So finally I’m winging my way back into Los Angeles. I feel like I have been away so long that the city will no longer recognize me.
I’m still traveling on my emergency travel visa, but while I was away in Berlin, news had come that my residency had been granted. Still no work visa, but at least now I was able to get a lease on an apartment. But before I could escape the crack den of 20 Brooks, I had to clear US Border Protection.
Even a regular return to LA on an emergency travel doc means going to a room and answering questions about who you are, why you’re here, blah, blah. Being processed from a visa to residency? I brought a book.
I was directed to The Room, a little hotbox also known as Immigration Control. The next part I can only describe as a farce.
The stage for our morality tale is a linoleum floored, white particle board walled room with about thirty primary school chairs in two rows.
In front, on a dais raised high, behind a massive formica desk, sit three uniformed officials. There are two skinny little guys in their black Polyester outfits who are of little consequence. Their chief role is to bookend an enormous woman. Enormous in belligerence and size, and she used every ounce she had to beat down anyone who sat before her as she stretched out every inch of fabric that covered her heaving frame.
You know that camera angle they use in courtroom scenes where the wrongly condemned stares up at the hanging Judge who leers over, banging his mallet? There, you’re in the room.
And since I half expected her to have Han Solo encased in metal as an ornament behind her, she shall henceforth be known as Jabba.
There were another dozen people waiting, mostly from South American countries, who, like I, had some problem with their entries. But the Border Protection SWAT Team had little to offer in the way of solutions.
One elderly Latina woman spoke no English, so they sent for an interpreter. A young black guy turns up and begins to translate. Nice one, I thought, teaching Spanish in schools is obviously working.
Well, kinda. He was really struggling. I felt bad for him. He and the elderly woman were clearly not understanding each other. He started to sweat. The poor guy was way out of his depth. I imagined he’d been doing some forms out the back when one someone tapped him on the shoulder, “Dude, you speak Spanish, right?” and before he could say, “Piqeno” he found himself stumbling for words at Jabba’s feet.
Seriously, Los Angeles is 52% Spanish speaking by some accounts. It’s not his fault but this is the best guy you have for the job? Couldn’t rustle up a native speaker? OK…..
Finally another Latina woman waiting to be processed, who spoke flawless English, offered to translate. The young black guy was relieved and thanked her.
And this is when Jabba decided to swing the mighty club of power.
“HEY!!!!”, she boomed across the room from behind her plinth, her shriek echoing off the walls. “Cases are not allowed to talk to each other!”
The young guy tried to interject, “But my Spanish….”
“CASES ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TALK TO EACH OTHER!!!!”
OK. This is not going well. The younger Latina lady explained that the older woman was staying with her son, he is waiting outside to pick her up. Since she didn’t know his address, she left it blank on her form.
“CASES ARE NOT ALLOWED TO TALK TO EACH OTHER!!! PLEASE DESIST!!!!”, Jabba railed, poking the air in front of her with the pointy end of her pencil.
It’s at this point my eyes fall on the sign that hangs on the front of her desk, facing all of us. “We endeavour to treat all people with dignity, courtesy and respect”. Clearly Jabba hasn’t been on this side of the desk in a while.
Anyway, this should be an easy fix now the problem is understood. The old lady pulls out her cell phone to call her son.
“YOU CANNOT USE YOUR CELL PHONE IN THIS ROOM!!!!”
The young quasi-translator guy asks if she can use the desk phone.
“YOU CANNOT USE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT PROPERTY WHILE YOU ARE IN TRANSITION!”
So the old lady goes to leave the room to use her cell.
“YOU CANNOT LEAVE THIS ROOM, IF YOU DO, YOUR CASE IS NULLIFIED!”
OK, now I’m angry. This poor woman is being bullied. Finally the translator guy makes a call on his cell phone outside the room to the son and it all gets cleared up. But he had to wait till Jabba wasn’t looking.
The sad part is that she would have been through already if she just wrote, “Hyatt, Downtown” on her form. But that’ll teach her to be honest.
Act Two of this drama sees another lady there from Asia with her toddler daughter, who has left her bags outside, I guess thinking that she was only going to be a moment in the processing room. Ha, ha.
She asks if she can get her bags that are just outside the door.
“YOU CANNOT LEAVE THIS ROOM, IF YOU DO, YOUR CASE IS NULLIFIED!”
She quite rightly says that someone might steal her bags. She still gets the same answer. The Lady then points out that a bag untended in an airport doesn’t look good, can she just go and get it please.
At this point, she may as well have said that she had dynamite stashed in her Louis Vuitton handbag. Jabba blows up, wanting to know what she is inferring.
The Asian lady, to her credit, rolls her eyes and says, “This is ridiculous.” And leaves the room to get her bags.
At this point, the sky falls in. Jabba freaks out, gives her a dressing down of note when she re-emerges with her bags. The lady ignores the tirade, takes a seat again, comforting her terrified daughter.
And the most embarrassing part of it, is that I see this go on right in front of me and I say nothing. I’m so desperate to get stamped and out of there, that I watch Jabba go off the Richter scale, and I utter not a peep. I know it’s wrong, everyone in the room knows it’s wrong, but we are unified by our closed mouths. Because we are all afraid that we won’t be allowed in. One pen stroke from Jabba might undo 18 months of work to be allowed to live in America.
I was intimidated like everyone else and I complied. Which is the whole point, that’s what the people behind the desk count on. My silence sickened me.
Once everything settles and Jabba’s handlers have her under control again, the Asian lady’s daughter whispers to her mother. The mother asks her something, the girl shakes her head. So with great humility, the Asian lady says her daughter needs to go to the toilet. I expect Jabba to have some line about not peeing on American soil till you’re stamped.
But then, smiling, nice as pie, Jabba says, ‘Toilets are just outside and down the hall on the left,” before going back to the paperwork she was doing.
I look around at all the other people in the room; even the non-English speakers got it. Which means to say none of us got it at all. The Asian lady leaves the room with her daughter, unaccompanied, even glancing over her shoulder to be sure. No SWAT teams, no alarms. Not even when she came back 10 minutes later.
Act Three. One hour later, they finally get to me. A man walks into the room and up to the desk. He asks where is the guy from the Frankfurt flight. That’s funny, I didn’t see a German here I thought, but hey, it’s a big Benetton world and maybe…
Then they point at me and the guy comes over and starts speaking to me in German. I reply in my limited German. He asks another question I don’t understand. So in English, I say:
Me: We can speak in English actually.
Him: Didn’t you fly in from Frankfurt?
Him: So you’ll need a German translator.
I look at my Canadian passport he’s holding in his hands.
Him: You prefer French?
Me: Mate, what are we speaking?
He looks at me blankly.
Me: I grew up in Australia.
Him: So why did you ask for a translator?
Me: I didn’t.
Him: Why are you here?
I tell him about my new visa, that I have to be processed under the new thing blah, blah, blah. He rolls his eyes, goes to the front desk, waving for me to come with him.
Him: This guy has residency, needs to be processed off an old travel visa.
Jabba: Oh? Aren’t you German?
Apparently they didn’t get the memo that German airlines are allowing non natives on their flights these days.
Me: No, I’m not.
Out comes my file and passport, stamp, stamp, stamp and she hands me back all my stuff.
Jabba: You’re free to go.
I leave relieved, confused, pissed off at them and myself and very, very late. And spend another half an hour trying to find my suitcase.
Now, before I sound like I’m unappreciative of my new homeland, let me say that I think every country has the right to make its laws and rules and protect its citizens from people coming in who aren’t supposed to. Nothing wrong with that. Despite the inconvenient truth that America wouldn’t function without illegal labor.
But I want to live in this country where I have no history and no reason to be here other than my own selfish desires and, happily, have been accepted. And part of that deal is enduring red tape and jumping through hoops and working with a machine. OK, Done.
But America should be paranoid if this is the best that their nation can do. Honestly, I was shocked. There’s a system that doesn’t cope with the flow or engender feelings of understanding from the people who have done nothing wrong, but have to go through it. I accept being bored by it, even frustrated by it, but it’s not on to be bullied by it.
If I was American, I’d be embarrassed that this is some people’s first encounter with my country. Hang on, this is my country now. Ahh, confused feelings…I wish I could vote.