Have you been to any bad countries?

The author on his experiences with American immigration officials


American stamps showing the Statue of Liberty through the years.
American stamps showing the Statue of Liberty through the years.

Ever since Donald Trump issued his executive order suspending the entry of individuals from seven predominantly Muslim countries and temporarily halted the arrival of refugees into the US, the image of the land of Lady Liberty extending a warm welcome to people from around the world has taken a severe beating. There is something particularly powerful about arriving in the immigration hall at an American airport. It can be an intimidating experience. The sullen look on the faces of the staff instructing passengers loudly and slowly, as if you don’t understand English, stands in contrast with screens showing cheerful images in loop of people saying “Welcome to America” in different languages. The lines are long, consisting of students carrying letters of admission and I-20 forms; businessmen clutching their return tickets to prove they will go back; harried executives worried they might not make their connections; and new immigrants, intimidated and worried that something might go wrong.

I first went there as a student in 1983, and most of my encounters with American immigration officials have been pleasant. Once an officer patted my thick passport and, looking at the dozens of visas with curiosity, said, “This passport is like a phone book.” I smiled and said, “We need a visa even to cross the road.” He smiled back. Another time, an officer asked me, “Why do you travel so much?” I blamed my work. So he asked me what I did, and I said I was a writer and worked on human rights issues. At that time, I was with Amnesty International, and when I said that, the officer’s mood changed. He said, “Sir, then you should have a diplomatic passport and you shouldn’t have to queue up.” I smiled. In some countries, it isn’t wise to say that you work on human rights or are a writer. It leads to more raised eyebrows, more questions, and greater scrutiny. In that innocent time, it was okay to say that in New York.

Sometimes there were utterly unexpected questions. I was returning from Bogotá to London and changing planes in Miami. The flight from Bogotá was an overnight one, and I was tired when I reached the immigration counter. The officer looked at my Colombian visas and said, “Wow, you go to Colombia a lot.” Yes, I do; work takes me there, I told him. “Work? What kind of work do you do?” he asked me. I said I was part of a team conducting human rights training workshops at an oilfield in central Colombia. “Hmm, interesting,” he said, while turning over the pages. “Tell me,” he asked, “FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia)—are those guys good guys or bad guys?”

Was that a trick question? If I said “good”, would he mark me down as a Communist sympathizer? If I said “bad”, would he believe me? I said, “It depends on your politics, isn’t it?” And he smiled and said, “That’s smart. Welcome to the United States.” The correct answer, probably, was “neither”, but that moment had passed.

At a British airport once, Amartya Sen had written down his local address in the UK as “The Master’s Lodge, Trinity College, Cambridge” on the disembarkation card. The immigration officer asked Sen if he knew the Master of Trinity College. For the officer, the Master of Trinity had to be white. Do I know myself, Sen wondered—but rather than confuse the officer with a deeply philosophical question, Sen quietly said he indeed knew the Master of Trinity College, and that was that.

While not philosophical, questions in America can be unexpectedly revealing. Maybe it was the shape of things to come: Recently, in New York, the officer leafed through my passport and said, “You’ve been to many places.” Yes, I said. “Have you been to any bad countries?” he asked. I didn’t know what he meant—looking at my puzzled face, he said, “I mean, like Iraq, North Korea, places like that?” No, I said. It didn’t seem like a good time to debate what made a country good. “Don’t go to such places. They aren’t safe,” he told me. I nodded.

That was then. What will it be like now? Will it be the warm chattiness of that time in Dallas when an officer asked me if I knew Sudha Tripathi? I had said “no”, and he had said, “Darn. We have a colleague called Sudha and I wanted to call her and say, hey, your cousin is here.”

Or will it be something else? I will find out.

Salil Tripathi also writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint

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