Sleepwalking to totalitarianism?
After all the irritations of getting my visa to come to the USA, let me give all credit where it’s due -- the process of actually getting into the country was seamlessly quick and efficient.
But I do have two things to report/confess. First, on the way through Heathrow, I gave in to temptation and (entirely against my principles) registered for the British Immigration Agency’s Iris Recognition Service -- which lets you speed through the passport check coming into the country, by just blinking at a camera.
Second, I discovered something I’d always wanted to know – that is, what happens if you don’t manage to hand back when you leave the US that little green or white card which they staple into your passport when you arrive.
The Iris thing was a shameful victory of convenience over ethics. I’m as fiercely opposed to giving over my biometric details as the next libertarian. But seeing my husband waltz through immigration at Gatwick when we came back from Pompeii, just by going into a little glass booth and opening his eyes, while I stood for a good half hour in a queue, was what did it. Besides, I thought, if you have no choice but to let the US government take a picture of your irises when you go into America, what is point of standing out at home?
You can register, apparently, in the departures area of most UK airports. When I did it, it took less that five minutes and needed nothing more than showing your passport and staring briefly at a camera, “manned” by a couple of very jovial young women. The registration takes effect instantly. So from now on when I come into the UK, I look forward to speeding through the little glass booth – while reflecting guiltily how easy it is to sleepwalk to totalitarianism for the sake of a few minutes' wait. (Actually we may yet be saved: once everyone has registered, I suppose that the queues will get longer and longer at the magic booth and we’ll forget our irises and flock back to the human checkers.)
As for those green and white cards, it’s a more bureaucratic story. My husband, who is with me on this trip, had been lecturing in Canada in March, and had gone for the day to Buffalo in the US. On the way in, he had gone through the usual stuff of fingerprints, ticking the box to confirm he’d never harboured a war criminal or whatever, and having the card stapled into his passport. When he crossed back to Canada, the Canadian border police were totally uninterested in removing his green card, despite his urging -- as were British Airways went he left Canada to come home. So technically speaking, as far as the US authorities were concerned, he was still in the USA.
When we got to immigration in Los Angeles, he instantly came clean – and the official politely pointed out that this was indeed an “irregularity”. But no, even he wouldn’t take it away either. Instead he gave us a standard letter, explaining that the husband had to write to an office in Kentucky, send the card and provide evidence that he had indeed left the USA – like a credit card receipt for a purchase made anywhere but in the US, or a xerox of a passport stamp on leaving Canada (but no, of course, the nice laid back Canadians hadn’t actually stamped it!).
This would let the guys in Kentucky “regularise” the situation. If you didn’t go through this procedure, then dire things were threatened – ranging from “delay” and “inconvenience” to being put back on the first plane home if ever you should try to set foot in the land of the free.
So let’s hope they do get it “regularised”.