Something unbelievable happened to me.
As I waited at the immigration queue at Miami International Airport, I was already preparing myself psychologically for the “terrorist room” experience.
Since 9/11 whenever I travelled to the United States of America, I would be sent to what I call the “terrorist room”, which others call the “black room”. It is where people like me, Arabs, go through an additional process of immigration registration.
Last time I was in Miami, in summer 2009, the “terrorist room” was so full, it took several hours for the process to be done. I ended up missing my connecting flight, had to stay the night in Miami, had to pay the difference in my ticket, etc. Immigration could not care less that I had a connecting flight.. and I had more than 3 hours connecting time. But that was not long enough for the “terrorist room” visit.
I was praying my “terrorist room” experience would not be so bad this time.
Just like everyone else?
His name was Marti. He was pleasant and polite. He was very intrigued by my travel document. He had never seen a Palestinian refugee travel document before.
“Where did you come from, ma'am”
“What were you doing there”
“I live there”
“What have you come to the States for?”
“I am invited by Florida International University to speak this afternoon”
“What do you do?”
“I am a journalist”
After a pause, as I watched him check my visa, I asked:
“Are you sending me to that room now?”
“No ma'am. We don't do that any more”
Don't do that any more????
My eyes went wide open as I asked in total disbelief:
“Since about a week ago”
My eyes opened up even more, lit like a 4-wheel-drive-car's headlights at night.. I could not believe what I was hearing.
“Please place your four fingers on the machine and take your glasses off for the picture”, he continued.
“So what happens after this?”, I asked anxiously.
“Nothing ma'am you go through”
“You mean I am just like everyone else now?”
“Yes ma'am.. just like everyone else”
He smiled as he looked at my smile become wider and wider, almost reaching ear to ear. I felt like jumping over that desk of Marti's to give him a kiss or a hug or something. He stared at me as he could sense my joy then gave me back my passport.
“You're done ma'am”
No further questions. No further nothing.. Amazing!
I asked him what the name of that room was. He said: NSEERS (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System)
I must have thanked Marti 3 or 4 times. And here I am, walking away without being interrogated, without waiting, without feeling I am a suspect.
My first terrorist room
Flashbacks of my past experiences in the “terrorist rooms” were haunting me. In 2004 as I disembarked a flight, two officers were there waiting for me.
“Dima Khatib?”, one of them said with a lousy accent as they saw me walk into the airport building.
“Yes?” I said, taken by surprise.
“Yes?” I said, taken by surprise.
“Come with us please”
The man who had been sitting next to me on the very long Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles (13 hours!) and with whom I had had an interesting conversation, suddenly walked away from me. Of course he would. I was taken away like some criminal.
How did they know my name? How did they spot me? They must have got the information from the flight attendants as I walked out of the plane.
The hours I spent in Los Angeles Airport's “terrorist room” were absolute hell. They asked me things I never thought anyone would ever ask, things about my grandparents, my friends, my life. I had to sit down and write a list of all the countries I have visited in my entire life, with dates of the visits and names of persons or institutions I visited there. They expected me to know the phone number of my primary school and the name of the headmaster. My purse was emptied and everything in it was checked, bit by bit, including everything that was in my wallet. On a later visit to the USA, during another “terrorist room” experience, one officer said to me : “Is your credit card still number such and such ma'am?” !!!! That is when I realised that in Los Angeles “terrorist room” they had stored the numbers of my bank cards!
For someone who travels as often as me, it is really impossible to list all the countries I have visited. The officer said: if you give any false information you could be denied entry to the United States of America.
I wondered whether I was in some Arab regime airport. I reacted submissively as though I were in one. I was truly in shock.
The Los Angeles “terrorist room” was even more hellish due to the attitude of the officers. I thought they would be nice, being mostly Latinos because Latinos are nice people. But they were mean. I remember one Guatemalan female officer, her last name was Paz. I could hardly understand her English so I spoke to her in Spanish. She got upset and started interrogating me on why on earth an Arab like me coming from Hong Kong speaks such good Spanish. Speaking languages is now suspicious?!
You don't like life in the USA?
Another “terrorist room” experience in 2006 at Miami International Airport included two different interrogation sessions in small interrogation booths. One of my interrogators was a woman. She had a Middle Eastern accent but I did not ask her where she was from. I suspect she was of Iranian or Afghan origin.
“Have you ever applied for immigration to the US?”, she asked, based on the fact that I have family members who have.
“No I haven't”
“Do you plan to apply for a Green Card?”
“No I don't”
“Because I live in Venezuela and I don't plan to live in the US”
"You don't like life in the US?"
"I just have my life in Venezuela right now"
“How is life in Venezuela?”
“I like living in Venezuela”
“Wouldn't you like living in the US?”
“I am happy living in Venezuela”
“But you are a Palestinian refugee.. wouldn't you like to have a US passport?”
“I am happy with my Palestinian document”
She went on and on. I knew that if I told her at any point that I was interested in a Green Card, she could deny me entry to the US on the basis on illegal immigration. But telling her the truth, which is that I wasn't interested, only made her ask more and more questions. And it was none of her business really, after all! But she reminded me several times that having a visa is not sufficient to enter the USA.
Chavez says hello to you!
The other guy who interrogated me that time in Miami asked about my work with Al Jazeera and why I am based in Venezuela out of all countries. When I explained to him that it is the most newsy place in all Latin America for our Arab audience, he got very curious.
“How is Mr. Chavez doing?”
I was not sure how to answer that question. Tricky.
After a brief pause and a smile, I said:
“Chavez is fine. He says hello to you”
“Yes he does. He says hello to every American citizen... You can go back to his speeches and double-check for yourself”
The interrogator tried to get my feelings about Chavez and other leftists in the continent. Again what do my political views or my analysis have to do with an immigration officer?
Why do you travel to the Middle East?
Another flashback came to me from 2010. It was at Houston George Bush International Airport. The immigration officer kept flicking through the pages of my travel document.
“You travel a lot ma'am”
“You have been to many Middle Eastern countries”
“Yes I have. Well, I am from the Middle East”
“But do you go there for leisure or for something else?”
“Mostly to see family”
“Why did you go to Syria and Iran in 2009?”
“I was accompanying Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on a tour in the region”
“Oh.. so you did not go there for leisure... What did you go there for?”
“I was covering the President's tour in the region”
“And why were you doing that?”
“Because I am a journalist, it is part of my job.”
“And what did you report?”
“You may watch Al Jazeera to find out!”
“And why did Chavez go there?”
“You can ask him that yourself if he shows up here one day..”
And I smiled!
He got irritated by the joke but I was not going to let him go through with this interrogation about my reporting. What is his business what I report or where I travel or with whom?
Our conversation ended there. He then sent me to the “terrorist room”.. arrrrgh !
Often as I left the US I would have to look for the immigration office myself, hidden somewhere, sometimes in a different terminal than the one I was traveling from. I had to get registered as “out” of the country in the system. Otherwise I was told I would never be able to return to the United States.
So over the years I got to learn where these NSEERS offices are located in many US airports. In an airport like Atlanta's you had to go through a complicated route, and then go through security checks all over again.
It was always a pain, always required waiting for some officer to show up, to make sure the “potential terrorist” is registered as having left the US.
Well not any more !
As flashbacks faded away, I was enjoying my newly acquired almost hassle-free reality at Miami International Airpot.
Proud and happy, I walked out of the luggage area, still in disbelief. I was still expecting some officer to pop up and get me. I was waiting for that voice to say: “Dima Khatib?” !
But nobody did..
I could not help feel overwhelmed by this new situation. My eyes were full of shy tears. I felt like shouting out loud to everyone: I am like everyone else !
I don't know how the decision was made to abolish this. Surely it wouldn't be because of Bin Laden's recent death. I just read online that it turned out not to be such an efficient policy in combatting terrorism because it focuses on origin or country instead of other factors. Not sure if there is some new procedure that will replace it. I could not care less at this stage.
I am just enjoying this historic day. It added to the feeling of freedom and dignity Arabs are feeling today thanks to the revolutions. NSEERS is gone. It almost sounds like some State Security body in an Arab country abolished by the revolution.
For the first time in 10 years, I can say I entered the United States of America with dignity.