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

I am seated next to a German businessman on a 777 bound for Chicago. His name is Peter. He has more than 200 stamps in his passport. He has accumulated more than 50,000 frequent flyer miles on United and he wants to use them up rather than take a chance on losing them due to the impending bankruptcy. He lives in Taiwan and his passport is issued by the German Embassy in Taiwan. We become friendly and chat the time away, but not before we watch the new governor of California in Terminator 3.

Having just gotten off a Lufthansa flight, the United service seems curt and unresponsive. The people on the German Airline were so friendly, it reminded me of the old days (25 years or so ago) when I used to fly for the Royal Crown Cola Company. None of that here. Peter has a couple of cocktails and falls asleep. I am too wound up about returning to the U.S. to sleep, and I watch movies and then read. When Peter awakes, we get to know each other a little better while we eat dinner. He chides me about the lack of craftsmanship in American automobile products. I find it difficult to argue with him.

On the information television channel provided by United Airlines as part of the back-of-seat entertainment, there are instructions about entering the United States. A returning citizen or resident has only to fill out a customs declaration. An entering foreign national, like Peter, needs to fill out another form. We patiently await the arrival of the forms. Finally, when they are not offered we light the help lamp, but our call goes unanswered. Peter flags a passing attendant and requests the forms. A great deal of time goes by with no forms appearing, and then he asks another flight attendant.

The forms have still not arrived, and finally I walk back to the rear cabin and make the request again (I am seated on the aisle). Finally, a female attendant arrives with the forms, but she has only one customs declaration. I let Peter have the only customs declaration figuring that I will be the same as the entire rest of the passenger body and he is the foreign national. Shortly thereafter, we arrive in Chicago. I walk through the airport to customs and immigration.

I present my Irish Passport (which has been stamped by I.N.S. to allow me to return to the U.S.). The person manning the desk says nothing about the missing customs declaration. All the other passengers from the flight, many of whom I recognize, are passing through without any customs declarations. However, this officer says they will need to see me in the back room, just to look me up on the computer. He makes it sound almost perfunctory.

I proceed to the back room where I am instructed to sit on one of the wooden benches until I am called. Shortly after my arrival in the back room, my friend Peter from the plane shows up. There are about 50 people waiting in the room by actual count (people are coming and leaving). Of this fifty or so people, 40 are non-white males. Five are women and of those five, three wear the Muslim headscarf. The other two women are from Belgrade, Yugoslavia. They are going to visit relatives in Chicago.

In the remaining five white guys, there is Peter, myself, a young man from an Eastern bloc country, a young college student from France, and another man whose stay is too short to ascertain his origin. The Eastern bloc man is called next and, after a short period of time, they fingerprint and photograph him and send him on his way. The French boy who speaks little English is interrogated twice. He has already been here for two hours. He is visiting college friends in Cary, Ill. Finally, he receives the same fingerprinting and picture session. His friends have been waiting in the arrival area for about three hours when they finally let him join them.

Peter has a connecting flight he is going to miss. He comes over to me. He wants to protest, but I advise him not to. I can sense the air of petty bureaucracy exuded by these immigration agents, and I know it will mean nothing but trouble for him if he does. On his behalf, I approach one of the agents who has been conversing with the two Yugoslavian ladies in their native language figuring I have less to lose than Peter. I ask if it is first come, first served. She replies that they take cases based on their experience and not on the order of arrival. I tell her that Peter has a connecting flight he is going to miss. “We don’t care,” she replies. More next week.

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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