I stood silently as the customs official swiped my passport through the card reader at his station. He swiped it again then lifted his head and stared at me judgmentally. Turning to his terminal, he began typing frantically. “Is something wrong?” I asked, knowing that something indeed was wrong. “Is it the magnetic strip?”
“No,” he stated tersely. “The computer has flagged you as a sex offender.” He called out something like, “I need an assist,” and a rather large agent quickly approached. “Sir, you need to go to secondary. Follow me.” I did. His imposing size left few options. Plus, where was I to go?
As we walked to a room off the main inspection area — “secondary,” I assumed — I saw a Latino man, perhaps Mexican, tackled to the floor by two or three other agents. I watched as a pair of legs and arms struggled beneath blue jackets. I believe “runner” was the term bantered about.
I should probably make clear at this point that I am not a sex offender. I have never been accused of, tried for, plead to, or convicted of any criminal offense (a few speeding tickets aside), much less a sex offense. What, then, was happening? Perhaps I would find out in the small backroom called “secondary,” a room littered with occupied, plastic chairs, fluorescent lamps and flanked at one end by a raised platform, a dais, manned by several agents, each either flipping through a file; typing, eyes fixed on a terminal; or phone in hand, on hold, waiting to speak with some unseen, unnamed superior, whose word was likely final. In the back, I noticed two other rooms, interview rooms, with their doors cracked. A crying woman sat in one. In the other, an agent walked past the door before pushing it closed.
Before sitting down, I reached for my cell phone and was quickly reprimanded. A long arm pointed to a sign on the wall. No cell phones allowed. I guess Hector, my friend who was waiting for me on the other side of the border, would have to wait much longer than expected. Though I worried about him, I was more concerned with my own fate.
I sat anxiously. Why anxiously? Perhaps my experience as a government attorney had given me insight into bureaucracy. Or, perhaps I’ve just read too many Kafka novels. Either way, anxious I was. So, without my cell phone, sudoku, or someone to speak with, I sat uncomfortably in my plastic chair. I stared at the ceiling tiles. I took note of the cracks in the linoleum tile. And, I watched with ever-growing despair as several people rose from their chairs after hearing their names called, approached the counter, argued hopelessly with agents, and with shaking hands fumbled through pockets and bags for documents, only to be told moments later to sit back down. They would be called back up “shortly.”
Approximately an hour after being escorted into the room, my name was called. I approached an agent. He was in his mid to late 30s, well groomed, and with an appropriately stern expression that failed to mask the frustration and boredom he felt listening day after day to the same excuses and stories. He had signed up to protect our borders, to be a hero of sorts, not to read files, click-clack away at a keyboard, man phones, and listen to people whine and cry. It was with this face, he greeted me.
“David Miller,” he stated more than asked.
“Have you ever been arrested?”
“Have you ever lived at…?” Here he listed a series of addresses.
“No,” I said after each.
“What is your Social Security number?”
I told him.
It went on like this for a few more minutes. After which he said matter-of-factly, “Okay. You can go.”
“Wait, what?” I said, confused. “I don’t understand. What just happened? Why did I get detained?” “Someone has the same name and birthdate as you, so your passport was flagged.”
“Does he look anything like me?” I wanted to know. Did I look like a sex offender? I had never been told so. I don’t wear seersucker suits. I don’t have beady, little eyes. I don’t own a van with blacked-out windows.
“We don’t have access to photos.”
“Wait, what?” How could that be? How could the immigration system, our Department of Homeland Security, protectors of the free world, not have a photo of this sex offender who wandered the world with my name? How simple that would be. Sex offender picture appears on screen. My clearly-not-a-sex offender face in person. A couple of glances back and forth, my face, screen, face, screen. Then, rather than being dragged into the abyss that was “secondary,” I’d be given a nod and a pleasant, “Enjoy your day, Mr. Miller.”
“Thanks,” I would have said. “You, too.”
So, the Commodore 64 or TRS-80 that they obviously used at the border port of entry lacked the kilobytes and pixels necessary to form a picture on the screen, but it must be linked to a passport database. He did, after all, scan my passport before declaring me the worst kind of felon in the hierarchy of criminal offenders. I saw him run my passport twice.
Was it a charade? I had to ask. “What about his passport? Is the number the same as mine? Or somewhat similar?” The image of a dyslexic or overtired government employee sitting at his/her desk and transposing a number or letter danced through my mind. A “54” accidently typed as “45,” a minor mistake leading to an unfortunate series of events, somewhat like our Mr. Archibald Buttle, a humble cobbler, from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, who died during interrogation after he was confused for the notorious terrorist Archibald Tuttle. In that case, the confusion was caused when Tuttle’s “T” was converted to Buttle’s “B” after the guts of a fly were caught on a typewriter’s key and the wet ink spread across the paper.