Not so nice welcome in Atlanta

“Mr. Rodgers, please empty your pockets and contents of your bags onto this table.”

I watched as the armed US Customs officer unceremoniously started yanking things out of my daybag in front of me.

The groggy effects of my trans-global flight quickly wore off when I found myself spread eagle with a man patting me down like I was a criminal.  While he did that, his associate was flipping through pictures on my SLR camera.  My passport had already been confiscated as well as my boarding pass for my connecting flight home to Kentucky.

Not again!

“Sir, can you please type in your password?”  One of the officers spun my laptop around to me.  It had been booted without my permission.  Beside me one of the men was swapping flash cards out of my camera and pouring over the pictures.

I had done nothing wrong and yet I was watching my privacy evaporate very quickly as pictures of my friends were scrutinized in front of me.

WTF?

My wallet was emptied and even the picture of my niece and nephew that I carry was examined. I typed in the password and when Linux finished booting (I don’t run Microsoft) the officer gave me a dumbfounded look as if to ask “what the hell is this?” I tried not to laugh at his helpless expression when a second password prompt for X-windows came up.

It probably didn’t help my cause that the book I read on the plane and now laying prominently on the stainless steel table was “Hackers” by Steven Levy.

Rather than learn a new operating system on the spot he chose just to ask me if I had any pornography on my hard disk.  I answered of course not and told him that it was highly illegal in the Muslim countries I had just come from.  I had no idea it was illegal in the US as well?

“What takes you to so many countries, Mr. Rodgers? Did you work while you were there?”

I stuttered out that I had lost my job and been living out of savings – not entirely true but this probably wasn’t the time or place to go into the nuances of vagabonding.

And so for the third time in 5 months, I found myself somehow in hot water in an airport.  Maybe I SHOULD start smuggling things, I would probably get less attention! I had been in my home country for less than 30 minutes and rather than a hero’s welcome for doing dangerous things abroad and living to tell the tale, I was treated guilty until proven innocent.

Unbelievable.  Not what one is expecting after a full 24 hours of travel to the country where I was born.

Am I giving off some kind of Howard Marks air that attracts uniformed buffoons? I don’t even want to think about what is going to happen once I get a Colombia stamp on my passport next month!

It all started as I got into line to get stamped back into the US.  I did as I always do and scanned the long queues for the older black gentleman that twice now has recognized me and said “welcome home buddy” as he stamped me in with an inky thump and my heart swelled with pride.  Yes, I travel enough to recognize the border officials in Atlanta now!

The nice guy was nowhere to be found and I was put into a line with a twitchy young officer that nearly gasped out loud when he flipped through my passport trying to decipher the stamps.  He would alternate between looking at me suspiciously and asking stupid questions like “Did you know they have quite a drug trade in Thailand?”  Well, yes sir I did, they have one in California too.

He turned my passport to me with a finger on it and asked what one particular stamp was from 2006.  I told him it was a permit to enter the Sinai peninsula in Egypt (it said “Sinai” in English below the Arabic).

What I wanted to tell him was that I learned in 9th grade geography that Sinai was part of Egypt and he, it pertaining directly to his job, should have known that.

He stamped me in anyway and thrust the passport rudely in my direction.  I noticed that he wrote “ROVER” in capital letters on my US Customs form.  Interesting.  Normally I would have taken that as a compliment, and the words to my favorite Irish song Wild Rover came to mind, but just like I learned in the army, you never want to stand out from a crowd.

Sure enough, as I handed my customs card and boarding pass to a man at the next checkpoint, he saw the marking and I was conspicuously pulled out of line to be questioned and searched. I caught the eyes of a guy my age still in the line behind me and his expression said it all….. “Dude, you’re screwed!”

Here we go again.

Keep in mind that I was dressed normal, am a natural born US citizen, and have no record of any kind (the smart kids don’t get caught).  In a nutshell, I was being treated suspiciously because of the amount of travel that I have done now.  I was literally being treated differently because of the number of stamps in my passport, that is why they had flagged me in the first place.

No wonder we get a bad reputation abroad for not traveling as much as other nationalities do.  What a mindset.  Perhaps to become a border official you should be required to have at least traveled or lived abroad once in your lifetime? Not in America.

After thirty minutes of searching and literally making copies of my thumbdrive (full of personal documents) which I use to backup my laptop – they let me go. I had to run to make my connecting flight home.  As I sat on the plane, the anger swelled up inside and it felt as if my rights had been violated.  They cannot search your car or home without a warrant, but apparently that does not apply to data on a disk.

To be honest, I feel quite jaded and unpatriotic right about now and wouldn’t hesitate to relocate to a friendlier country tomorrow.  Sure, they all have their problems, but damn – I was treated better in China, Laos, Egypt, Indonesia – places notorious for corruption and bureaucracy.

Even after taking an oath and carrying a gun 6 years  for Uncle Sam, I find myself having to search pretty deep to muster up some love for this government.

So the lesson to be learned here from all my ranting is……never, ever travel next to me. 🙂

I think next time I’ll just fly into Mexico and swim across the Rio like everyone else – its a lot less trouble!

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6 Responses to “Not so nice welcome in Atlanta”



  1. I feel your pain. On my first trip to the US, I was harangued for a good 20 mins by a US customs official. It was definitely unpleasant, especially after a super longhaul flight.

    Rob gets questioned too because of the number of stamps in his passport, another of our friends, of Irish heritage, was rudely asked what business he has to be in Northern Ireland, while a Singaporean friend of mine was taken aside for questioning because she was deemed to be speaking English too well. Like, seriously?!

    I’m hoping this time, it would be better….

  2. Crikey! You must have ‘smuggler’ tattoed on your head. I understand strict border controls in Isreal etc but for a US citizen to be harranged like this in America is quite something.

    I’ve generally found immigration in America painful (even before 9/11). I rarely feel welcomed into the country, the exception being Hawaii but not too many pass immigration there.

    And, you’re wrong, I’d love to travel next to you – that way it wont be ME pulled out of line!

    Enjoy home!

  3. Sorry to hear it. Definitely sounds like you should invest some time into setting up an encrypted folder using Truecrypt or something similar. Might as well make it hard for them to read your sensitive data!

  4. Yeah, it sucks, but at the border the normal protections against searchers aren’t in place. That’s one reason that international companies send people traveling to the U.S. with what’s called a ‘blank’. That’s a laptop which only has the operating system and productivity software on it. *Everything* else gets downloaded once arrived, and then uploaded and deleted from the machine before leaving again. Keeps the stuff secret.

    You might want to think about using online backup solutions as much as possible as well. Cuts down on the stuff they can see!

  5. Have to love the Patriot Act! We have the right to harasses you, search you.. even take your laptop away from you if we decide you are enjoying your American born freedom too much.
    As the US Government it is our job to ensure you give those freedoms up in the name of security.
    Dude..sucks that you have to go through that crap just to come home for a couple of weeks.
    I agree with Jack on the online backup system. Dropbox is my choice…

  6. I got the same welcoming when I went to the states.
    Went to New York with my family (mom,dad,2sisters). We are Swedish so very similar look as the Americans.
    Anyway..
    Seconds after we got our luggage 3 drug/bomb sniffing dogs came. Their owners literally ran to buz the dogs on us. About 5min later at the first passport control we directly got bumped to a special line with armed guards on both sides and a extra X-ray thingy just for us! 🙂
    We felt so special..
    Then when we got to connect to the normal line again. We got to spend about 1min in it until they pulled us away again..
    We weren’t alone this time though, some Arabic looking fella joined us.
    Direct orders from the controlling officer: Bags up and open, and they emptied the bags of all content. Suitcases as well as backpacks and bags.
    They were nice enough to repack them so they were close able though. And then we got to connect to the streaming line of passengers and get into the US.
    Lovely trip though =)

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