In the immigration hall at New York’s Kennedy airport there hangs a picture of a happy, helpful custom official. Beneath it, in large, friendly letters, a caption promises that the US Custom and Border Protection Agency ‘pledges to cordially greet and welcome you, and treat you with courtesy, dignity and respect.’
As reassuring as this is, it’s of precious little use when you find yourself standing in line for an hour and a half, surrounded by overheated Welsh teenagers, at a time your body insists is 3am.
The reason for the hold up was that the ever helpful Department of Homeland Security now requires every foreigner who enters the US to provide two finger prints, a retinal scan, and a convincing justification for their visit. Doing this 400 times takes a while.
After we’d been waiting 20 minutes, the tannoy crackled and an irritable voice warned us that any mobile phones in use in the queue would be confiscated and destroyed. After 30 minutes, a second voice chided us that our bags were clogging up the carousel, and announced they were about to be dumped on the floor. After 40, another flight landed, the queue doubled and three of the five immigration booths in use were helpfully designated “US Citizens only”.
This combination of delays and suspicion is likely to be familiar to anyone who’s visited the US in recent years. A 2006 survey ranked the country as the most unfriendly in the world to international travellers, with half of respondents complaining that immigration officials are rude and two-thirds admitting they expected to be detained because they “said the wrong thing”. (One friend of mine once made the mistake of wondering aloud what the hold up was. The customs officials sent him to the back of the queue.)
None of this seems to be worrying the authorities too much: there are, after all, more votes in tight security and immigration controls than there are in being nice to foreigners.
But the tourism industry, at least, is starting to fret. The Discover America Partnership, which sponsored the survey, warned it was denting revenues by driving visitors away. Others worry that it will wreck the country’s competitive edge. The more unwelcome foreign grad students feel in the US, the more likely they are to stay at home – and the more likely it is the next Google will come from Bangalore rather than Berkeley.
Only after nearly two hours of courteous treatment at the hands of US immigration we were finally allowed to escape the airport and make our way to the hotel we’d booked in Manhattan. This, it turned out, was a former transient hostel with bin bags on the mattresses and a sign on the wall reading ‘No spitting.’
Welcome to New York.