Ever seen a big red line through your customs form? It is not pleasant.
And as everyone walked left, the stern lady with her button top and glasses barely glanced at me before pointing out, “you go that way,” with a nod to the right.
And just like that, I was cast from the population that walked into the US as a free man and placed in one of the most horrible airport situations I have ever faced.
Thank you, USA. Thank you for your extremely unwelcome welcome.
Recently I took a 4-night trip to Cabo with my favourite travel aggregator, Travelocity. The excitement built up for days. I was to attend a Summit with some of my favourite travel bloggers known as the Gnomads. No kids, no worries. Just a single mum making her way to Mexico, with a short 2-hour layover in the US.
The first flight was rough. Over 13 hours from Melbourne to Los Angeles and I didn’t sleep. Unlike most cities I have travelled to, the US requires you to collect your luggage and check it back in when transiting within its borders. Even if you only have 2 hours.
I was exhausted, but I lined up with the throngs of people that I knew would be in LAX. Possibly one of the worst airports in terms of chaos and crowds I’ve ever been to. I usually avoid it like the plague, but Melbourne to LAX, LAX to Cabo was the most direct route and that’s all I wanted – to be in Mexico.
Once through the line, you go to a computer and enter your passport details. It prints out a small receipt. I barely noticed the line through my face and stumbled to the exit.
It was here I was glanced over and told to move to the right to join an even longer queue. My mood changed from exhausted to pissed. But I joined the queue. We all know you don’t have a choice in an airport.
As the line moved I started to release the peevdom I inherited and got excited to be once again at the front of the queue. The American customs agent was friendly enough asking me why I was here, what was I doing.
“Just transiting,” I said.
He nodded and said, “you’ll have to follow me.”
That sounded ominous.
1 hour till boarding
Like a criminal, I followed the uniform officer into a CAUTION NO ENTRY room. Sterile. Uncomfortable airport chairs. An obnoxious TV showing local news. A ridiculously expensive vending machine. And signs everywhere saying no electronics. No phone, no computer, no kindle. Just sit and you will be called. No indication of time. No, we understand your flight takes off in a mere two hours – actually one by the time this all happened.
And so, I wait, wondering WTF is going on. After half an hour I am dreading making my flight and finally, a stern-looking man calls my name. He proceeds to ask my whole life story.
- Where are you going?
- Where are your kids?
- How do you earn money?
- Why are you here again?
- How many times have you been here?
- You’ve been twice in 2 years? Hmmmmm.
- Where’s your ex-husband?
- How does he earn money?
- What’s your current partner do?
- Why isn’t he here?
And on and on and on. I ask the question, “Why am I here?” And get told by the officer that he is the one asking the questions. Oh, boy did that get on my nerves.
1/2 hour till boarding
I feel my word vomit starting and decide at the risk of ending up in a US prison I was going to give it to him. I asked him again why I was being detained against my will. That I didn’t even have any interest in being in the US, all I wanted to do was get on my plane to Mexico. Another officer came over to take part in the confrontation, I was told by the most obnoxious male officer “too bad, you’re here, aren’t you. You are here in the US. It is a privilege to be here, not a right.”
I almost screamed, “I don’t want to be.” Instead, I say it with patronising patience and tell him my flight is leaving in ½ an hour and will they be paying for my rebooked flight because of all this.
Both officers ask me to wait and leave the room. Another 10 minutes go past as I sit there fuming.
An English lady next to me screams at her questioning officer that she won’t answer one question and they can put her back on the plane to England, she has no interest in visiting the US. I almost wish I had demanded the same. I mean either way if they don’t let me in I have to get on a plane so let me take my freakin plane to Mexico that is now boarding in 15 minutes.
15 minutes till boarding
Finally, the officer returns with my passport. And reveals the big truth I’ve been waiting for. I have a B1/B2 Visa which allows me 6 months entry into the US. As a single mum (WOMAN) without her “husband” to support her they did not think I was a viable person to enter the country and be trusted to support myself.
- I have supported my family for the last 5 years through my line of work. Not a man.
- I do not want to enter the US, I want to get on a plane to paradise.
I explain number 2 to him since #1 is none of his sexist business.
He again tells me he can’t let me into the US for 6 months, but he is happy to let me in for one month. For goodness sake, “I don’t care,” I yell, “I’m getting on a plane in 5 minutes!”
5 minutes till boarding
He stamps my passport, passes it back to me with a flippant, “Good luck”.
I ask, “Will this be a problem when I’m going home?”
“It should not be a problem,” he promises.
The admin staff issues me a note that says if I don’t make my flight they will bear the consequences and cost.
Then I run. Like I’ve never run before.
I am the last to board. They hold the flight having been told what the delay was by airport security. But I make my flight and continue to let all the frustrated and angry feelings melt away as my plane leaves the US and flies to paradise. I refuse to let the issue spoil the only 4 days I have in paradise.
I fly back home.
Returning back through the US
Oh, yes, that so-called promise was a lie. As I fly from Cabo to LAX ready to rest for 2 hours before my giant flight I get the exact same treatment at LAX. Except for this time, an airline staff comes looking for me, telling me and the officers that I am going to miss my flight and that I need to leave. The bored and irritating custom officer releases me to her. And she races me through the airport to collect my luggage, check my luggage and run to the gate.
It’s been several months since the event and my feelings of interrogation and irritation at being treated like a criminal, because I was a single mum, travelling without a husband and kids to Mexico, is still making me fume. For all my wonderful experiences in the US during 2007, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 I can’t bring myself to go back any time soon.
And I’ll miss you my friends, but for now, if there is any other way to get to Mexico that never again involves a trip through the USA, I’ll take it. I really hope things change. And I feel massive amounts of sympathy for all the people in that room who were there to visit relatives or headed for work. For a great country, the unwelcoming committee sure left a bitter first impression and a horrible taste for any future travel.
- Answer the questions as short and as quickly as possible.
- Remind them you have a flight to get to that you cannot miss.
- Also, pack a book, the no electronics rule was torturous.
- Avoid layovers in the US. Not only is transit a pain in the ass where you have to collect your luggage and recheck it. The customs process is a nightmare.
- Travel with someone to or through the US where possible. The majority of people in that room were solo travellers. My trip earlier in the year to Texas raised no eyebrows.
- Avoid LAX as much as you can. Several of my US friends received the same treatment for the same trip.
- Avoid going to Mexico as a single mum, you’re probably considered a high-risk drug dealer.
I can’t be too hard on LAX, seems Australia also had issues with it.
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