So yesterday my boyfriend and I were returning to Washington Dulles from London Heathrow, a trip I have completed with frequency since moving to Baltimore 7 years ago. The trip got off to a great start, the new (to me) security procedures at Heathrow were fantastically efficient and left me feeling as though the people and the bags going through were actually being checked properly as opposed to the “security show” I am used to seeing when traveling in many other airports.
On landing in Dulles we went through immigration where I experienced the worst interaction with a member of airport staff I have ever encountered. He was rude and verbally aggressive with both me and my boyfriend and when I was on my own proceeded to berate me very aggressively with an unusual set of purposely confusing and repetitive questions (I am a US citizen and have traveled through immigration at Dulles and many other US airports more times than I can count so I am not new to the procedures). He continued in this manner until I was in tears and as soon as I was upset he became silent, as if satisfied, stamped my customs form and sent me on my way. I would like to point out that I do not frequently cry in public (or in general, for that matter), and while I was exhausted and probably a little stressed at arriving back to reality where I had a week to pack up and move to a new city among many other stressful things; however, I was not in a particularly tearful mood prior to this interaction.
If I had been in any other situation where I had been treated in this way I would have taken down a name or badge number to complain to someone in charge. But this is not just any agency. This is the Customs and Border Protection, who, along with the TSA, are two of the groups I could not imagine ever complaining about. The culture of fear associated with these officers is such that one imagines severe retributions at even the slight hint of complaint. This is true to the point that I took some time and real consideration into even writing this blog post for fear of being put on some watch list. I will, dear readers, report back after my next flight to inform you as to whether I was treated more suspiciously.
I understand the need for these agencies, but I do not believe that we should be scared into being treated however the agents feel like treating us. In any other industry if we were treated abusively we would be able to complain about that treatment. In this case I do not know of anyone who has done so, at least not without some retribution.
I know we need security and that most of the men and women who work for these agencies do so respectfully and properly; however, there are always some who abuse their power and this is an industry in which such abuses of power can be left unchecked. I have a friend who was strip searched at 19 on her way back to college because her (very common) name was on a drug watch list. Another friend of mine with a very common name was unable to fly home for Thanksgiving his Freshman year because his name was the same as someone’s on a no-fly list.
There are countless stories of citizens and non-citizens being harassed and abused at security, immigration, and customs and it feels like nothing is done to correct the issue because we are all to scared to say anything.