David Miller, pictured left, is a registered sex offender. David Miller, pictured right, is not.
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.
“Nope,” said the agent, now tiring of my questioning.
“So, how did his information get tied to mine?”
“You know the government,” he said with a chuckle. “The system collates all of the information from every database you can imagine. Since you and he have the same name and birthdate, your data was merged.”
“Can you unmerge it?” I asked.
“I’ll put a note in the system, but don’t get your hopes up.… Next,” he mumbled in a disinterested manner.
As I walked from the desk, I realized that my life had just changed. The government had made me — and for that matter everyone with my name and birthdate, — a sex offender. It didn’t matter that my passport number, appearance, driver’s license number, and Social Security number were all different from his. Our names and birthdates were the same. So, I was him and he me, until proven otherwise. And, though I was told not to, I did hope that the agent’s note would have some effect. What a fool I was.
Several months later, with the incident a fading memory, I sat in my car, engine idling, windows rolled up, ignoring the swarm of vendors offering Mexican blankets, hammocks, churros, water, Chiclets, and useless ceramic, plastic, and woven trinkets. I was returning from a short camping trip in Baja. Before me was the recently renovated San Ysidro border crossing. The multi-year project boasted a new pedestrian building, parking structure, pedestrian overpass and a significantly larger vehicle inspection area. The expanded facility was supposed to reduce wait times dramatically. Yet, even with its 25 northbound lanes, traffic stood still.
And, as I waited, I started to remember that day not so long ago when I was a sex offender. Certainly the agent had cleared my name and I would have no problems. His note in the system had been passed to the appropriate government agency, perhaps the Department of Unmerging Accidentally Merged Records, and they did their job with record speed, with the efficiency for which the government is known.
Contemplating this during my hour-and-a-half wait, during which my car never reached a speed in excess of three miles per hour, I concluded that crossing the border might not be as easy as it once had been, during the days when I was me and the sex offender was someone other.
“Passport.” I handed it to him. “What was the purpose of your trip to Mexico?”
“I went camping,” I started to say, when he interrupted and told me that I’d have to go to “Secondary.” And so it began. He got out of the booth, said “follow me,” and walked alongside of my car as I rolled, more than drove, to an area approximately 200 feet ahead, “Secondary.” When we arrived, he handed my passport to a waiting agent. Words were whispered. She took my passport and walked over to a computer terminal mounted on a wheeled, metal cart. She opened my passport to the page with my picture and the unintelligible code at the bottom. She swiped, swiped again, typed, and typed some more. Then she walked over to me. This time, though, I was prepared. “Is this the sex offender thing? This happened to me last time I crossed the border. I was told that it would be cleared up. Some guy has the same name as me.” Unlike the agent from a year ago, she smiled. People don’t smile at sex offenders, do they? This had to be a good sign, right? Then she asked me out of the car.
I got out and was asked to walk to the back of the car. Once there, I was instructed to open the trunk, presumably to see whether I had children stashed inside. She peered in and, finding no bodies, alive or otherwise, smiled again. She walked me toward the computer terminal and began to ask what I’ve come to know as routine questions. What was my Social Security number, my driver’s license number, prior addresses, other names that I went by (I had none)? During the questioning, I felt comfortable enough to give some constructive criticism. “It would make a lot more sense if you guys had pictures to compare.”
“Definitely,” she said. “I’ve thought the same thing.”
“And shouldn’t my passport be tied to my Social Security number and my social to the criminal databases? He and I would definitely have different passport numbers and socials. You guys would know it wasn’t me immediately. It would save everyone so much time.”
“I agree,” she said, and her tone suggested she meant it. She hadn’t been soured by years of monotony. She seemed to care. And, what she said next confirmed it. “I’m going to take care of this. I’ll have it escalated. It shouldn’t happen to you again.”
Escalated, I thought and drove away excited.
Three months passed. Exhausted after a 14-hour flight from Luxembourg, I deplaned at John F. Kennedy airport in New York. I’d be going on to San Diego after a layover of an hour and 45 minutes. But, first I had to pass through customs. Standing in line near the x-ray machine, I watched the Indian couple in front of me try to control their three young children. With one hand, the husband held the luggage cart; bags piled high, ready to topple. With the other, he tried to wrangle the children up as they ducked back and forth under the ropes and around the poles. His wife, on her cell, somewhat oblivious to her husband’s predicament, chatted away. One of the TSA agents reached into a nearby bin and pulled out some coloring books. I looked at the cover — a story about an airport, drug-sniffing dog. I laughed to myself. When she handed them to the children, all went calm. The husband breathed a sigh of relief and thanked the agent. The wife continued her conversation.
Now, it was my turn. Bags on the conveyer for the x-ray, through the metal detector, then up to passport control. As soon as he scanned my passport, I knew what was about to happen. His face said everything. Sex offender. Disgusting. I was sent off to secondary, my third time in less than a year.
I took a seat in what appeared to be an exact replica of the room at the Mexican border — flickering fluorescents, hopeless souls, and the row of agents casting judgment from above. This time, though, I wasn’t worried about what would happen to me. I’d been through this before. I was an old pro. I even offered advice to someone who had just walked in. “Take a seat. It’ll be a while before they call your name.” I don’t know if he understood me, but he sat down and offered a nervous smile. Waiting in my plastic chair, I felt the minutes tick past and with each felt my chest grow a bit tighter. Unlike the prior two stops, time meant something to me now. I had a flight to catch and a strong feeling that if the government made me late for my flight, there would be no hotel and food vouchers, no ticket for the next flight and $200 for my inconvenience. So, when I heard my name called after only 45 minutes, I felt relief. About an hour to get to my flight, I thought. Not so bad. I’ll make it.
The agent looked like the last one, only Latino rather than white. And, the questions were the same. Social, prior addresses, where I was born. I answered each in turn. Then he asked whether I’d ever been arrested. “No, never.”
“That’s too bad,” he said. “It would have been much easier if you had.”
Whatever logic he was using, I knew I’d never understand, so I just accepted it. The thought that next time I’d just say “yes” passed through my mind. Next time. There would be a next time and a next and a next, I finally acknowledged. “Is there any way that I can resolve this?”
“Unlikely,” he said. “Maybe if you get Global Entry it would help. I doubt it, but maybe. What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a lawyer. I used to be a prosecutor.” He laughed. “So, you understand.” With that, he handed back my passport, said “Good luck,” and sent me on my way.
I made it to my flight on time. A small comfort, considering that next time I might not. I’d have to start scheduling longer layovers to account for the time that I’d inevitably spend in secondary. When I finally arrived home, I told my now-fiancée, Jenny. She had heard my Mexican border stories, yet was still shocked that it had happened again. After a few moments of reflection, she asked, “What happens if we travel together?”
“I guess you’ll have to wait for me.” That’s not really what she wanted to hear. Nor was it what I’d wanted to say. But, it was the reality. The government made me a sex offender and, apparently, that’s what I’d always be. I tried to console myself. It won’t be that much of an issue. An inconvenience. Some time wasted. Plus, flights with longer layovers were generally cheaper, so maybe I’d save money, if not time. And, more importantly, I thought, the label I’d been given, my newly adopted criminal past, would only affect me at the borders. I was wrong.
It was March 2016. I stood at the front desk in the lobby of the local YMCA. Jenny had convinced me to join. “We can work out together. It’ll be fun. Also, I can put you on my mother’s plan. It’s, like, $25 a month, and you won’t have to pay the membership fee.” I never thought of working out as fun, especially in a gym. Something about being inside in a room with 50 or more people who need to shower; others in full makeup trying not to break a sweat; and, of course, the obsessed — those who somehow managed to find several hours each day to lift and stretch, do cardio and make protein shakes, trade muscle-building techniques, and ramble on about competitions — that made me ill and intimidated me at the same time. When I agreed to join, I tacitly agreed not to complain about the gym, the people, or the smells. Without words, I had promised that I would make it fun; if not for myself, for Jenny.
I waited quietly while Jenny and the attendant argued about putting me on her mother’s account. “I can’t bill your mother without getting her permission. She’ll have to come down here.”
“Can I just have her approve it on the phone?”
“No, she’ll have to sign and agree to pay.” We should have anticipated this, but with wedding planning, making invitations, Jenny’s new work schedule (7 a.m.–7 p.m.), our collective pre-married brain was a bit muddled. Realizing that I wouldn’t be working out that day, I asked if I could at least take a look around. I had never seen the facilities.
“Sure, you’ll have to sign a release, and we’ll need a copy of your driver’s license.” We did an exchange. I handed her my license, and she handed me a release form. While I signed, she went into an office, photocopied my license and returned with the original. “Here you go.”
“Thanks,” I said and walked from the desk, past the check-in counter, and into the gym.
My tour took less than five minutes. I said goodbye to Jenny, who wanted to get in a quick workout while I ran some errands, and walked back toward the front desk. The same girl was standing there, the one who told us I couldn’t be added to her mom’s membership. She was looking at me in a weird sort of way, like she wanted to ask me something. I figured I’d preempt her. “Do I need to sign out or anything?”
“Could you just wait there a second, sir?” Sir. Now, I was a sir. What happened to “Mr. Miller?” What happened to the friendly smile? Was she speaking to someone else? I looked behind me and saw no one. “Do you mean me?” I asked, confused.
“Yes, just one second.” Sure, why not. Jenny was working out. I only had a few errands to run. I had some time to kill. The attendant walked away from the desk, looking back at me periodically. She went into a small office with a large, glass window. She leaned close to the woman at the desk, cupped her hand around the other’s ear, whispered something, then pointed at me through the glass. Him, the arm seemed to say. It was him. As a prosecutor, I had seen this accusatory arm motion at line-ups. Yep, that’s the one. It was definitely him. The police officers and lawyers would scribble some notes. This time, though, I was the only one in the line-up. There was no mistaking whom she had just accused. Number 1, step forward.
A few seconds later, the woman, older than the attendant, probably mid-30s, curly brown hair, walked out of the office. The attendant followed closely behind. “Sir, you have been banned from this facility. You will have to leave immediately.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“You have to leave right away. You’ve been banned.”
“But, I’ve never been here before. How could I be banned? This is my first time ever coming here. Really.”
“Sir, please just leave.”
People in the lobby were staring at me. Women and men backed away, and a pathway straight to the door was cleared. I suddenly realized what had happened. I’m a sex offender. I mean, they think that I’m a sex offender. “It’s not me. There is someone else with my same name and birthdate. I promise. This has happened to me at the border several times. Please, check again. Run my license number rather than just my name. Check whatever you have to check. It’s not me.”
Perplexed, the curly-haired woman asked, “You want us to look again?” Really, you want me to waste more of my time, you disgusting man? was what she was thinking.
“Yes. I want you to look again. It’s not me. It’s someone else. Please, just check again.” I don’t know whether she decided to humor me or if my pleading made her wonder if I was telling the truth. Regardless, she took my license and walked back to her office. The attendant attended.
I watched through the glass as she typed away at her computer and made a phone call. Approximately 15 minutes went by before she and the attendant emerged. Earlier, when she had demanded that I leave, she and the attendant stood behind the counter, several feet behind. This time, she came out from behind the counter, pushing open the waist-high, swinging wooden door. “I am so sorry,” she said as she approached. “So” — sounded more like “sooooo,” and when she said it, she lowered her head a bit — “this is soooo awkward. I am really, really sorry. This has never happened before.” I felt bad for her. She didn’t wear her discomfort well. Then she reached out to me, to touch my shoulder, as if to show that she was no longer afraid of me.
“It’s okay. It’s not your fault.” And it wasn’t. She was doing her job. I imagine that if I had children, I’d want the Y to run background checks on those who might be in the locker room with them. Yet, this fact didn’t make it any less embarrassing or uncomfortable to be called out in front of others — to be seen as a pervert, someone who should be feared and despised. And, though I didn’t want to upset her any more, I couldn’t help but ask, “Can you imagine what it’s like to have to deal with this?”
“I’m really sorry,” she said once more. Then she tried to change the topic. I let her. “I understand that you want to join. I’ll write something down, so when you come back to sign up, you don’t have to go through this again.”
“Thank you,” I said. I turned from the desk and started walking to the door. I stopped as it opened and looked back. The older woman and the attendant waved to me. They won’t remember, I thought as I walked out the door.
I drove away, no longer thinking about chores. Instead, I was mulling over what this latest encounter meant. The problem had moved in from the borders. It was no longer just an inconvenience while traveling. It reached into my everyday affairs, infected them. It was a virus with no known cure. I wondered what other aspects of my life would be affected. Would I be denied employment or even an interview if I sought a new job? (“Sorry, we don’t hire registered sex offenders.”) Would I be arrested if stopped for a speeding ticket? (“Hands behind your back. I said hands behind your back, scumbag. Now, get in the car.”) I imagined ducking my head to avoid the roof as an officer put me in the backseat of his cruiser.
As other scenarios rolled around my mind, I wondered what could be done to resolve this. There had to be something. “Don’t get your hopes up,” the first agent had said. “Unlikely,” another said. Echoes from the past. I started with Google. Google could help. Google was there when I needed to figure out how to wire a three-way switch, clean marble countertops, understand the “4 Cs” of diamonds, or find out whether the two-year-old steak in my freezer was still edible. Google knew all. Now, what could I use as a search term? I settled on: “I have the same name as a sex offender.” Not surprisingly, Google provided titles such as: “Man haunted by sex offender with same name and birthdate” and “When the only crime is having a common name” appeared on my screen. I was not alone. There were Jacksons and Johnsons and Teagues. Now, there were Millers, or at least a Miller (Odds are that there are Smiths, Johnsons, Williamses, Brownses, Joneses, Davises, Garcias, Rodriguezes, and Wilsons dealing with this as well, especially considering that combined we number over 13 million in the U.S. alone.)
The excitement of finding others was tempered by the fact that no solution was readily apparent. Lawyers offered little help. Some recommended changing my name. Others suggested a lawsuit. At almost 50, changing my name really isn’t an option. It is tied to everything I’ve ever touched: professional and personal relationships, Social Security, driver’s license, passport, post office, IRS, voter registration, my banks and credit cards, doctors, insurance companies, et cetera. I’d have to undo decades of paperwork and experiences. With respect to a lawsuit, well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that suing the government is an exercise in futility.
Dennis Teague had tried it. He sued the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Instead of agreeing to correct the error in the state system, Wisconsin offered Mr. Teague a letter stating that he was not the Dennis Teague with the criminal record. Can you imagine how useful a letter like that would be at Customs and Immigration? Little better than handing your elementary school teacher a letter scrawled in crayon, claiming to be from your mother. “Please excus David from jym. He has a stomak ake. David’s mom.”
Recently, I found something called the “Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP).” It’s part of the Department of Homeland Security, whose website boldly declares that TRIP is the “single point of contact for individuals who... seek resolution regarding difficulties they experienced during their travel screening at… airports… or crossing U.S. borders.” The goal of the program, the site continues, is to “welcome legitimate travelers while still securing our country from those who want to do us harm.” Whatever “legitimate traveler” meant, I was certain that I was one. So, I filled out the form and submitted the required supplemental documents. Perhaps one day I’d hear back.
“Unlikely,” my phantom agent whispered again and again.