In about a month, Mr. Mostafa, Lavender, and I are flying back to the States for our yearly visit. We are so excited. I miss my family and friends so much, and there will be much snuggling with my dogs (not to mention driving and assorted other perks of American life). This is the time when we start packing, tossing things here and there into an open suitcase on a bedroom floor. This is also the time when Saleh and I start expressing worry to one another about going through border patrol and customs, even though the last time we entered the United States, it went completely smoothly–everyone was nice as pie, and we made our connecting flight with plenty of time to spare. Thus far, that’s always how it goes–in fact, I’ve never had a negative experience in customs in an airport. But we’ve both had a pretty negative experience with border patrol agents, and that was enough to make us nervous every time we have to encounter them.
See, a little over five years ago, Mr. Mostafa and I decided to take a road trip. It was after Christmas and we both had a few weeks before classes started up again. So we planned out a trip to the west coast and back, hitting a bunch of major sights along the way.
We had an amazing time. We drove through Oklahoma and northern Texas, through New Mexico and Arizona, to the Grand Canyon. Then we drove up, over the Hoover Dam, and into Las Vegas, where we spent one night at the Bellagio and walked the Strip, where I had to convince Mr. Mostafa that it would actually not be funny at all to go to Caesar’s Palace and ask, “Did Caesar live here?” After that, we drove up through Nevada and spent a night in Reno, where we visited the National Automobile Museum. Next, we drove west through Lake Tahoe and Sacramento, into San Francisco, where we rode the cable cars as much as possible, took a boat ride around the Bay, and went ice skating in Union Square. Then we drove down the coast to Los Angeles, where we visited the Griffith Observatory and stayed at the Queen Mary in Long Beach.
And then we headed back toward Missouri. On the way, we drove through the extreme southwestern part of the country, through the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, and we planned to take our final two sightseeing stops in Texas, in San Antonio and Dallas. Mr. Mostafa was so excited to spend some time in Texas. He even wore his cowboy hat for the occasion of driving into Texas (although he took it off shortly afterward because it kept bumping on the roof of the car. A cowboy needs a truck for many reasons, ya’ll).
And he had to stop at the Texas state line to take a picture of the sign.
But it was on our way to San Antonio that we ran into trouble. I actually wrote out this whole story shortly after we got back to Missouri, so I wouldn’t forget any of the details. So…here we go.
At one point, in Arizona, we came to a border checkpoint. Now, I should mention that none of the border checkpoints we got stopped at were actually at the border. At no point did we try to cross into Mexico. But the border patrol had stops set up along the major highways, presumably to catch drug smugglers and undocumented immigrants.
I was driving. As I pulled the car to a stop at the checkpoint, a border patrol officer came up to the driver’s side window. At the same time, another officer led a drug-sniffing dog around car. As the dog sniffed, the officer at the window asked me, “Both United States citizens?”
Saleh is not a United States citizen. He was in the country legally, of course, on a student visa. But US citizen he is not. However, I wasn’t thinking. I just wanted to keep going. We were in the middle of the desert, with no civilization in sight, and the fuel light had just come on. In Arizona, no less, which has the well-earned reputation of not being the greatest place in the world to get stopped if you’re not an American citizen (or if you’re an American citizen who is brown and/or has an accent that indicates that English is not your first language). So when the officer asked if we were both United States citizens, I said, “Yes, sir.”
By then, I guess the dog had confirmed that we weren’t hiding a pound of pot in the trunk, because he and his officer had moved on to the car behind us. I’m white as a china plate, and Mr. Mostafa is pretty white, too. My English is native. We had passed inspection. The officer at my window said nothing, just stepped back and waved us on.
As we continued driving, Saleh was silent for about a minute before he said to me, “I’m not a citizen.”
“Oh!” I said, realizing what I had done. But to be honest, the unintentional little white lie didn’t weigh on my conscience. I’m a citizen, and Saleh was in the country legally, and I was just glad we had made it through. This checkpoint in Arizona was little more than a couple of border patrol SUVs, a few officers, and a couple of dogs, and I don’t want to think about where they would have taken us had we been detained at that checkpoint.
We were fine until the next day, when we headed toward Texas. We left Las Cruces, New Mexico that morning and set out for an extremely long day of driving, aiming to reach San Antonio by 8 o’clock or so that evening. The plan was to get to our hotel, check in, relax a little, and then have dinner on the Riverwalk. A nice plan, right?
There is a border checkpoint at Sierra Blanca, Texas, on I-10. It’s a lot more permanent than the checkpoint we encountered in Arizona; at Sierra Blanca, there are huge carport-like structures that cover the highways, and in between the highways there is a big building; a permanent border patrol station. This time, Saleh was driving, and I was pleasantly immersed in a book on my Kindle. At first, the routine was exactly the same as Arizona; one border patrol officer at the window, another leading a drug-sniffing dog around the car, the same question, “Both United States citizens?”
After the Arizona checkpoint, Saleh had told me that he felt guilty. “I’m proud of my country,” he had said. “I love the US, but it feels like I was rejecting being Saudi by letting him think I’m American.” But I guess by the time we got to Sierra Blanca, Saleh’s nagging conscience had been silenced by the thought of the barbecued beef brisket waiting for him on the Riverwalk in San Antonio, because when this officer asked him that question, he said, “Yup.”
But, although his English is excellent, Mr. Mostafa does have a nonnative accent. Even that tiny “yup” was discernible to the officer as nonnative speech. I could almost literally see the officer’s ears prick up, like a cat’s when it hears a can of food being opened. The officer asked again, this time more sternly, “Sir, are you both American citizens?”
Saleh fessed up. “No, I’m not. She is”—he pointed to me—“but I’m not.”
“Sir, I need you to pull your car over to the right and park it. I’ll need to see your license and registration.”
He did as the officer told him. We parked the car, dug out the license and registration, and waited.
The officer sauntered over to the car a few minutes later, as if just trying to take as long as he possibly could. When he arrived at the window, he said, “Okay, sir, let me see that paperwork.”
Saleh handed it to him.
The officer said, “So, you’re not a US citizen. Why are you here?”
“I’m a student.”
“So what paperwork do you have that shows you’re here legally?”
Saleh was flustered. “Uh, I don’t have my paperwork with me.”
“Well, where is it?”
“In my nightstand drawer.”
“Why is it there?”
“Because I didn’t think I would need it just traveling state-to-state.”
“You need to have that paperwork with you at all times.”
“I…uh, I didn’t know that.”
“I need both of you to get out of the car and come with me.”
We did. I walked to the right of Mr. Mostafa, and the officer walked to the left, hand slightly extended, as if prepared to grab Saleh should he decide to break away and run. The thought of him doing this made me laugh a little in my head; it was as likely as Saleh dancing on a table in a clown suit. The damage to his dignity would have been exactly the same in either situation.
We were escorted into the station. To my left, a long green bench sat against the wall, running almost the entire length of the wall. Handcuffs were bolted to the green bench every few feet or so, and officers’ desks sat facing the bench. At the third desk, three young men sat on the bench, each handcuffed to it. All of them looked scared. One of them had obviously been crying.
“Good Lord,” I thought. “What have we gotten ourselves into?”
I was worried that the officer would handcuff us to the bench, but luckily, he didn’t. “Sit there,” he said to us, motioning to the space on the bench in front of the first desk. We did. He sat at the desk.
“Now,” said the officer curtly, picking up a pen from the cup on the desk, “What country are you from?”
Saleh answered. As the officer scrawled down this information, the crying kid on the bench a few feet down from us lit up a little bit. I noticed the passports on the desk in front of the three handcuffed men; all green, identical to Saleh’s, which was sitting safely at home in his nightstand drawer. These three guys were Saudis, too. Apparently they had known enough to not go road tripping without their passports, but it didn’t seem to be doing them a lot of good.
“Salaam alaykum,” the kid said to Saleh. I’m sure he felt a little soothed knowing that there was someone here who understood his language, someone else who understood the boat he was in.
Mr. Mostafa nodded at him and replied politely, “Walaykum asalaam,” then turned back to face our officer.
The officer’s face had darkened; he pointed his pen at us and snapped, “Don’t talk to him, got it?”
“Yeah,” Saleh replied.
The questions continued. “What’s your full name? What’s your birthday? Where do you live? What university do you attend? What degree are you working on? What’s your address in your country?”
Mr. Mostafa answered all of these questions easily. Then they started asking questions about his parents. “What’s your dad’s full name?”
“What’s your dad’s birthday?”
“Uh, I don’t know.”
The officer’s eyes narrowed. To him, this was suspicious. “You don’t know your father’s birthday?”
“No, I don’t.”
“I just don’t.”
I wanted to explain that Saudi culture doesn’t place a lot of emphasis on birthdays, and therefore it is totally normal that he does not know his parents’ birthdays. Heck, he didn’t even know his own birthday until he had to ask his mom for that information to register for college. But I kept my mouth shut.
The officer decided to move on. “What’s your mom’s full name?”
Again, he answered easily.
“Any brothers or sisters?”
“One brother, one sister.”
Saleh provided the names.
The officer paused. He scratched his head with his pen. “Wait,” he said. “Your sister’s middle name is Mohammed?”
Saleh was getting frustrated, understandably. “Yes,” he said in a slightly annoyed voice.
I wanted to explain that in Saudi culture, all children, regardless of their sex, are given two middle names; the first name of their father, and the first name of their father’s father. But again, I kept my mouth shut. I couldn’t help but wonder at the lack of cultural literacy that these border patrol officers were displaying. I mean, they had three other guys from Saudi Arabia handcuffed to a bench. Surely they encounter Saudis (not to mention other Arabs) frequently; Saudi Arabia sends thousands of students to study in the States every year. I hear a lot of arguments that the reason why border control is such an important issue is because it keeps terrorists out. Well, I know that many Americans automatically think “Terrorist!” when they hear “Saudi Arabia,” so you’d think that these border patrol officers would have at least a little bit of cultural training, so that they wouldn’t be shocked or suspicious every time an Arab comes through the border patrol station not knowing his mother’s birthday.
Two desks down, in front of the three handcuffed men, the officer at that desk asked, “What? I’m confused. Your mom’s middle name is Mohammed, too?”
I giggled a little bit. The officer in front of us scowled at me, looked over at the other officer who had asked that question, then got up and left. We sat on the bench for a few minutes. Since we had nothing else to do, we listened in on the conversation going on a few desks down.
“Where are you guys going?” the officer asked the men.
“Back to school,” the crying kid said. “To the University of Alabama. We are students there.”
“And why are you driving through Texas?”
“It’s winter break. We wanted to see some cities. We went to Las Vegas and Los Angeles.”
For the first time, I really looked around the room I was sitting in. There were officers outside, of course, and there were a few officers at desks in front of the green handcuff-festooned bench. But mostly, the room was filled with officers who didn’t look like they were doing much. As time went on, they switched off on outside duty, but when they weren’t holding a drug-sniffing dog’s leash or asking drivers if they were United States citizens, they were sitting around at a huge table in the middle of the room, joking around with each other and laughing uproariously, as if they were trying to show us just how much fun they were having being border patrol officers, and that it was just such a shame that we were on the wrong side of the law, because that meant we couldn’t have fun like them.
Except that Saleh and I were not on the wrong side of the law. We were just being treated like we were.
On the opposite wall was a long narrow table. I noticed on that table were several scales. One of the scales held a small plastic bag containing what appeared to be a small amount of pot. Suddenly, I understood why the three young men were handcuffed.
I nudged Mr. Mostafa and nodded toward the scales. “I don’t think they’ll make it back to Alabama. Looks like our friends had a little too much fun in Vegas.”
He saw what I was talking about, then shook his head and said, “Kids.”
Another officer came and sat down in front of us and started asking Saleh the exact same questions as before. He answered them all, although he got the same weird look whenever he told the officer his sister’s full name. Finally, the officer leaned back in his chair. I suspect he had the urge to put his feet up on the desk and cross his arms behind his head in that classic police “I got you right where I want you” pose, and he probably would have if he hadn’t known it would have made him look like a total douche. He said, “So if you’re here legally, why don’t you have your paperwork with you?”
Saleh answered, “I’m just traveling from state to state. I didn’t think I would need it.”
The officer said, “What made you think that?”
I could tell that Saleh was becoming irritated; the way the officer was speaking to him as though he were an idiot was grating on my nerves, as well. “Well, when I got here, the International Student Services office at my university told us that we needed to have the paperwork with us if we left the country for any reason, so that we could re-enter. But they didn’t say anything about state-to-state travel. They told us that if we weren’t traveling outside the country, we needed to keep the paperwork in a safe place, not on us.”
“Well, your university’s wrong. You have to have that paperwork at all times.”
I couldn’t help but think, “What a crock. That’s not true.” But I kept quiet. I kept pretty quiet throughout the whole ordeal, actually, because the border patrol officers didn’t talk to me at all. I didn’t seem to cause them any concern whatsoever. This was before I converted to Islam and wore hijab, so to them I was just an average American white girl. I could have been in the States illegally, even though I’m pale and my English is native. Heck, I could have been an American citizen serial killer wanted in twelve states, but these officers didn’t seem to care about that. I think they were all just hoping that they’d caught themselves a big fat terrorist fish. Keep in mind, this all happened a couple of weeks after that Nigerian guy lit his crotch on fire on a plane landing in Detroit, so these officers were likely–and understandably–in a state of hyper-awareness when it came to terrorism. But it seemed to me that if they were going to engage in profiling, that was all the more reason for them to at least have some cultural training.
Meanwhile, Saleh replied, “I don’t think that’s true. Besides, I thought my driver’s license would serve as identification when I’m traveling in the States. I had to present all that paperwork, plus a letter from my embassy and a letter from my university, in order to get that license.”
“Yeah, but how are those people at the license office supposed to know whether or not those documents are fake? They don’t have the training to recognize fake documents. No, you have to have all your paperwork with you at all times.”
I wanted to say, “Well, then it seems like you’re all in the same woefully undertrained boat.” But I didn’t.
The officer asked Mr. Mostafa, “Is there any way you can get that paperwork faxed to us? Is it at your house? Does anyone else have a key to your house?”
Saleh replied, “Well, I can call my friend. He lives in the same apartment complex; maybe he can get the front office to let him into the apartment and then fax me the paperwork from the office.”
“Okay, try that. Do you have any other identification on you?”
Saleh took out his wallet and handed the officer his university ID and his ID card from his embassy. The officer got on the phone and started making calls, getting reports from the state and from the embassy. Saleh took his phone out of his pocket and dialed his friend’s number, as the officer had instructed.
Another officer approached us. “Sir, you need to hang up that phone right now,” he ordered Saleh, who looked confused.
“But he just told me to call my friend so he could—“
“Sir, you need to hang up that phone RIGHT NOW!” the officer repeated, almost shouting the last two words, his hand moving toward the nightstick on his belt.
“What the hell is going on here?” I thought. “This is insane!”
Saleh hung up, tossed his phone on the desk, and threw his hands up in frustration. The officer at the desk, who had told Saleh to make that phone call, was too busy to notice what had just happened, or maybe he didn’t want to contradict his fellow officer. Either way, he didn’t look up from the desk.
The officer at the desk finished his business and said, “We’re waiting to get some faxes from the university, from the state, and from the Department of Homeland Security. We can’t let you go until you’ve been cleared.” He got up and left.
We sat there on the green bench. I absentmindedly played with one of the handcuffs bolted to the bench. Officers came and uncuffed the three men sitting on the bench with us, and led them to a back room.
Awhile later, yet another officer came back to our desk. I was beginning to think that a requirement of being a border patrol officer was that you had to have some kind of attention deficit disorder, since none of them seemed to be able to focus on us for more than a few minutes. Each one that we interacted with would sit with us for a few minutes and then move on to other things, leaving other officers to deal with us as we sat waiting to be released.
This officer was carrying a stack of papers. He sat down at the desk. He asked Mr. Mostafa for his name and his country of origin. Again. Saleh complied.
The officer said, “Well, we got a lot of faxes on you. You clear at your university, and your background check is fine. Homeland Security says you’re here legally. So…I guess…” The officer didn’t seem to know what else to say, but he seemed reluctant to admit that maybe, just maybe, we weren’t criminals after all.
Yet another officer approached. He leaned on the desk and asked the other officer, “Did you talk to the big?”
Saleh and I looked at each other, confused. The sitting officer looked just as confused as we did. He said, “Uh…the big?”
The standing officer heaved a frustrated sigh and shook his head at his colleague. “The FBI, you idiot.” (I swear I am not making this up. Now that this experience is well behind me, there’s plenty I can find to laugh about it. But at the time, I was terrified.)
“Oh! Oh, no, I didn’t. Should I?”
“Well, yeah. You might want to give them a call and see if they’ve got anything on this guy.”
I wanted to point out that the officer at the desk hadn’t actually made any calls at all regarding our “case”; some other guy, who was now nowhere to be seen, had. But I didn’t. The officer at the desk looked up a number from a book in a drawer, painstakingly dialed it, identified himself to the person who answered, and requested a check on Mr. Mostafa, reading back his name and all of the numbers that the border patrol had collected to identify him. Throughout this whole experience, not one of them ever pronounced Saleh’s name correctly—or even the English approximation that comes closest to pronouncing his name correctly. That drove me crazy.
After the officer hung up with “the big,” he said, “Okay, so we’re just waiting for the FBI to get back to us.” Then he, too, got up and left.
I learned a lot of things that day, but one of the main things I learned is that the FBI is slow. Really, really slow. We sat there for what seemed like forever as officers came in and out of the building, some arriving with huge sandwiches that filled the big room with their yummy smell and made my stomach growl. Saleh and I were realizing how hungry we were. It had been a good seven hours since we had eaten breakfast, and we had come to this border patrol checkpoint right before we planned to stop for lunch. At one point, a female border patrol officer came in (the only one I encountered during this ordeal), sat down at the big table with her sandwich, jerked her head at Saleh and me, and asked her colleagues, “What are they in for?”
I wanted to speak up and say, “I could very well be here illegally, or I may have human body parts stuffed in a freezer somewhere, but I do speak English, so, you know, you could talk to me,” but I did not.
As we watched the officers eat, much the same way my dogs sit and stare at us sadly when we eat dinner, a man approached us from the other direction. He was wearing a dress shirt, khakis, and a tie, completely unlike the rest of the officers, who were all wearing uniforms similar to that of police. He was wearing some kind of badge around his neck.
He walked up to Saleh, and, with no introduction, said, “What’s your name?”
Saleh looked at him suspiciously, but he answered.
“And where are you from?”
I could tell Saleh was getting sick of answering the same questions over and over again, and I didn’t blame him one bit. I was suspicious, myself. I was wondering who the heck this guy was, where he had come from, and why he was dressed like this when the rest of the officers were in uniforms.
Saleh must have been thinking the same thing, because he said, “Who are you and why should I tell you anything?”
It was at this point that I realized that the officers at the table really had, to an extent, been putting on a show for us, and that they had all been paying attention to us, regardless of how indifferent they seemed, because the room went silent at Saleh’s rebuttal.
The plainclothes officer, or whatever he was, said, “I’m a border patrol officer. But c’mon, dude, you know who I am.”
“Uh, no, I don’t,” Saleh responded. “I’ve never seen you before. And I don’t know why I should have to tell you anything. Who are you?”
A few officers sauntered over, as if they sensed a situation that might need to be taken care of. The guy with the badge repeated, “I’m a border patrol officer. But c’mon, dude, you know that. There’s no need to act that way. I mean, it’s your right to ask, but c’mon, why would you?”
I could think of about a thousand reasons why, and I was relieved that someone had actually used the word “right” in this place, even if it was only to imply that someone should waive theirs. Because to be honest, in this place, “rights” seemed to be a concept as foreign as Mr. Mostafa, especially the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Saleh responded, “Fine, but I didn’t know that, and I’ve been asked these questions over and over again. Do you think the answers are going to change?” Finally, he rattled off his name, country, and parents’ names.
The plainclothes officer chuckled and said, “Okay, dude,” and walked away. Evidently only the cool border patrol officers who employed youthful slang were allowed to not wear a uniform and to have a badge around their necks.
After that officer walked away, a few of the others hung around the desk. “I have to pee,” Saleh said to them. “How much longer is this going to take?”
One of the officers came and escorted Saleh down a hallway at the back right of the room. When he got back, the officers at the desk had dispersed, apparently having decided that I wasn’t a security threat on my own. Saleh sat down and said, “There are jail cells back there. The three other guys are locked in cells. I had to pee in an open cell. That officer stood there and watched me.” He shook his head and put his head in his hands.
All I could think was, “Is this Texas or Guantanamo?”
We sat there a little while longer, when finally an officer sitting at the fax machine grabbed a paper off the machine, spun around in his chair, and announced, “We’ve got something from the big!”
About six officers, a couple of whom had spoken to us at the desk, converged at the fax machine and studied the printout. They took turns looking at us, and then looking back at the paper, as if just waiting for one of us to do something really bad so they would have something to put on this FBI report. Because it was clean. And they all looked sad about it. The Sierra Blanca border patrol checkpoint would not be on the national news that day for capturing a terrorist sought by the FBI.
One of the officers came back to us and said simply, “You’re free to go.” He motioned to one of the other officers and said, “Escort them out.”
I wanted to scream at them as I left. I had learned so much. This piece has gone on for far too long already, so I won’t enumerate all my lessons here, but I will say this. One, it doesn’t matter whether racial or linguistic profiling is legal, it is going to happen, no matter what…and when it does, rights are never sacrosanct. Technically, if someone says that he is a United States citizen (or if he exercises his right to refuse to answer the question at all), federal law requires that law enforcement officers take him at his word, and he must be afforded all of the rights of a U.S. citizen. So, when Saleh said, “Yup,” when the first officer asked if he was a United States citizen, he should have been allowed to pass once the dog had finished sniffing our car, even if it wasn’t technically true. But that wasn’t going to happen, because of his accent. Granted, he shouldn’t have lied about being a citizen in the first place. But he came clean immediately, and even if he hadn’t lied to begin with, we would have ended up in the same boat–stuck on the perp bench at the border checkpoint because he didn’t have his “papers.” The whole situation screams “profiling,” and it did nothing but make both of us forever after nervous about border crossings even though we should have nothing at all to be nervous about.
Two, apparently, a valid driver’s license is not sufficient proof to a law enforcement officer that someone is in the United States legally. Much fuss has been made in recent years about laws in border states that attempt to require all non-citizens to carry their immigration paperwork at all times; some conservative pundits have argued that these laws simply require people to carry their driver’s licenses with them, and is that really so much to ask? But again, in practice, a valid driver’s license may be considered insufficient to prove one’s legal status. If you don’t believe me, I hope that someday you travel to a foreign country legally and they stop you with just your driver’s license on you and you end up having to pee with a border patrol officer watching you.
Three, if you are on the run from the law for cooking meth in your basement or for beating the crap out of your wife or for kidnapping and killing a child, don’t worry; as long as you’re white and sound like a native English speaker and aren’t smuggling anything that a dog can sniff out, you’ll make it through the border patrol checkpoints just fine.
I could tell that the guy that had been assigned to escort us out was a good ol’ boy right away, the kind of guy that I went to high school with. He was tall, a little chubby, light-skinned, and bald, and he had a plug of chew stuck in his lip. Maybe it was because his demeanor reminded me so much of my brother, or maybe it was just because I was so hungry, but now that we were finally free, I let loose on him as he walked us across the highway back to our car. “Well, that took forever,” I said. “We’re starving and cranky and we just wanted to get to San Antonio for dinner. Four hours? You guys kept us there for four hours, violating our rights, just to act disappointed that you had no reason to keep us and throw us in jail?”
The officer looked truly apologetic, which threw me off guard a little bit. “I know, I’m sorry,” he said. He spit a stream of tobacco juice into the dirt. “They did keep ya’ll there forever. Hey, let me tell you something—the next time ya’ll come through here, when they ask you if you’re citizens, just say yes.”
I stared at him for a few seconds. Although I knew I had no reason to, I wanted to kick him. But of course, I didn’t. With as little sarcasm as I could muster, I said, “Thanks. That’s great advice.”
Mr. Mostafa and I got in the car. The driver’s side window was still rolled down from the initial stop. The officer leaned on the car and repeated to Saleh, “Seriously, man…just say yes next time. Just say yes when they ask.”
Saleh forced a smile and said, “Okay. Thank you.”
The officer said one more time, just for good measure: “Just say yes.” I started to wonder if this guy had been jamming out to Taylor Swift on his way to work this morning, or if he just had a lot of practice trying to get girls to do things they didn’t want to do. He tapped on the roof of the car as a final farewell, and waved us on.
We drove in silence for about a minute. Then Saleh let out a deep breath and said, “Just say yes, my ass.”