When I arrived in Belgium this past weekend I didn’t get a particularly welcoming feeling. The lines at immigration weren’t too bad, but apparently my frequent, short-duration trips raised a red flag with the immigration officer I was dealing with (more of that story here). It ended up OK and I had a great time, but it was a bit eye-opening to be seen not just as a visitor looking to spend some money and support the economy, but as a visitor that they might not actually want in their country. It was the second time I’ve had that experience and both ultimately ended OK. But it also raised some interesting comments from friends when I posted about it on my FaceBook feed.
In that it was the morning in Europe I mostly got responses from my European friends, and their views were not particularly flattering to the USA.
Of course, it hurt me to say it, but when faced with the suggestion that what I was getting was just turnabout for the way the US treats visitors, I had to admit that what I dealt with was, in fact, trivial compared to the "welcome" that they receive.
There was an OpEd piece published in the New York Times last week, one that I read just before boarding my flight to Belgium, that hammers this point home rather pointedly. The author of the piece is Mark Vanhoenacker, an airline pilot. This makes him rather familiar with crossing borders and with the experience of being welcomed – or not – when arriving in a new place. He points out a number of failings of the system, starting with the fact that the USA requires visitors to pay a fee to answer idiotic questions such as whether you’re a spy, have been involved in terrorism or if you’re planning any crimes. Yeah, like anyone is going to answer "yes" on those. Of course, immigration loves having those because it gives more chances for a deportation later due to lying on the form, but they’re still ridiculous questions.
There are also the issues with the Customs process, one that I’m fortunately mostly exempt from thanks to Global Entry, but one that is horribly labor intensive and inefficient at actually meeting its stated goals. Everyone arriving must fill out a form, a rather senseless one. Much like the ETSA application, it seems unlikely that anyone is going to tick the yes box when asked if they are carrying "disease agents" into the country. Worse than that, however, is the fact that the forms don’t really do much good, other than – again – to provide a paper trail leading nowhere.
Just about every other country I’ve visited in recent memory simply has a green lane and a red lane. The rules are published and you go in to the lane that applies to you. Agents still pull passengers aside for spot checks, just like they do in the USA, but without the need for a piece of paper to trigger it. After all, the paper doesn’t actually accomplish anything other than to produce more bureaucracy and waste.
There is no doubt that the border agents have security-related responsibilities. And I am not suggesting that those be limited or done with any less focus or vigilance. But they can be done with more respect for the visitors and with a more welcoming attitude to the vast majority of those crossing the border, the ones who are bringing their money to spend to support our economy.
Inconsistent enforcement of irrational policies is rarely the right way to solve any problem. But the US sure is trying.
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