Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Let us in!

Getting into the United States is getting harder and harder.  I guess that's what they want, but it is annoying for those of us who just want to get to the city of sin and gamble.

When my GF and I went 7 months ago, they had started photographing and fingerprinting all foreigners entering the US, regardless of visa status or the relations with the US.  We had to go through the process when we flew into San Francisco airport, and it was a nightmare.  There were only about 5 agents for two planefuls of arriving passengers from Asia, and it took what seemed like hours.  They set up a couple lines for US citizens and breezed us through, but then didn't reassign those lines for foreigners, so the agents stood by idle while the huge lines at the other agents slowly processed.  I waited patiently for the GF to process, which finally finished up about 45 minutes later.  We rushed to pick up our luggage from baggage claim, and submit it to the new inspection station.  There was a huge line of bags to process and the worker there didn't seem to be in any hurry.  We ran, really ran, to catch our connecting flight to Vegas, since we'd been delayed so long by homeland security, and barely made it.  Maybe I should have seen it coming, but our bags didn't make it onto our flight.  When we called from the Venetian to check on them, no one knew where they were.  We ended up taking a cab out to Walmart to pick up toiletries and a change of clothes and got stuck out there as it got dark because the cab companies we called said they were coming out to pick us up, but never showed.  Our bags arrived at the hotel about 2am the next morning with no explanation.

The processing center in SF airport is huge now - there must have been about 30 lines of agents and most of them were occupied and chugging through incoming visitors at a steady pace.  They still had separate lines for citizens and visitors, but both were well staffed and I though we'd be fine.  Nope.  I got through quickly and waited for my GF to finish up, since she had reached her agent just as I cleared.  He started to ask her a number of questions about why she was visiting and where she was staying and she seemed to be having difficulty answering, so I started to walk over.  He noticed immediately and called out in a firm voice, "Sir!  Stay back, please!"

I stopped and waited by the wall near the exit area, where I could watch and hopefully hear if there were any problems.  The agent would have none of it.  He stood up and nearly shouted, "Sir, you must proceed through the exit area!", pointing.  Other security guards were starting to stare at me, and I reminded myself of the new United States and air marshals and guys off their medication getting bullets in the head.  If a homeland security agent tells you to move along, you better fucking move along.

I passed through the exit gate and tried to hang out in a position where I could see the agent and my girlfriend.  After another minute, he sent her down to the other end of the processing hall, where I could not see what was going on.

That was the last I saw of her for about 45 minutes.

I was starting to freak out.  I asked the other agents what was going on, and they would not answer.  "Just wait for them to finish, please."  I had visions of back rooms and invasive searches, of "finding" items on her or in her bags that incriminated her.  I worried that we'd miss our flight, despite the extra time we'd given ourselves this time around.  I worried about getting stuck in SF for days trying to get this worked out.  I worried about her getting refused entry into the country and sent back to Japan.  I had almost even started to worry about her being held for three years as an enemy combatant, uncharged of a crime and without contact and legal representation.

She finally showed up, looking flustered and irritated.  "What happened, what were they doing to you?!" I blurted out.  "Nothing," she snorted.  "They sent me over to the end of the hall for someone else to ask me questions, and it took him 40 minutes to show up!  Then he asked me a few of the same stupid questions about where I was heading and where I'd be staying, and he let me go four minutes later!"

Who needs visions of facists when simple imcompetence will do?

We made our connecting flight and got to our hotel, the Monte Carlo, only slightly delayed.  There we found that they had no record of our reservation, the one I had made on the web via, with confirmation printouts and emails and credit card records.  We spent another two hours on the phone with customer service, waiting for them to work out what happened to our reservation.  We couldn't check in because the Monte Carlo was completely booked.  Eventually gave up and got us a new reservation at Treasure Island.  I doubt I will be using ever again.  On the other hand, one of the customer service agents at Monte Carlo, Angela, was extremely helpful in trying to work out our problem and really put us at ease.  I hadn't even had a chance to tip her on the sly and push for a room upgrade!  Next time I go back, if I stay at the MC I will ask for Angela and be sure to bribe.. er... tip her very generously.

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