Let me just say, with Smokey Robinson, "I second that emotion."
Rude immigration officials and long delays in processing visas have turned the United States into the world's most unfriendly country for international travelers, according to a global survey released on Monday. The survey showed that the United States was ranked "the worst" in terms of visas and immigration procedures by twice the percentage of travelers as the next destination regarded as unfriendly — the Middle East and the Asian subcontinent.
The security measures implemented after 9/11 — some necessary, some boneheaded — undoubtedly have a lot to do with this negative impression, but they only follow a long tradition of U.S. immigration officials being rude, sometimes xenophobic, and imbued with a sense of godly power that, to be fair, is the hallmark of petty-minded uniform wearers everywhere.
My becoming a U.S. citizen back in 2002 was the happy culmination of a frustrating process that taught me a thing or two about government employees. Actually, it was the culmination of two processes. First, in the mid-nineties, I had to obtain a green card after my initial journalist's visa suddenly got me in trouble at the border (in approximately 1996, some five years after I immigrated, border officials decreed out of the blue that the visa allowed my coming and going but not my actually living here). Four or five years after getting the green card — on which the lovely words "resident alien" were printed in big black letters — I decided to naturalize (apparently I wasn't 'natural' before — who knew?).
All of this necessitated frequent visits to different INS offices, and filling out an avalanche of paperwork that lasted years — neither of which I object to, as getting a U.S. passport is hardly a foreigner's birthright. And I should say that maybe forty percent of the time, my dealings with immigration officials were fine — that is, occasionally marred by a certain bureaucratic indifference, perhaps, but unremarkable. Toward the end of the naturalization process, one or two officers I met were actually nice and polite to me.
The rest of the time, I dealt with cretins who acted like they'd just fallen off the back of a ratty pickup truck somewhere in the Appalachians. I had one such Yankee redneck bark at me — raising his voice, rolling his eyes — for politely asking him to clarify a poorly worded question on a form I was struggling with. On another occasion, a colleague of his threw a sheaf of papers at me that he wanted me to fill out. Sure, this kind of behavior wasn't the norm. But it wasn't much of an exception either.
Certified correspondence I sent was received, then misplaced, never to be seen again. Portrait photos I submitted vanished into the same black hole. The one time INS officials took official pictures of me on the premises, the shots were so poorly lit and developed that I looked black; my own mother wouldn't have recognized me. I also remember the time when the INS had me fill out the wrong form and pay the accompanying fee (85 dollars, if memory serves); after they finally admitted their mistake in writing, I sent them several letters over a one-year period to get the fee refunded. I only received a check after my wife's Congresswoman's office, at our request, made an official inquiry.
The carelessness and incompetence startled me, but not as much as the persistent, casual rudeness. There we all were: the cabdriver from Liberia, the janitor from Guatemala, the filmmaker from Poland, the importer/exporter from China, the writer from the Netherlands, the sales clerk from Yemen — all doing everything above-board, all committed to working hard and paying our taxes in this country, all forking over hefty and ever-increasing fees with each INS form we filed. And yet, as far as I could tell, none of us were consistently treated like clients, like future fellow citizens. To most INS officers, it seemed, somehow we all looked like something disgusting they might scrape off the bottom of their boots.
Actually, I suspect I was treated better than most. I was already married to an American citizen; I was well-educated; I spoke English fluently; and I obviously was doing reasonably well for myself and could have afforded a lawyer if I needed one. It's not a stretch to assume that a penniless manicurist from Vietnam or a bewildered housepainter from Peru had a much harder time of it than I did.
Judging by the survey quoted above, the mentality of our border guardians has changed — for the worse. That's a costly development, especially in our times. Foreign tourists contribute close to 400 billion dollars a year to the U.S. economy. By treating them well, we could boost not just their return visits and their spending; we could increase their goodwill toward the country and turn them into an army of international ambassadors.
It pains me to see my foreign friends' growing inclination to stay away from the U.S. and spend their tourist dollars elsewhere. But by tolerating an immigration-department culture in which uniformed jerks and under-motivated malcontents thrive, we pretty much asked for it.