still I think all profiling should be documented. Are Americans who traveled to the Middle East really more dangerous than those living in the United States? I think this is a valid question considering the exponentially higher gang violence and murder rate in most major US cities when compared to cities in the Middle East.