Burning Up on Reentry
“Give me your tired, your poor… Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — Conditions Apply. (With apologies to Emma Lazarus.)
“How much did you have to pay the Rabbis to get into this place?” — “This place” being New York city’s Yeshiva University, whose medical school, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in The Bronx, I was about to join as a postdoctoral fellow. My interlocutor was a uniformed US Customs and Immigration Officer at my port of entry, the John F Kennedy International Airport in New York.
Hardly a venue where a weary, foreign-born, Brown-skinned traveler would expect such random, casually racist, uncouth sentiments to be bandied about, apparently in jest—right?
I would like you to imagine the locale, if possible, through the bleary eyes of an inexperienced 29-year-old, exhausted from a grueling transcontinental flight across several time zones. Evacuated from the belly of the now-resting winged beast, you are pulling your carry-on through a long, carpeted corridor, vaguely conscious of the downward slope gently taking you to a floor below, to the Arrivals Hall. The ceiling-to-floor glass wall to your left, affording a grand view of the tarmac with aircrafts milling about, nonetheless induces a deer-in-the-headlights look on your face; the sudden increase in illumination of your surroundings — a contrast to the dimly lit aircraft — makes sure of it. All the while, anxiety gnaws at your stomach: did I fill the customs form correctly? Did I remember all the details it had asked for? Did I leave my boarding pass in the back flap of the seat in front?
Clutching your passport — with the prized US visa stamped inside — and a sheaf of additional papers you’ve been told they would want to see at the immigration desk, you soldier on. In your mind keep playing all the nightmare scenarios eager well-wishers have breathlessly primed you to, all culminating in your being denied entry and placed on an outward-bound flight back to wherever you came from. An incongruous thought flits unbidden through your subconscious, I hope they’d at least let me get my checked luggage from the carousel, wouldn’t they, while you ruefully recognize you have no clue where the carousel might be located in this bustling airport.
And then just like that, you have reached the tall and huge hall, imposing and unfamiliar, bedecked with the US flag and beautiful paintings, marked by signage as the Passport Control and Immigration section. Beyond this lies freedom — and you are reasonably certain that your best friend is waiting outside near the exit to receive you — but will you make it that far?
It is barely mid-morning in New York city, but already several incoming international flights have ensured that the hall is thronged by teeming hundreds upon hundreds of fellow inbound travelers. Strategically placed rope barriers have herded them into serpentine line that folds upon itself many times over to accommodate, within the hall’s limited floor space, a seemingly unlimited mass of humanity — every single one impatiently waiting to pass through that high pressure barrier and be let joyously loose upon the city. Akin to champagne frothing over once the cork is popped.
Suddenly, the line ends and forks out into several different streams, each destined for one of several booths containing uniformed Immigration officers, both men and women. You take note of a few other folks in a different uniform, adroitly directing traffic streams into the booths as they become available. At the edge of your consciousness, you observe that the uniformed officials come in a variety of skin complexions, White, Black, Brown, other shades — including people who look like you — and you feel oddly reassured; everything you have heard about the diverse, vibrant, thriving melting pot of the Big Apple must really be true.
Then the universe Gibbs-slaps you upside the back of the head.
It did that to me, as I was suddenly faced with the expectation of laughing along with a joke which even my naïve, foggy brain understood to be mean and inappropriate. With (what I hoped was) my best poker face, I mumbled in protestation, “But they are paying me to come and work for them, y’know.”
I surprised myself with that uncharacteristically witty repartee, but most of it was probably lost in my thick and halting non-Western accent. And just as well. Before I embarked upon this journey, various well-meaning sources had drilled in me an incontrovertible fact: at the port of entry, the Immigration Officer is Omnipotent, not to be trifled with.
The immigration officers at the ports of entry are indeed empowered (under 8 USC § 1357) to ask questions of non-immigrant visa-holding visitors — as I was, with my Exchange Visitor (J-1) visa under the academic Research Scholar program — as to their right to be or continue to be present in the US. But as I was told in a hushed voice by said source, should they decide to disallow me entry over any one or more of a plethora of reasons, no one — apparently not even the President of the United States — could reverse that decision at that instance. This latter bit is likely an urban legend, and I am sure the process has levels of arbitration and appeals built in. However, the specific reason for denial of entry is critical and may complicate future attempts of legal entry into the US. Arguing with the immigration officers is strictly verboten and may result in further punitive action.
In my instance, on that late morning of early 2002, I was allowed to enter without further hassles. I managed to find the correct carousel for my airline, collected my checked luggage which, thankfully, had functional wheels, passed uneventfully through customs—where the agent, probably catching sight of my embattled face, took pity on me and waved me through — to outside, where the lit-up faces and welcoming embraces of my friend and his wife awaited me.
Seasoned international travelers would likely scoff at my naïveté, but those few moments standing at the immigration counter have been forever seared into my brain, the memory of my first entry into this country, which would be my home and workplace for the next 20-odd years and counting.
So, why is this first experience of entry relevant to my subsequent experiences of re-entering the country several times, by way of various international airports, during these two decades? It is because, just as my skin color has persistently remained brown, all the trepidations, uncertainties, and anxieties have returned to plague me at every port of legal, valid, documented reentry every time — exactly in the manner they did the very first time.
As the years passed, I have not exactly shied away from episodic reentry; either alone or with my wife, I have had occasions to briefly travel outside the US for meetings or vacation, and visiting our parents in our home country, India. In due course, I had switched from the J-1 visa to the non-immigrant Specialty Occupation (H1-B) visa, and had the H1-B transferred amongst several academic institutions; my wife took a longer path to H1-B, since she had come to the US first as a graduate student in a STEM discipline with a non-immigrant Student (F-1) visa.
Every such change in visa status had required us to travel back to India and reapply for the appropriate visa stamp after furnishing the required documents — provided by our institutions — to the US Consulates in specified regions.
And therein lies the reason for an additional layer of pain. Even with all documents in order, the consular officials can, on any given day, refuse to issue fresh visas, or extend and reissue an already granted visa on a whim. As you can well imagine, this places the entire prospect of reentry in jeopardy. Beyond personal anecdotes and hearsay, the documented instances of US visa refusals in India, sometimes for odd reasons, are legion and legendary. There is no dearth of stories of similar experiences faced by people of color from other parts of the world, either.
My wife and I, thankfully, have never had an outright visa refusal, but we have experienced being sequestered to a delayed track, ostensibly in the name of “additional verification” but with no further explanation — which meant extended stays in India (often requiring cancellation or extension of air tickets at considerable personal costs), continued and distressful agonizing over the vicissitudes of visa issuance, as well as additional difficulties in our professional fields. Both of us were laboratory-based STEM researchers, and such unforeseeable work delays inevitably translated to other untoward consequences, with scant recourse.
Eventually, both of us worked our way through acquiring Permanent Resident status, a.k.a. Green Card, which confers upon the holders the right to protection under US law, same as US citizens. Although the reentry process for Green Card holders is a lot smoother for people returning within a period of 6 months, longer stays outside the US often require a reentry permit. Under certain circumstances, the Green Card of an individual may even be revoked.
Suffice it to say, therefore, that as long as we were dependent on visas, each instance of reentry at a US port of entry was invariably something of a gamble, mired in an inchoate, yet valid, fear born of collective agony.
The United States has been our country for a long time now; it is where we have spread roots and made a home, invested our time and energy in working for the common good via STEM disciplines, paid our taxes, and participated in our civic responsibilities. None of that matters, of course, when — at domestic airports — our brown skins would routinely beget us the indignity of being “randomly” pulled aside for additional questioning or baggage checks, or having our palms swabbed for residues of possible illicit substances.
But, to my mind, all that indignity and microaggression we tolerated over the years — they pale in comparison to the unnerving, harrowing feeling we would experience every time, at some port of reentry, there would be this shadow of doubt casting a pall upon our prospect of reentering the land and getting back to our quotidian lives. Will they let us through? Wait, do they know about the speed camera ticket I got on an empty highway a month and a half ago? I hope the visa issuance delay has not caused my employer to give my position away to someone else, has it?
Burning up on reentry, indeed. Astronauts and we immigrants / non-immigrants of color have that in common.
But a few reentry moments have made relatively less gloomy memories as well. On one of the few occasions my wife and I were able to travel together back to the US from India, we came in through JFK. With the immigration rigmarole completed — visas checked, purpose of visit enquired, passports stamped with reentry date, fingerprints and mugshots captured — we were eager to collect our checked-in bags and scram. Exigent circumstances while leaving had compelled me to leave our car in that JFK terminal’s daily/short term parking lot (whose rates are frightfully expensive), and we had a long drive ahead.
The US Customs Department of Agriculture agent at the exit gate had slightly different plans; she beckoned us aside, apologized for the trouble, and asked where we were coming from. “India, back from visiting family,” I said.
“Oh lovely!” she expressed delight. “Did you enjoy your trip? Did you eat a lot?”
The sudden sojourn was necessitated by the passing of my mother-in-law, and my wife was grieving. But eager to end this indelicate dance, we politely nodded. The agent cut to the chase. “Did you bring back mangoes with you?”
We have long known this to be a trick question. According to the US Department of Agriculture rules, almost all fresh fruits and vegetables of international origins are prohibited from entering the US via aircrafts or cruise ships. And in any case, Indian mangoes — without a doubt, the king of fruits — have had a complicated official import history in the US and Europe, including a now-lifted ban. “No, we did not,” I responded. “Besides, the mango season in India is way over by now.”
“How about… guavas?”
Unwilling to accept the veracity of my negative answer, the agent made us put up all our bags, carry-on and check-in, on the X-ray machine. (Oftentimes they use K9 unit sniffer dogs specially trained to detect contraband food and related products but none was available nearby.)
As we took our leave wheeling out the luggage, the agent looked still suspicious but resigned. I gave her an ‘A’ for effort.
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