On Record in London

London, England dscf15371

I recently went on a family vacation to Europe (explaining my considerable leave of absence).  Now, my parents and brother are wonderful.  At least they can be, at times, particularly from a distance of more than 5,000 miles.  But traveling is stressful even with the best of company and I was understandably nervous about spending two weeks in Europe with my family.  Luckily, the trip ended up being much less of a disaster than it could have been.  Especially considering how it started.

Before embarking on our European family adventure, I flew to the United States to spend a week at home.  Although we departed from the same city on the same day, my family and I flew separately.  My parents and brother were scheduled on a direct flight from Detroit to London. I, in what can only be described as geographic avant-garde, had to change planes in Chicago.

Unsurprisingly, my flight was delayed leaving Detroit, I missed my connection in Chicago, and I was rebooked on a later flight.  My family was unaware of this change and I could sense my mother’s worry before the plane landed at Heathrow.  Already cranky and tired, I was eager to meet my family at baggage claim and put the flight behind me.  But more than anything, I was excited to be in Europe again.

Despite having lived in Argentina for three years, I am a Europhile at heart.  My first visit was in the form of a three-week exchange program to Paris when I was nine years old.  I have returned various times since, including the summer I spent backpacking through Europe with my best friend, and the semester I studied abroad in Barcelona.  I was thrilled to see Europe again.  It seems, however, that the feeling was not mutual.

Required documentation in hand, I approached passport control at London’s Heathrow airport. “What is the purpose of your visit?”

“Family vacation”

“How long are you planning to stay in London?”

“One week”

“Do you have evidence that you will be departing London on that date?” 

That’s when things took a turn for the worse.  My parents planned the entire trip and had all of the relevant information, including my train ticket to Paris a week later.  The official then proceeded to inquire into my employment status, the reason why I quit my job, and if I had any interviews lined up.  I did not appreciate having my life judged by a British Immigrations official.

At one point, I asked him, “Are you worried that I’m going to stay in London? Is that the problem?  Because I’m not.” Clearly flustered by the fact that I had figured out what he was up to, the official informed me that he had “documented me in the system.”  He assured me that this was standard procedure and that as long as I left London when I claimed that I was going to, there would be no problem.  I was now on record in London and I was furious. Being an unemployed nomad may be unconventional, but it hardly makes me a criminal.

He stamped and returned my passport. I began to proceed to baggage claim when my cell phone rang.  “Is everything okay?” my dad asked.

“Oh, just fine,” I replied with just a hint of sarcasm. “The Immigration official was giving me a hard time because he thinks that I’m a risk to stay in his country which I’m not,” I explained loudly. “But it’s done.  He let me through.” Evidently, I have a problem with authority.

I am no stranger to border control.  In the past year alone, I visited seven countries. But I had never been treated quite like this.  In Colombia, I was never made to clear customs.  On our way back from Guatemala, my friend and I walked back and forth through the airport trying to find passport control, convinced that we had missed it.  In the end, we had to ask a staff member to please check our passports because, as it turned out, there was no official Immigration counter.  Once, upon returning to Argentina, an Immigration official accidentally gave me a new tourist visa.  I had to politely ask her to cross it out so as not to invalidate my clearly irrelevant residency visa.

So imagine my indignation when I was almost refused entry into England.  I know that I could have lied, that I could have said that I was a student or that I had never quit my job. But I didn’t want to because I didn’t need to.  I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wasn’t there to steal anyone’s job or collect social services.  What threat did I possibly pose, other than obnoxiously trying to imitate a British accent?

Later, my friends told me that they faced similar questioning and that British passport control is notorious for being difficult.  While it was nice to hear that it’s not me, it’s them, I was left wondering, when did crossing borders become so difficult? 

I understand the need for strict border control.  I understand that terrorism and illegal immigration are real problems.  But I don’t understand why I, an American citizen, should have to lie in order to go to England on a family vacation?  There must be a way to keep the bad guys out without turning away the good guys, or turning friends into enemies.

As more and more countries demand permits and visas, and make obtaining them nearly impossible, the world becomes smaller and more segregated.  We may have international markets, but what about international citizens? Shouldn’t we be encouraging people to open their minds and to explore new places, ideas, and ways of life? Shouldn’t we be facilitating positive cultural interactions? Because it seems to me that we already have enough barriers to entry and obstacles to overcome without erecting new ones.


1 Response to “On Record in London”

  1. 1 londonkitton November 19, 2008 at 1:15 pm

    hehe – got to love the UK Immigration desk clerks. I’m a foreign national currently living as an expat in London, and believe me, they don’t make it any easier for us to get into the UK either.

    What really bugs my husband and I is that while there used to be a ‘Commonwealth Nations’ queue at Heathrow, there’s now an ‘EU nationals’ queue, but no ‘UK visa-holders’ queue. So now if we’re unlucky enough to get to the immigration area just after a planeload of high-risk, 3rd world nationals, we can be guaranteed (at minimum) an hours wait for a 30 second Q&A.

    But then, my husband’s cousin (who lives in LA) is routinely pulled aside by US Homeland Security when she travels (and once had her laptop irrevocably damaged in provocation), simply because she looks different and ‘fits the profile’. But since when has a Japanese-Australian looked Arabic?

    Anyway, I agree with your rant. And the UK (& US) systems are just making it harder for the legitimate travellers, while the law-breakers just find alternative methods.

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