Hanging Out in Rockford: I am a citizen of the USA—conclusion

I am in the back room of immigration and customs at Chicago O’Hare Airport. My new acquaintance, Peter, is going to miss his flight to Los Angeles. I have just spoken to an agent on his behalf, figuring that I have less to lose than he does, since I am a resident and already in my home state.

“This man is going to miss his flight on United to Los Angeles.” “We don’t care,” is the reply from the woman immigration agent. I think, this is a guest in our country, a tourist coming to spend dollars (or Euros, they are worth more) and what do we do? We tell him we don’t care. I continue to bite my tongue.

Finally, they call Peter’s name. He is taken to the interrogation room. I want to hear what is happening, so I convince the man who is seated on the bench closest to the door to move so that I can sit there to eavesdrop. I sit listening. The officer asks him where he is going in the United States; he answers Los Angeles. The officer then asks him, “Why are you going to Los Angeles?” “I am on vacation,” answers Peter. “Where are you staying in Los Angeles?” “With a friend.” “Who is this friend?” The tone reminds me of a movie about the Soviet Union, before the end of the Cold War. That’s nice, we are living in Soviet Russia, I think to myself. I realize that God put me in this place to see this and to write about it.

The woman from Yugoslavia talks to me. They are sending her back to Belgrade because she overstayed her visa by a few days back in 1995. “I will never come back to the United States,” she says. In fact, three people have said this to me. The young French college student, Peter, and now this woman. I am sure they will all go home and tell everybody they know not to go to the United States. We are discouraging people from coming to our country, people who would come and spend money. I thought we were trying to start an economic recovery.

Then suddenly it is my turn; I hear my name. I jump up and walk to the front of the room. The largest immigration agent known to man has my particular case. (At one point, they had had the side benches of people move to the middle to allow more room in the aisle. Peter had leaned over to observe that this was only necessitated by this woman’s enormous size.) She has my passport and is holding it open to the page containing my re-entry stamp. “Where did you get this stamp?” “At the I.N.S. on Jackson Street,” I reply.

“How much did you pay for it?” “I don’t know, I think about $80 or $90 I think, and then about 55 for fingerprinting,” I say. She walks over to a chart on the wall and looks, “That’s wrong!” she says. I reply, “I have two businesses in Illinois, and I write hundreds of thousands of dollars of checks a year, I can’t conceivably remember what all of them are.” This seems to appease her. “These are so easy to forge, you can get it done anywhere.” “Then why don’t you have a better system?” I think to myself, but I want to get home and, again, I hold my tongue.

She throws a customs declaration down in front of me. “This is why we detained you,” she says, “You didn’t fill out one of these.” “They did not hand them out on the flight,” I answer. “Oh, no,” she says, “they always hand them out. You must have fallen asleep.” (I detailed that in last week’s article, including the fact that I saw literally dozens of people from my flight pass through immigration without their customs declarations.)

At this point, common sense fails me and I become argumentative, but I am not going to let her fantasy become my reality. “I am sorry, but I did not sleep, and in fact we asked for the customs declaration three times, and they only brought one, and I gave it to the gentleman who is being interrogated in that room over there. You can ask him.” At this point, she turns to another agent and says, “I don’t know why they lie about this when I could put him in a room and keep him here all night.” Welcome home to your country, the United States of America. Mind your manners, or we will put you in a room and keep you all night. Finally, I am allowed to fill out my form and proceed home.

Back in Rockford, I am at the Great Wall and I see Frank Manzullo. I tell him a little of the story. He says that he knows about it because his brother Don (the congressman) was in China, and that is what the Chinese people told him. They don’t want to come to our country because of the way they are treated. Later I hear there was a story about this in The New York Times.

Then I am at Pravda having a cup of coffee, and Monika tells me that she, too, has been in this room. Standing outside the Trust building, I share this with Dr. Gupta, and he replies that this is why Disney World is in trouble… Hundreds of people going back to their respective countries saying, “Don’t go to the United States.” Saying, “I will never come to the United States again. I won’t come to spend my Euros or my Yen. Not even for Disney World, not even for Los Angeles.” What a shame.

This is not about security. It would be perfectly possible to have good security, and to have manners. It would probably help if we stopped hiring the lowest common denominator as immigration agents. Frankly, it frightens the hell out of me that these people are allowed to carry guns. These foreigners are guests in our country. Our country is a country, but it is also a business. A business that is sending its customers elsewhere. I am a citizen of the United States, but I am also a citizen of the world. We cannot go on mistreating people who come to our country. Why do they hate us? Why do you think?

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are also available on his Web site: IrishRoseRockford.com and featured on the Chris Bowman Show, WNTA talk radio AM 1330.

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