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Two lines

October 30, 2012

Our unpleasant experience at U.S. immigration a few days ago is still bothering me, so perhaps if I write about it some more I can purge it from my system...

We - all the passengers coming from Peru - were happy to land, surprised to feel so fatigued having been sitting for so long.  We'd all diligently filled out our landing and customs forms on the plane and we walked expectantly to the immigration hall.  We came to signs dividing us into two groups, U.S. citizens and residents one way, visitors another.  Since the girls and Tanya are U.S. citizens but I am not, we had to follow the visitors' sign.  Beyond the signs, the citizens and visitors from our flight entered the respective mazes winding their way to the border agents in their booths.  The signs above the booths indicated that half were allocated to citizens and half to residents.  Another flight's passengers were already in the lines and there looked to be about twice as many passengers in the citizens line as the visitors line.  All seemed well.

As the lines began to move, we in the visitors line began to take in the finer details of our situation.  We noticed that the citizens line was moving much faster than our own.  We could also see that while every citizen's booth contained a border agent, many of the visitor's booths were empty.  In fact, we could only see two agents processing visitors.  As we glanced around at each other to seek confirmation in each others' faces, one of the visitor agents left his booth and went into an adjoining office.  We kept looking for him to come back out again.

Soon all the previous flight's citizens and residents had been processed and many of the citizens and residents from our flight had also gone through.  The visitor's line had barely moved and the agent who had left his booth had not returned.  We began muttering quietly to ourselves, wondering why this was happening and how much longer we might be here.  Some of us had connecting flights and it seemed more and more unlikely that we would make these connections.  A man in a uniform at the front of the lines seemed to be directing people to the agents in the booths.  We assumed he was a border agent.  When some of us tried to ask him for help he ignored us and we realized he was only helping the citizen's line.  We then noticed a similarly uniformed woman in front of our line but she would not help those of us with connections either.  She soon appeared to tire of being asked for help and wandered away somewhere.

Another agent entered one of the visitors' booths so that we now had two agents processing us again.  Still our line crept forward while the citizens' line raced through.  As we looked more closely at those lucky visitors at the booths who were being processed, we noticed that after questioning some did not walk through to the area marked "customs" but were instead lead away through a separate door.  We became anxious about their fates, but not as anxious as we were that we would also be lead through that door when our time came.

Despite having been replenished with U.S. citizens and residents from other flights, the citizens' line had now dwindled to a handle of people and the uniformed man turned his attention to our line.  Perhaps now he would help us, we thought.  However, he did not permit us to now go to the agents in the citizens' booths.  He entertained himself instead by shouting at anyone who put their bags on the ground while they waited.  We were too frightened by what might happen to us if we did not comply to refuse his unreasonable demand.

Soon the citizens' line was nearly empty and and our spirits raised at the thought that the agents in the citizens' booths might soon start to process us.  All of a sudden the two visitors' agents left their booths and disappeared into another room.  As we looked to the uniformed man for an explanation he taunted us by saying they'd finished their shifts and we would have to wait here all night now.  We refused to believe his taunts but then we looked over to the citizens' line, which had now filled with new arrivals from another flight.  As they began to go to the agents in their booths, a man in our line could restrain himself no longer and called out, "That is not fair.  We have been waiting for a long time and they have just arrived.  We do not treat visitors like this in my country."  As we all murmured our agreement, a woman working for our airline suddenly began directing those of us at the front of our line to go to agents in the citizens' booths, alternating with the newly arrived passengers.  The agents in the booths did not object.  The uniformed man disappeared.  The woman from our airline gestured for us to move as quickly as possible.  She told us another flight was coming and we would have to move back to stand in front of the empty visitors' booths once those passengers reached the immigration hall.

Before this happened we reached an agent in his booth.  He did not welcome us to the U.S.  He did not apologize for our wait.  He processed Tanya and the girls, as U.S. citizens, in a minute or so.  It took a while longer to fingerprint me and take my photo.  Once processed we asked to speak to a supervisor.  One came and we described our experience to him.  He did not appear to hear us, however.  He told us he allocates an equal number of his agents to the citizen and visitor lines.  He did not wish to discuss with us that today the numbers were unequal.  He was unmoved that all the U.S. citizens and residents from our flight had been processed within 20 minutes while nearly two hours later there were still visitors from our flight who had not been processed.  He told us he had no responsibility for the uniformed man at the front of the lines.  He aggressively told us that budget cuts meant that he did not have as many agents as he would like.  He did not apologize for our wait.  He did not welcome us to the U.S.