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homeland security

What Happens When Homeland Security Selects You for 'Secondary Screening'

This is the process happening to travellers right now, all around the United States.

by John Walton
31 January 2017, 5:53am

If you want to know how a "secondary screening room" looks, check to one side of the customs hall as your passport is stamped into the United States. Look for the piles of unattended cabin baggage by an unmarked door. Check the air for the smell of people who have flown halfway around the world to end up crammed nervously together in a room. Look for the green room. 

I started calling it the green room the first time I was sent there five years ago, back when it was decorated with vomit-green tiles. Before the days of Global Entry or Mobile Passport, everyone—including US passport holders like me—lined up to see a passport control agent. For most US citizens, there's usually a bit of brief chit-chat of the hello, how-you-doing, where-you-been, welcome-home variety. This time, though, the agent started asking questions. 

Did I lose a passport?

Yes, about 20 years ago. That passport would now have needed renewal twice—by mailing into the State Department or visiting a passport office in person. I've spent two decades travelling regularly in and out of the US on its replacement and successors. But now I get asked about this passport almost every time I fly into the country, and have been for several years. 

There's nothing else that makes them pull me over. I'm a cheery, openly gay white US citizen with British parents and a transatlantic accent who sometimes has purple hair. I don't fall into any high-risk groups. I haven't visited any of the "high risk" countries now subject to the initial scope of the Muslim Ban. I'm never pulled over for special screening as any kind of security risk when getting on a flight, even when I book one-way tickets at the last minute. 

The agent does some typing into the computer, then calls another agent over. "Secondary," he tells her. My passport and blue customs form are handed over to the other agent.

⠀⠀⠀⠀

I'm escorted, before getting my checked bag off the belt, through a door into the green room. I'm told to leave my bag—which has my laptop, phone, all my valuables—in a pile outside the door. You're not allowed to take any electronics inside, not a phone, not an e-reader, nothing. During the years that I was routinely green roomed, I learned to bring the airline magazine with me to while away each stay, which would often stretch out to an hour.

Inside the green room, the escort passes my papers to another agent, who puts them in one of a series of colour-coded folders. I'm told to sit down and wait, for an indeterminate time. I'm passed from agent to agent to agent, with no explanation, and often no identification of who I should expect to hear from next.

Each green room, no matter which airport, is essentially the same strange limbo. Banks of hard institutional chairs filled with people whose skin comes in various shades of brown. Institutional lighting, but not enough of it in the seating area. Patriotic Federal motivational posters with eagles soaring above stirring words or stern warnings, peeling at the corners.

Agents of the Department of Homeland Security sit on an elevated dais behind a counter and computers. It's eerily quiet, except for the clicking of keyboards, the occasional sniffing of a quietly crying traveller, or when someone's name is shouted out by one of the staffers.

"J. Rodriguez!" I remember one of the agents calling once, in New York's JFK Terminal 4 green room. Fifteen people stood up as the agent continued yelling out J. Rodriguez's personal information to narrow it down to the right one.

It's hard to describe the hostile yet bored way that the green room agents treat passengers—even cheery super-gay white guys with transatlantic accents like mine. It's like a cross between the DMV and the Panopticon, a unique mixture of bureaucracy, authority, and untouchability that creates some of the most appallingly rude and disrespectful behaviour I've ever seen.

It's not just that the homeland security agents were rude. I can deal with rude. I'm a New Yorker. It's our default setting. It's that they felt… untouchable,  and they were. Today, we're hearing that they're ignoring the courts, denying lawyers access, and spiriting people caught up in the Muslim Ban off the airport to detention areas, while claiming that these people are not being detained. It doesn't surprise me in the least.

I got green-roomed during the Obama presidency. I had confidence then—as an openly gay white guy with a transatlantic accent—that I don't know now. Confidence that homeland security wouldn't whisk me off to a holding area without recourse to a lawyer, or retaliate for what I wrote or what I tweeted. Perhaps that confidence was misplaced then. I certainly don't have that confidence now.

My trips to the green room ended anticlimactically. Eventually, the agents would get around to processing me, sometimes with an interview about my lost passport, sometimes not. I'd be standing underneath their raised dais, a good three feet below them (and I'm over six feet tall), and they'd finish typing and just hand back my passport and blue customs form. I usually had to ask if I was free to go.

And I left, feeling the eyes of the people left behind in the green room on me, feeling alternately fortunate that I was allowed to leave and angry that I'd been caught up in whatever this issue was in the first place. After a couple of years and some letters to the State Department, I finally got a letter saying they'd cleared things up. I haven't been green-roomed since.

Yet.

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