The immigration queue at JFK snakes back and forth between black straps drawn from pole to pole. If you’re on a plane arriving from Europe, each lap takes ten minutes, and a jumbo jet’s worth of aliens fills five laps. The last couple of laps will be faster because the US citizens will have finished and the aliens get to use their lanes. If you can get a seat at the front of the plane, you’ll save at least half an hour compared to that poor sucker in seat 43E.

Cameras and mobile phones are forbidden. There is, of course, no wireless. You must fill out a form; your signature waives all your rights. A sign explains that US officials will fingerprint you and take your photograph. If you have any concerns about how your data will be handled, don’t ask anyone at the airport, the sign states, instead you should contact the privacy officer at

The television is always on and tuned to a news broadcast dissecting a recent sex crime or serial killing. Eyewitness News last time, CNN this, and the difference between them is suprisingly small: hardly any information is given, but much time is spent considering the horror of the crime. Every time I come here I have plenty of time to wonder whether this is a carefully planned element of the arrival experience. Is it a warning, perhaps: aliens, we catch criminals. Perhaps it’s part of the be scared campaign? Or is it a horrible misstep, an unintentional reinforcement of our simplistic stereotypes of America?

My friends have had bad experiences with immigration officers, but for some reason they’re always polite and friendly to me and never question me beyond a simple “what is the purpose of your visit?” Pleasure, I tell them, delighting in the vibration of the [ʒ] against my tongue, and they type seriously, staring at their screens. I lean forward to try to see what information about me is displayed but I can’t read the screen from the side. “Welcome to the United States”, they say, and let me through the gates.

I grab my bag and am greeted by a huge city, smiles, noise, lights, people and my boyfriend.

4 thoughts on “immigration impressions

  1. Toril

    Enjoy your little R&R as a European ‘alien’ in that funny country ‘over there’!!
    And by the way, CNN was never any good, I don’t think they know how to present
    the recent news (or indeed what news is), they are more like a cheap gossip
    magazine! But I will not get too opinionated, I just want you to enjoy yourself,
    and focus on the smiles.

  2. Matt

    You story made me smile. Thanks for lightening my day.

  3. Jose Angel

    Didn’t they check your email? The other day Joi Ito said that an email reading system was being implemented at US customs in order to scan your mail folder for possible suspect connections… maybe you don’t look like the average terrrorist? I remember the first time I went through the UK customs they looked even inside my sandwiches (yep, I know, I should have eaten them beforehand, but that might look suspicious…)

  4. Jill

    I imagine US immigration would sooner Google me than ask me to tell them my email address. I find that email-reading story hard to believe, but who knows?

    Ah well.

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