net.wars: It is preferable that the ears be exposed

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 22 August 2003

One of the peculiarities about being a citizen of a country is that you never find out about the hell that other people go through to get into it.

Wendy M Grossman

Recently, one of my friends was invited on a press trip to the US. In the old days, say two years ago, he'd just have rolled up at the airport, passport in hand. But these are the new days of increased vigilance, and so he must pay £67 and apply for a visa, a process significantly more detailed than applying for a Visa card. The supplementary form that used to be for "male nonimmigrant visa applicants between the ages of 16 and 45, regardless of nationality and regardless of where they apply" is now for everyone.

Here are the fun things you have to put on the forms while you're sitting there on the Group W bench playing with the pencils.

Parents' full names.

Spouse's name, whether or not you are still married. (I decline to answer on the grounds that we were only married a year and a half, 20 years ago.)

Whether you have any "significant skills or training including Firearms, Explosives, Nuclear, Biological, or Chemical experience". (Yes: I play clawhammer banjo.) Ed: shouldn't this be under "illegal weapons?" Your last two employers before the current one. (No one would ever hire me.)

Whether you have ever lost a passport or had one stolen. (Oh, yeah, in early 1975 my car got broken into in New York City on the Central Park side of Fifth around 95th, but I think that passport was expired.)

List all countries you have entered in the last ten years. (Then they give you a two-inch box. I guess if you travel a lot, they don't want you anyway. Didn't I go to Zurich sometime?)

List all organisations to which you have ever belonged or contributed. (This is the question that regularly stumps American kids applying to college. It's perfectly simple if you just open a file when you are 12 and keep a list, adding everything as you go along. Then, when you're 49, you can remember that time you had to join the Hoy-at-Anchor Folk Club in order to hear Dana Robinson.)

Have you ever been in ... no, wait, let's get this syntax right, since apparently they think the capitals make the questions seem more solemn and worthy of truthful answers, an effect marred somewhat by their having earlier misspelled "separated" on the form. Have You Ever Been in an Armed Conflict, Either as a Participant or Victim? (Does my friend Michael's getting mugged in Manhattan for his camera three times before he was 18 count? )

And, of course, "Have you ever been arrested ... ?" Even if you were pardoned later.

I think it's clear that I would not get in if I didn't have a US passport, even though no, I have never been arrested.

You must also supply a colour photograph taken within the last six months, two inches square, head centred in the frame, to precise sizing and placement specifications in front of a white or light background. "It is preferable," the instructions say solemnly, "that the ears be exposed." (This is presumably to ensure that no Vulcans attempt to lie about their planet of origin.)

As a non-resident American who goes back frequently and loves the place, I find it distressing how many of my friends and acquaintances either cannot or will not visit the US any more. One friend says he will give up travelling entirely rather than give a biometric for a passport. Another declines to answer, "Have you…ever been a drug abuser or addict?" although clearly the appropriate response is something along the lines of, "Yes - so I can run for President". Australian privacy advocate Roger Clarke refused to run the gamut to attend CFP this year.

When the attacks happened, much of the world united in support and sympathy for the US, and Bush had an unprecedented amount of goodwill to work with. The suspicion with which everyone travelling to the US (as well as American citizens travelling inside the US, of course) is now regarded is only a tiny piece of how that good will has dissipated, but it is significant in that for most people their experience of the US is going to be tainted by the forms, the long wait at immigration, and the questioning when they get there. Other countries, with a much longer history of terrorism problems and equal immigration problems do not do this. There are beaches, gambling, and conferences in other parts of the world, too, and if on your vacation you simply have to hug Mickey, well, there's always (ugh!) EuroDisney (or "Disneyland Paris" as we're supposed to call it). The cross-cultural loss this implies will hurt America more than it hurts the rest of the world.

Still, if you are turned down, you'll be in good company. Like in the old days when JBB - Jailed By the British - was one of the highest honors that could be awarded by Her Majesty's Government, "Banned in the USA" could become a worthy imprimatur. Could become one of the things they look for when awarding the Nobel Peace Prize.

Oh, yes: my friend got his visa. They asked him: "How long have you been a freelance journalist?" And they let him in?

Technorati tags:   
You can discuss this article on our discussion board.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).