So, I’m back at home in the United States. I left Salvador, Brazil this morning and here I am at home now. I loved Salvador, one of the things that I loved most about Salvador was how accepted I was. It was so nice to be able to blend in with the population and not have to worry about being followed around a store or profiled because, well…everyone pretty much looks just like me there.
When I left Salvador, I had a very pleasant exchange with the woman at the check-in counter, initially she spoke to me in Portuguese, but when I handed her a passport, she switched to English. She was very cordial, she told me how she was an Au Pair in the United States, in the city where I was born actually. I got on the flight to Salvador and had a nice time.
When I got back to the United States, there was a little surprise waiting for me.
My good friends over in customs decided to throw me a welcome home reception!
Let me describe how the party went down:
After getting off of the plane, I walked for what seemed like a mile to the customs area for US citizens and waited patiently in the very long line. When I got up to the counter and handed the guy my passport, he looked at it, swiped it and then put it aside and said immediately go wait by the wall and an officer will be by shortly.
He kept my passport, so I’m a little weirded out at this point, especially when everyone else is just allowed to go through. I go stand by the counter and there are three other Black people there already. One couple and another Black American woman who had just gotten married in Jamaica. We stood there waiting for the officer to come immediately as the guy at the counter said. We stood there for about 15 minutes before the officer came.
The officer gathered up our passports and led us into a room that was filled with people. He told us to put our carry-on bags in the corner and sit anywhere and wait to be called. The first thing I did was text my mother and tell her that I was being held up in customs. I was unaware that you weren’t permitted to use your cell phones. When I saw a customs official tell another woman to put her cell away, I turned mine off as well. Fortunately for me though, I had time to relay the fact that I was being held up to my mother. Some other people were being held up and they had family and people waiting who had no idea where they were.
I sat down next to this older Black woman and her son, the mother said she was from Guyana. I am not sure where the son was from, but she spoke in English with an American accent. I asked him why we were being held there, he responded “are you an American citizen?” I told him yes. “they’re holding you to waste your time,” that was his response.
After waiting for about 15 minutes, I approached a customs officer and politely asked him how long he thought the wait would be and what would happen if we missed our flight. He responded that it was first come, first serve and if you missed your flight, they would buy you a new one. I was then instructed, rather coldly, by another customs officer to sit in the chairs and wait.
The officer would slowly call out the names on each passport and sometimes the country, then take the people in to question them.
While I was waiting, I looked around. In the room, there were a lot of people of different backgrounds, but mostly I observed a lot of people of Hispanic descent, some were foreigners, some were not. I also observed Black people of various backgrounds, I saw some Middle Eastern people and there were white people there too. However, one thing I did notice was that most of the whites being held seemed to have foreign passports. I observed that of those people who were US citizens , most of the ones that I saw were people of color. In other words, American citizens who were held were mostly non-white, that is what it seemed to me.
I sat quietly in the chair for what seemed like forever. I got up to go to the bathroom once and I bought a Dr. Pepper from a vending machine. Finally, after 2 1/2 hours, my name was called and I went up the desk. The officer asked me if I was US citizen, I replied that I was. He then continued to ask me a variety of questions, including why I went on my trip to Salvador,did I speak any other languages, what college did I graduate from, did I travel with anyone else and most interestingly…Did I meet a future husband while I was in Brazil?
After I presented my drivers license and answered his questions, he told me that I would be able to go soon, but we had to get my luggage first. I picked up my carry on and followed him out the door.
This is where it gets interesting.
So, he leads me up to the baggage area tells me to pick out my luggage…I can’t find it. He takes me around to several different conveyor belts to try and find it, it’s not there.
He plays it casual and says, well they probably moved it because it took too long for you to claim it because you were in customs. He tells me that he’s going to take me to another place where my luggage could be. So, he leads me to this special baggage area and instructs me to sit in the seat. He goes and talks to this guy, then disappears and I wait for about 5 minutes, then the guy calls me over. He then asks me, oddly, “so you’re going back to what city?” (I mean they saw my ticket and I know they know where I’m going already) I told him my destination. He then says, “what about your bags?” I told him that I only checked one bag and I have a carry-on.
“But, where is your bag?” He asks.
Now, I am thinking to myself, you just talked with the officer who took me around to try and “locate,” my bag on the conveyor belt, he should have told you that it’s missing…that is IF it really is missing.
I responded that I didn’t know what happened to my bag, I checked it in in Salvador, the officer took me around to find it and now it’s missing. So, then again he has me put my carry-on through the scanner or whatever and then search my carry-on, with gloves, and proceeds to ask me a series of questions….the same questions that I had already answered for the other customs official.
At this point, I knew they were just testing me to see if I was lying about something, so I answered truthfully and consistently and finally he said, “well you can go over to the gate and go through general security again.” He handed me my passport and off I went to security.
When I got to security, I asked around where the gate was and found out that they had just started boarding for my flight. I didn’t have time to really look for my luggage, but when I got to the gate, I explained to one of the employees that I didn’t know where my luggage was and the man responded that “they already had my luggage on board.”
So, I’m thinking okay…how did my luggage get on board and why then were the customs officials acting like they didn’t know where it was…
So, I board the plane and from there everything was normal.
When, I got off the plane at my final destination, my luggage came around and I noticed that the lock had been broken and there was also a scratch on the top of the lock. It was a cheap, Wal-mart lock that was easy to break into. So, at that point, I knew they looked through my luggage. I kinda already knew that they searched my luggage, but what I didn’t understand was why they took me around the airport, pretending to look for my luggage if they had it the whole time.
I don’t understand why they would do that and play a game of cat and mouse like that, unless they thought I was stupid or they were trying to trap me in a lie somehow. By the way, all I had in my luggage was a bunch of clothes, my toiletries, my Bible, a pocket dictionary and some souvenirs for my family.
When I finally got to the car, my mother was there and I found out that my mother actually called customs and asked why I was being held and when I would be allowed to go. They lied and told my mother that I had already left the customs, when I hadn’t. In addition, they asked my mother a bunch of questions like whether I was a US citizen and why I traveled to Salvador etc…I learned that it was shortly after my mother called, that I was called up to the counter and interviewed and later let go.
So, I am thinking that they thought I was probably a foreigner who forged my passport or stole someone else’s identity and was trying to sneak into the country somehow. Either that or they thought that I was trying to smuggle some type of illegal substance in the country and that is why they tried to take me around and drill me about where my bag was exactly when they knew where it was all along.
Btw, I understand that it’s important to have security around our borders and I know it’s important to make sure we don’t let people who are a threat to United States security into the country and I want this country to be safe too, but I’m sure that we can have a safe, secure country WITHOUT profiling people. There has to be another way because I definitely feel like I was profiled.
The funny thing is I had barely set foot in the United States and I was already being profiled. It’s sad and ironic that I felt more welcomed as a foreigner into Salvador than I did in my own country.
The fact that most of the US citizens who were held up by customs seemed to be people of color, tells me that to many people, we’ll never be real Americans…we’re the other, the foreigner, even when we’ve lived in this country our whole lives…even when our grandma, great-grandpa and great-great-great grandpa were born and raised in this country. Although my third great grandfather wasn’t technically a citizen, he was a slave after all.
That’s okay, I still love my country.
So welcome back home to the good, ole USA!!!!