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Yesterday I flew into Los Angeles via Auckland on and on an Air New Zealand flight. I will talk about the flight itself in another post; what I want to concentrate on today is the process of disembarkation, and the experience of navigating Immigration.

When I arrived at the immigration hall, it was already completely full. A rough estimate would be well over 1000 people, all with their hand carry luggage, and children, and accompanying family members. I joined the line marked Visitors. I had a camera with me and I wanted to take an image of this huge collection of people but there were signs everywhere prohibiting taking of images so I decided not to. And the line moved very slowly: in fact, the total time for me to actually get to talk to one of the gatekeepers was just under two full hours.

Like many others I was reading a book while moving my carry on luggage with my foot, but reading it on my MacBook Air. At one point, an immigration official came over to me and she said, “Turn off that electronic device”. She then called out in a loud clear voice, “You know what the problem is with electronic devices, don’t you?” I replied that I did not.

She elaborated: “They cause explosions.” She walked away.

Finally I got to talk to an Immigration official. He opened my passport, took my fingerprints (four fingers of the right hand only) and look carefully at the inside cover photograph. He informed me that I had the wrong Visa. I said what do you mean? He replied that the very difficult to get 01 Visa (currently in my passport) is only good to allow me to enter America for the purposes of working. And as I was in Los Angeles only in transit to Vancouver he could not let me in. There is something Kaska-esque about present US immigration policy. I told him that if he looked at the Immigration stamps around the O1 Visas that I have held the last three years, he will see that I have used the visa to transit without hindrance a number of times. He told me that I need the ESTA Visa waiver in order to transit through the US because, repeating himself, the O1 Visa’s purpose, and correct use, is only to allow the holder to enter the US for the purpose of working.

I told him that the US Embassy in Sydney had explicitly told me that the ESTA Visa waiver was not available to anyone who actually held a current US work visa; that the work visa supervened over the ESTA Visa waiver, which by its very nature is an explicit acknowledgement of the non-necessity to have a Visa for the purpose of a holiday visit or for transiting. He told me that I had been advised incorrectly; I responded that each time either my host or I have contacted the USCIS, we have been given different information. He then departed his booth to discuss my situation with his supervisor.

He returned and said that his supervisor was “overriding him” and was allowing me to transit and the reason was that immigration was simply so busy at that moment—there was no acknowledgement of the possible reasonableness of the position that I had put to him over my understanding of the use of the work visa. He repeated to me that “it is always better to do the right thing”; I responded that doing the right thing has taken years to result in the visa that I actually held, and which was considered the best of its type. It became clear that he knew exactly what the auspices of the O1 Visa are (because he referred to me at one point as an “extraordinary person”; I replied to him that I was an “extraordinary alien” according to the tenets of the O1 Visa. I see that since the last time I looked, “alien” has been replaced by “individual”, so progress of sorts!

I exited the booth, to pick up my checked bag. Now I faced a very similar line of people who were going through Customs this time and there were only three customs officials working. I asked the Customs official if I might go to the head of the queue as I was going to miss my plane at this rate. She replied that I needed “the orange card from the airline” in order to jump the queue. She further elaborated that the orange card was given out by airlines in a situation where a passenger going through Customs would be too late to catch the schedule flight. I then mentioned to her that the airline on disembarking us had no idea that any of its customers going to Immigration would take almost two hours and, hence, no one had been given an orange card. She then went and asked one of the customs officers whether I could jump the queue and he repeated the same thing “without an orange card, there was nothing they could do”. I resigned myself to missing the flight.

In the event, I was able to go to Air Canada’s desks, and physically put my check-in bag on their X-Ray machine and was given the assurance that it would be on the flight I was booked on. Further, the AC attendant assured me that, as this flight had not commenced boarding yet, “I should be alright” with respect to actually getting on board. In my mind, though, was the memory of having to personally ask over 400 people if I could jump the security queue (same security area, too, as it happened) three years ago, where only one machine out of the four available was actually being used. So, I asked another official if I could jump this security queue, and she told me to go and talk to someone else. I put a bit of energy behind my next request, though, and asked her directly, “I do not want to do that: what can you do for me, right now?” She took me to the official inside the area, who looked very carefully at the photograph in my passport (without looking at me, which was interesting) and let me into the line at that point (about 20 people ahead of me). I made it through, and ran to the gate, where the flight was boarding, and I go on. It was only when I went to open the computer that I realised that, somewhere in the run to the Air Canada desks, I had lost my reading glasses, so I meditated instead.

There’s a side note: I want to observe that only Singapore has what I consider to be truly effective transit lounges. The Changi Airport Transit Lounge contains a short-stay hotel, a large variety of places to eat, not-too-terrible coffee and, if you’re so inclined, duty-free goods. The entire transit area is quarantined from the rest of the airport and thousands of people go through there in both directions every hour. The system works superbly and has no security issues whatsoever. I have to wonder why the greatest country in the world can’t duplicate this simple, elegant, effective, solution.