As any noncitizen who's traveled to America knows, it's a pain in the ass to pass through customs. The border officers are suspicious of everyone with a foreign-sounding name or accent, they'll treat you like a terrorist until you prove to them you're not, and, as I found out last month, they really, really hate guitars. At least, I assume they do, because I can't think of any other reason they would have held me up for hours, given me a full-body search, and kicked me out of their country, when all I wanted to do was tour the South and maybe play some unpaid gigs with my guitar.
I was planning on following in the footsteps of my musical idols—Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, John Lee Hooker; well-travelled men with guitars and drug addictions—by taking the Greyhound through the South and up to the West Coast before visiting my aunt in Alabama and holing up in some motel somewhere in the Mississippi Delta to record some music of my own. I'd also emailed a number of bars in the hopes of playing some open-mic nights along the way, which I assumed would be OK with the US government. On the State Department's website, it specifically says you can visit America without a visa if you're an amateur who's taking part in "musical, sports, or similar events or contests, if not being paid for participating.”
So I planned my trip without worrying about any bureaucratic red tape. Before going to the South, I'd meet my girlfriend in California. Since I live in London and she's in Constance, Germany, we flew to the US independently, planning to meet at Los Angeles.
￼My journey went smoothly enough until I got to Minneapolis, where I was supposed to catch my connecting flight after going through a border check and officially entering the Land of the Free. The officer examined my passport, looked at my guitar, and asked, "Are you a musician?" to which I replied that I'm an amateur and was hoping to play some small shows and maybe some open mics.
Then he asked me when I'd last been in the US. I told him that I had come from Germany to study in Seattle at the University of Washington in 2011. "What did you do that for?" he yelled. I had majored in philosophy, so I guess that was a pretty good question that I could spend a lot of time discussing, but I found it odd that this strangely aggressive man wanted to chat about the purpose of a liberal arts education right here in the airport. But before I could offer a response, he looked at me sternly and said, "My colleagues have some more questions for you."
The author's expired student visa.
I was brought into a room with some more highly suspicious individuals. For example, a boy from India in his early twenties who'd been kept there for almost a day, surviving on water and chips, because something had supposedly been wrong with his student visa. Then there was a family with a small child who wouldn't stop crying, and an elderly British lady visiting her daughter who'd been pulled off my flight and looked absolutely terrified. "Why are you visiting your daughter?" an officer barked at her. She replied that that's what families do when they live far away from each other.
I sat in silence, worrying about keeping my girlfriend waiting at LAX, until I was called to the counter by a guard named Officer James, who began repeating a bunch of questions that I'd already been asked. I gave exactly the same answers I'd given before. I got the impression that he thought I was a professional musician, which would have been kind of flattering coming from anyone other than a stranger detaining me against my will in an airport holding cell.
At one point, Officer James told me casually that they could throw me in jail straight away, without seeing a judge or going through any legal proceedings. I know America has a bad reputation for how it treats foreign nationals, but I was still shocked—I wasn't posing any conceivable threat whatsoever and had been nothing but compliant.
The author's ticket.
After being threatened, I was ordered to go back to the waiting room and take a seat. Another border officer then asked me to bring them my travel bag so that they could search it thoroughly.
After they'd finished going through my bag, emptying my aftershave, and, weirdly, piercing all of my condoms, Officer James pulled out some papers. One of them had the dates and locations of the shows I'd arranged to play under my stage name, John Vouloir, which I hadn't told them yet because nobody had asked and I didn't think it was important. I wanted to know where and how they had obtained that information. "America knows everything," I was informed.
Next came the body search. I was taken to a windowless room that resembled a prison cell—the toilet, sink and table were all made of steel. I still hadn't been told what I had done wrong, why I was there. For the next ten minutes or so, an overweight officer breathed all over me while he searched for contraband. He didn't find anything. There was nothing to find.
I got dressed and endured another round of questioning. By this point I'd been detained for about three hours and was anxious that my girlfriend, who would have touched down in LA by then, would be going mad with worry. I asked if I could make a phone call and was told that I could only dial an American number, so I asked if I could call my aunt in Alabama. The border officers immediately accused me of lying about her. I was confused as to how they could find out my stage name but fail to uncover the fact I have a relative who's been living in the States for years.
I was then interrogated again with similar questions. This time it felt more official and Officer James jotted down some notes. After about ten minutes, one of his colleagues came into the room and urged him to hurry up. She told him that he only had a few minutes left to complete the interrogation. When he'd finished questioning me, he gave me a document that I had to sign but didn't have time to read.
An email from the author to the press office of the Munich Consulate. The subject reads: "Entry into the USA denied / Treated beneath contempt."
It turns out that I was denied entry to the US because I was on an illegal business trip, or something along those lines. After three hours of disturbing uncertainty and wondering if I would end up in a cell for the night, I was told I would be sent back to Europe—or to Amsterdam, more specifically. When I arrived, I was given an envelope containing my passport and a plane ticket to London, which was nice. But the poor Indian guy I'd been interrogated and flown back with wasn't afforded the same luxury and had no idea how he was going to get home.
A non-response from the Munich consulate.
I'm not the first traveler to have been unjustly treated by US officials. Writer Niels Gerson Lohman recently discussed being stopped at the Canadian border because the Americans found stamps from Muslim countries on his passport. And in 2012, British tourists Leigh Van Bryan and his girlfriend were thrown into jail by American border officers because Leigh had tweeted that he wanted to "destroy America" and "dig up Marilyn Monroe." (Although he explained to immigration officers that "destroy" means "party really hard" in English slang and that the remark about Monroe was just a bad joke, it didn't stop the border officials from actually searching the couple's bags for spades and shovels.)
But I didn't tweet anything about destroying America or exhuming dead movie stars, and I didn't have a bunch of suspicious stamps on my passport; I simply arrived at Minneapolis airport with a guitar, not unlike—I'd imagine, at least—thousands of other people who travel throughout the US with instruments every year.
Is it too narcissistic to assume that a couple of blog posts I wrote—one about how I’m not a huge Obama fan and another about drone warfare—landed me in trouble? Is it paranoid to think that they had been reading my emails to the bars I'd been arranging gigs with? That might seem a little far-fetched and like a complete waste of their time and resources, but after Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA's activities, it's clear that America really does know everything, and it will use any means necessary to protect the country from the threat of an amateur German musician with a guitar and a bus pass.
Follow Johannes on Twitter: @JohnVouloir
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