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Face-to-Face With An Immigration Officer

by Ruby Bayan, 2000

"What is the purpose of your visit to the United States, and how long are you planning to stay?"

My eyes locked on the stern, expressionless face of the white-uniformed immigration officer sitting in the cubicle. He held open my passport and alternated looking at me and my picture. Even as I crossed the yellow line on the floor, in front of his cubicle, I already caught his eyes scrutinize me from head to toe. It was at that moment, just two steps ago, that I felt my brain shut down.

Airport concourse, Nagoya, Japan

All of my friends had warned me, even my relatives, and my boss, that I should be ready when I face the immigration officer at my port of entry to the US. Regardless that I have a visa, the first person I will encounter at the door to the Land of Milk and Honey, will be a coldhearted government officer empowered, by the most powerful nation in the world, to send me back to where I came from -- literally.

But what was I scared about? It was my second business trip to the States. I knew I would walk up to an immigration officer whose nerve endings are hard-wired to a sixth sense highly perceptive to any one of many serious threats. To him I could be a smuggler, a drug mule, an escaped convict, a terrorist, a spy, a fraud, or an illegal entrant.

I was also aware that the immigration officer's sixth sense would pick up the slightest cause for suspicion -- fidgeting, nervousness, stuttering, and profuse sweating. People who have something to hide somehow betray themselves, so it was the officer's task to detect these tell-tale signs.

So, even if I chose to wear my most comfortable, shabby-looking set of street clothes for the 22-hour trip, even if I had hardly slept a wink during the long-haul flight, and even if my stomach felt queasy from the funky airline food, I had to look composed and nonchalant enough to not show signs of stress, edginess, or impatience. How to manage that in the throes of cabin fever will remain a mystery to me.

"What is the purpose of your visit and how long do you plan to stay in the US?" he repeated, slowly this time.

I stood up straight, trying to activate my gray matter. "I'm here on a business trip. To attend a seminar and visit a couple of clients in San Francisco and Minneapolis. For just two weeks." Practically the same answer I gave the first time I came over. But somehow, unlike the last one, this officer didn't automatically stamp my visa. He looked back at me for a second. I wondered if it was the perfume I was wearing. But he wasn't sniffing, nor was he smiling.

"I want to see your papers," he snapped. I panicked. What papers? What was he talking about?

"What seminar are you attending? Who are you going to see? Do you have invitations?" He was starting to raise his voice.

I froze. I didn't expect him to want to see my invitations. I had shown all of those at the embassy when I applied for my visa. But I knew I packed them, I just couldn't remember where! A fine time for my brain to go on energy-saving mode!

He stared at me, waiting for me to show him something. I said, "Wait, I'll have to look in my carry-on." But for the life of me, I couldn't find the set of papers I brought along.

I was holding up the line. I frantically pulled out the contents of my briefcase, exposing some personal effects to the long line of restless and impatient travelers behind me. I've never felt so embarrassed and so apprehensive in all my life. My hands started to shake. What if I had carelessly put the documents in my check-in luggage? Will he call the police and put me in jail? How am I going to explain this to my boss? I was mortified!

The officer instructed me to go to the side and continue looking. I wanted to just vanish in humiliation. Kneeling on the floor, I searched every pocket. Nothing. I couldn't believe it. I was shaking like a leaf, ready to faint.

Suddenly, I don't know what got into the immigration officer, but after I had seen my whole life flash before my eyes, he signaled to let me through. Maybe he sensed the honest shame and sheer terror in my actions -- I *was* on the brink of tears. I thanked him profusely, bowed a number of times, stopped myself from genuflecting, and dashed off.

It took me a while to get over that incident. It didn't help that when I got to the hotel, I discovered that the documents were in a zipped pocket in that one segment of my briefcase I forgot existed. It was incredible how the officer had scared me into a state of temporary amnesia! Or maybe it was the airline food.

I kept telling myself that these gate-keepers are humans, too, and not a bunch of evil monsters bent on scaring me out of my wits. And that they're just doing their special jobs of screening entrants to a society they are trying to protect. They will always don that stern and coldhearted face because they need to stay alert to possible threats against the integrity of the American way of life.

So, a few months later, on a follow-up trip, when another grave, ominous immigration officer managed to make me *almost* forget my last name, I knew he was just being great at his job.

[First published at, 2000]


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