Rude US Customs Officials: How Not To Welcome People To The United States

U.S. CustomsSome people should not be allowed to wear a uniform.

While flying from Spain to the U.S. to attend the Gadling annual team summit, I touched down first at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. I got into line at U.S. Customs to enter the country.

The line was in a huge room with a row of bulletproof glass booths manned by U.S. Customs & Border Protection officials checking passports and visas. These booths blocked entrance to the baggage claim area and, officially, the United States. The line for U.S. citizens and Green Card holders was long but moving steadily thanks to several booths being open and the generally efficient work of the U.S. Customs folks manning them.

The line for foreigners was a different story. Only one booth was open and the line was practically at a standstill. There was a bit of grumbling in various languages but no loud complaining. Everyone just stood there looking jetlagged while watching a big flat screen TV hanging over the booths.

It was playing a promotional video about all the things to see in the United States. Images of the Grand Canyon, Alamo, Yosemite and other great attractions flickered across the screen, interspersed with a diversity of smiling Americans saying, “Welcome.”

As I waited my turn, one woman in her early twenties who looked like she was from Southeast Asia walked up to the head of the foreigners’ line where an airport worker stood.

“Excuse me,” the Asian woman said with a heavy accent, holding out her ticket, “I will be late for flight.”

“There’s nothing I can do,” the worker said, waving her off. “Get back in line.”

“But the flight–“

“Wait in line!”

The Asian woman quickly retreated, looking at her watch.I was about to shrug this off as Case #4,589,513 of Airport Rudeness when the tale took a turn for the worse. After a couple of minutes, the airport worker called over a U.S. Customs officer. I hesitate to describe him because you might think I’m exaggerating, but believe me when I say he was short, with a big paunch and black, greased back hair. His face was also greasy and over a poorly trimmed mustache he had a big, pockmarked nose – a boozer’s nose, a Bukowski nose.

The airport official said something to him and pointed at the Asian woman. The passenger looked over hopefully. The officer summoned her by jutting his chin in her direction.

The woman approached with her ticket held out.

“Excuse me. I am late for flight. . .”

The officer gestured at the ticket.

“What’s this?”

“My flight. . .”

“So you’re late? Everybody’s late! Hey, is anyone else here late?”

“I am!” some British wanker chimed in.

“Go,” the Customs agent said, dismissing her with a wave of the hand.

She stood there a moment, looking confused.

“Get back in line!” he shouted.

I almost said something. I almost said, “I’m not late for my flight. I have a three-hour layover. She can go in front of me. And stop being so unprofessional.”

But I didn’t. Unlike last month’s run-in with a rude airport security official, I was trying to enter a country, not leave one, and speaking up against this lowlife wouldn’t help the Asian woman and would almost certainly get me in trouble. So I didn’t say anything. I still feel bad about it, but there really wasn’t anything I could do. The fact that he did this within full sight of several of his coworkers showed that his work environment didn’t discourage that sort of thing.

Another small man with a bit of power treating other people like dirt.

We kept waiting in line as a succession of TV Americans welcomed us with big smiles. After a while the Asian woman stopped looking at her watch. She’d missed her flight.

[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Irish airports will offer pre-flight US customs and immigration

Noel Dempsey, the transport minister of Ireland, has announced that he will meet with US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff next week. The two will sign an agreement that will allow airports in Dublin and Shannon, Ireland to provide US customs screening and immigration checkpoints prior to take-off. This will exponential up the convenience factor and also make Ireland a more viable hub for travelers flying between the US and Europe.

Passengers flying out of Ireland will still have to pass through customs and immigration. But they will be able to do so in Irish airports, where it is bound to be less crowded and hectic. Also, since no further immigration or customs clearance is necessary, planes from Ireland can land in domestic terminals at US airports.

Currently, Dublin and Shannon have US immigration checkpoints for outbound fliers. However, passengers still have to go through customs once they reach the US. The agreement with US Homeland Security will not bring immediate change. Shannon will begin offering full immigration and customs service next summer. Dublin will start the program in 2010.

[Via Airwise]

Cuba Closer than Ever for Americans

Canada’s southernmost city might as well be called a suburb of Detroit. The Motor City’s skyline is distinctly visible from downtown Windsor, which lies just across the Detroit River. While most border-hopping is for the purpose of shopping or sightseeing, Windsor’s airport is a major gateway to Cuba for US residents.

It is illegal for folks from the US of A to spend money in Cuba. Thus, there are virtually no direct flights. On the other hand, Cuba is just another Caribbean destination for Canucks. No one made a fuss when Canada’s Sunwing Airlines announced a weekly flight from Windsor to the Cuban resort town of Varadero, about 50 miles from Havana. At least, no one made a fuss except the Detroit News, which published a controversial story about Sunwing’s new service:

“While U.S. citizens are mostly barred from spending money on travel to Cuba, officials with the airline and airport expect Americans to make up at least half the passengers on the route.”

Controversial? Not according to Windsor Airport officials, who shrugged the report off by saying that 50% of passenger who fly to Cuba from Canada are already US citizens. Sunwing’s expectations are nothing new.

The punishment for US citizens traveling to Cuba is usually a $5,000 fine, though it can be significantly higher. But most Yankees don’t get caught. Since Cuba does not stamp passports directly, there is no evidence that a traveler ever set foot on the forbidden isle. US customs officials have been known to stake out flights arriving in Canada from Cuba, but US residents can avoid suspicion as long as they don’t head directly for a connecting flight to the US or run straight for the border. (A t-shirt emblazoned with a gigantic red maple leaf might also help).

Photo by Flickr user Mr. Mark