US Customs Commentary

‘Comin’ into Los Angeles, bringin’ in a couple of keys…’

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Traveling soon. In two days leaving on that jet plane to the USA from Guatemala..

There was a time in those ancient days I might have been humming Arlo Guthrie’s classic. No longer, at seventy, I have nothing to hide. Even less to sing about if you want to get right down to it.

It’s a rather wide subject matter. Traveling. I will try to touch on two areas. One is the non US citizen traveling under a VISA. For those of you who don’t know how difficult it is to obtain a VISA, especially if you are from Central America and yes, it needs to be said it’s even tougher if you are not from an economically higher income bracket.

In fact, if you are one of the majority seeking a VISA who are not of the moneyed set, sadly, easily spotted under the bright lights at all US Embassies where hopeful’s lineup for the much feared interview (interrogation). If you fit into this category, getting the much coveted VISA is a nightmare.

If you are of the moneyed class, again, easily spotted as often these will pull up to the embassy waiting line in Mercedes and shiny beamers. The way one is dressed, carry themselves, a certain bold almost glowing self-confidence, given that you are in fact legal and not criminal it’s almost guaranteed you will walk out of the embassy with the little stamped paper confirming ‘OK’, or Accepted.

You’ve climbed on that jet plane and you’re on your way to the USA! Finally taking that trip there are in fact many people that do have something to hide. Even after obtaining that coveted VISA to enter the US, upon entering customs at any US international airport, the level of scrutiny is every bit as intense, if not much more so, than when interviewing for the VISA at the embassy.

The first group just mentioned are traveling to the US with the long-term plan of staying, for years, maybe forever, find work and get another start far away from what likely is a life of pure hell in Honduras, El Salvador, many others.

A second ‘group’ I’m addressing are those travelers who attempt to sneak through an extremely small amount of illegal substance, medication for personal use. These are meds purchased legally OTC in a say a Guatemalan pharmacy which in the US would require prescriptions. This distinction is important. This will not include the smugglers who are attempting to smuggle in illegal substances for the sake of selling and profiting.

In other words, the simple act of trying to get through airport customs with a vile full of one of these meds without proper documentation from a doctor is illegal. When you do this, you are breaking the law.

Another way to explain this second sub group is a person who has developed a habit with an opiate. He or she needs the small vial of pills to carry them through the next eight days they’ve planned to be in Virginia Beach visiting friends or family. It’s just him or her and the issue of abusing substances legally purchased without a prescription in many Latin countries. So this post is partially on their behalf.

Then finally a third sub grouping, arguably the smallest in numbers. The preparation for traveling is over whelming. This, of course, is far more the case if you are like me, who might travel once a year or less. I might fit into a third sub group, one who travels infrequently, enough time passes between trips that rules and regulations have changed. The degree of inconvenience increases with age. At seventy-eight, this has become a factor for me. Once again, a steep learning curve. Those who travel twice or more per month could find this of less interest.

This third group, or ‘my‘ group, is subject to all the same checks as the first two groups. The difference being that we are traveling with no hidden agenda other than to visit the US, see family and friends, shop, sightsee, and above all rest. But because of the heightened degree of security slapped on every person climbing on or off that plane, it has become an experience of the deepest depression and utter drudgery.

I won’t even start on the deplorable state of the airlines these days. No sitting room, people traveling with smelly pets next to you, stale pretzels, criminal fees for luggage, outrageous seating protocols, on and on. The clear feeling is that if you are not a special VIP, frequent travel member of the airline, your experience is one of being in hell.

This post is not about the airlines. It would take a book to express accurately the pure hell modern air travel has become.

But yes, I hate to travel. This not always having been the case. In part, this growing aversion might be the result of the tragedy of the twin towers. No. Not concerned that I’m getting on a plane soon to be hijacked. Has more to do with all the hoops and obstacles a traveler has to jump over or through to get on and off the damn plane! Simply hate it.

This morning we sat through the Covid swab exam, very expensive here in Guatemala. Money has been meticulously apportioned to cover the seemingly countless expenses trips like ours represents. In fact, were I a stronger man, a tougher husband, a less easily pushed around father, I would never, ever drive to the airport and climb onto the damn plane. Yeah, so sue me. If I were a bit of a Grinch, (appropriate for this time of year approaching Christmas), I’d simply refuse to go visit long not seen loved ones around the globe. Why did god make WhatsApp for, anyway?

And if these younger loved ones really want to see this old codger, let them climb on the damn plane then.

Long, long gone are those days when an upcoming trip to anywhere, a vacation, brought with it a clear measure of thrill, even a shred of joy.

No longer.

As with most things in life, there are reasons for my heavy sense of dismay.

Yes, I’ve had my fair share of difficulties when going through airport customs. This dark scratch of a stain goes back so many years that it’s become rather impossible for me to say exactly when traveling turned into something more aptly labeled pain.

There was the time in ’69, I was eighteen I guess, that I was caught with a single joint in my wallet. Okay, this was back when Uncle Sam was still spending millions convincing the populace that weed was the devils weed. I was entering the US at the New Orleans Intl airport. Busted. I was cuffed, placed in the back of a squad car, and driven to the old, down town New Orleans police station for processing. Pictures and finger prints.

The cops with me in an effort to provide whatever comfort explained to me that the cop building had been built in ancient times on a massive bed of hay!

Overnight in a cell at the airport. Luckily next day the decision was made to put me back on a plane returning me to my country of origin. For whatever reason, it was deemed by the wiser, law enforcement heads that in all likelihood I represented very little threat to the community’s wellbeing.

Couple years later, the chief of immigration at the Houston Intl airport chose to relieve me of my hard won Green Card. This hurt far more than the ‘joint conundrum’ years earlier in New Orleans. My Guatemalan passport started to attract more attention, especially as in the end of the sixties I’d sworn away my US citizenship and favored my Guatemalan half. The problem became then that they illegally profiled me every time I traveled to the US.

This was before profiling became the huge issue it is today. Now highly illegal but then it was done constantly.

Their issue with me was that according to them, I did not fulfill the requisite ‘visuals’ as a Guatemalan. Pure and simple: Profiling. It was presumed that a ‘Guatemalan’ might best satisfy expectations by having black hair, brown or black eyes versus blue, skin should be brown of any number of acceptable shades, not freckly, Irish, white. Add to that my English was far superior to my Spanish, which of course just didn’t fit the prerequisites.

In short, some clear weaknesses in the system not easily ignored. It became a routine walk for me to get escorted to ‘the room’. In all US international airports, this is a brightly lit room filled with rows of bolted down seats. Other travelers, clearly fitting the profile as non-Americans, sat, anxiously awaiting their fates on any given day. Each took their turn up at the counter, answering numerous questions for the immigration officials. Almost always, a picture of lamentable and unnecessary sadness unfolded.

Often an elder and often frail Latin woman traveling alone, or a couple, were brought to tears with the questions. The younger visitors to ‘the room’ often were led away through another door. I use the word ‘were’, but this goes on presently every hour of every day at every US International airport. I sensed that these unfortunate travelers did not meet the many questions with the right answers. These travelers were no doubt separated out as those who most likely had other plans beyond simply visiting the US on vacation.

Many traveling to the US have plans to overstay their permitted number of days, often never returning to Central America. No doubt there is a statistic for the percentage of folks who choose to overstay their allotted visit time. Clearly I’m not referring here to those who harmlessly stay a week over their permission rather those who plan on making a life here.

Back in the ‘room’. It’s almost painfully obvious. The clothes don’t come from an expensive store. One of several suit cases could be one of those ‘red flags’ plastic carrying cases seen at supermarket checkouts. People on vacation, entering the US generally have ‘smart’ looking luggage, brand name carry-on bags. As much as it disgusts and saddens me to say it.

I could tell that something was amiss just in the way the hopeful youth carried themselves. Sometimes it was a first time worn, ill-fitting suit, an awkward tie. A seasoned traveler, US citizen or not, never have a look of concern, rather more obviously bored impatience.

The non- citizen attempting to get through customs has a major weight on their minds as they contemplate the next few minutes before standing before an eagle eyed customs official. These people are frankly asking themselves if in the next few minutes their lives will be turned upside down, caught, dreams crushed. The other hopeful thought is that they will get through and an entire new life full of work and living possibilities are awaiting them.

They stand in that interminable line up waiting their turn at facing the blue uniformed customs man.

Imagine if you will standing on the plank waiting your turn to jump into the shark filled, red waters of an old Spanish galleon. Only god… Yeah sure.

Too often those with plans of staying in the US permanently, illegally, are coached poorly by paid ‘coaches’, friends or loved one’s back in Honduras, ‘look them in the eye, be bold with your answers, don’t say too much, don’t sweat, no foot or finger tapping!’ On and on.

It is impossible to pull off these instructions in a convincing manner. You’ve either ‘got it’, that god given ability to lie yourself out of anything, or you don’t. And if you don’t, then it is excruciatingly obvious that there is no surprise people in the hundreds, daily, at the international airports are denied entry to the American Dream. If you are one of these countless unlucky ones that, for whatever reason, have caught the attention of the sharp eyed immigration officers, you are going home. Often a return plane the same day or a few days after.

I’ve never understood who pays for the return trip to Latin America, but a good guess is the US taxpayer. Over the years, this policy and others often change. In other words, it may not be an immediate return trip. Maybe you get put into a holding tank until it’s your turn to go.

Imagine the potential for life altering experiences sharing a cell with real criminals.

I remember some years ago the purchase of the return ticket home was a requirement before even getting on the US bound plane. This wasn’t always the case.

Other variations can derive from what got stamped into your passport. That is, if you were denied entry into the US. This could very well determine and make it nearly impossible for you to make the trip again to the US in the short term future. After all, everything was legal. Your passport was good. Your visa was good. But somewhere, something, for whatever reason, tripped an alarm.

Questions of just why you were traveling to the US ‘today’ were not answered to that one immigration officer’s liking. This could ruin the person’s plans. Forever! But as there was no crime committed, yet the unfortunate traveler simply got turned around and put on a plane back home.

Of course, and this goes without saying that if a traveler is carrying an illegal substance and you’re caught, you very quickly become painfully aware of just how much trouble you are now in.

Even this standard has changed. Back when I was busted for the one joint, it could’ve ended poorly for me. I could’ve spent serious time behind bars in the state of Louisiana. Don’t misunderstand me here. If you, for whatever reason, are caught with that one, harmless joint today, your travel plans can take a serious hit. It is still illegal. You are breaking federal and state laws. But the odds of getting caught with that one joint are pretty damn slim.

Customs are after bigger fish.

I have no way of solidifying this with any proof, but some very reliable people have assured me that more than on one occasion, TSA personnel have spotted an errant joint in a handbag going through the x-ray and have said nothing. One young official upon recognizing the joint said, “enjoy it”. I leave that to you. I would never make a decision to pack an illegal smoke based on that kind of testimonial.

Elderly folks, non-citizens, who got pulled out of the line flow and sent to the ‘room’ frequently are allowed to continue on their journey. The confusion often has more to do with the old people’s inability to explain clearly why they are traveling to the US. Where and who they were visiting. There was a time when those of us who were non-citizens were required to fill out a form giving names, addresses, phone numbers, the details of those one planned to visit. Hotels with addresses and phone had to be filled out if your visit was not to visit friends or relatives.

At least on one occasion I was asked to step over to the phone banks located conveniently nearby the immigration counters to call my destination. The officer then spoke with and confirmed my previously stated destination. As I said, this policy and countless others came and went.

I virtually exist in a state of utter ignorance when it comes to most of these travel questions today. Even if I were foolish enough to attempt to try to take a tiny, prescription sized vial of say valium, without a prescription, I don’t have the slightest sense of what could happen. Might they simply relieve me of my precious vial or would I be sent ‘down town’ as happened when I had the joint? I don’t know.

This would make for a terrifically helpful post by someone who has seriously researched this issue, in its current incarnation. Basically, what might a traveler be able to walk through customs with and what will definitely catch their eye. Add to that it would be useful to know what might the customs people ‘do’ to you. In other words, will the officials simply relieve you of your one vial of whatever? An opiate say, as long as you’re not attempting to sneak across, say morphine or heroin pills (is there such a thing?). Same question for THC in all its forms, what will they do to you?

Of course, let’s voice here the vital caveat called for in this kind of conversation: If it’s illegal, then don’t do it. If you get caught, it’s your own fault. Traveling with family, kids, and wife? Think of the devastation when there for the whole world to see daddy or mommy or the teenager gets pulled aside for trying to sneak through that vile of whatever…

&&&

Three days later.

My family and I cruised through the Houston airport customs as though a walk through Central Park. The customs guy only wanted to talk about how so many travelers bring a popular fried chicken from Guatemala called Pollo Campero. I could have brought in a brick of something illegal in my back pack.

So at least on this trip, even with our various passports, one Irish, two Hondurans, one Guatemalan, it was the easiest entry into the USA so far.

Experience has taught me this was the rare exception.

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Tom Jacobson

Tom Jacobson

Just discovered the world of Medium. utterly amazing! Published first book, romantic adventure in Guatemala and Nicaragua, on Amazon. Title Lenka: A love story.

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