My flight home on February 17 first touched down in the US in Detroit, so it was there that I went through immigration and customs before catching my flight to Boston. The connection time was one hour and forty minutes.

At a kiosk in the immigration hall, I provided some preliminary information, including that I was bringing in gifts above the allowable personal exemption. The machine printed out a ticket for me with a black “X” across the face and I was shown to a line where entrants went through a longer interview than most. I had been singled out for special attention.

My interview was indeed longer than most, and I was passed through to an official who accompanied me to the baggage carousel to pick up my bags. He then handed me over to another official who took me to a station at the end of the hall. There, he and two other customs agents examined the contents of all my pockets very carefully. They went through my carry-on bag meticulously, delving into every corner and each container in my toilet kit. One asked what was in the plastic film can and I said, “Toothpaste. It’s probably petrified.” She replied, “I didn’t know tooth paste can petrify.”

One of them told me, as he handed me a flyer, that they have the right to take my electronic media. “To take my phone and computer away?!” I asked. “No,” he said, “just to examine them.” He spent about 15 minutes looking through the phone though not the computer next to it.

Throughout all this, they were extremely polite and professional. I chose not to get offended and answered all their questions cheerfully. Where did you travel? Why? Whom did you see? How did you get to know them? What was your work? When did you retire? Where did you meet your wife? Where is she? And so on. Some questions were repeated.

I did tell them I had a connection at 3:40, now much less than an hour away, and that I very much wanted to make it!   As my carry on was examined so carefully, I suggested they might bring over another agent to help with the two other bags (which held almost all the gifts) as I knew I’d miss my flight if they gave those the same level of scrutiny.  They did not.

An agent did open the first of the two large bags, but he gave it only cursory inspection and he didn’t ask to open the third at all. By that time, I’d realized that this special treatment had little or nothing to do with my declaration that I was bringing in goods that would require some duty paid on them (perhaps $24). So I asked them why I had been blessed with their attention in this way. (I didn’t use those exact words.)

One of the men told me, “I think you deserve the truth.” (Don’t we all?) They were looking for drugs or for evidence of child trafficking, as both of these are common in Southeast Asia, which I have visited often in the last years and had just returned from – on this trip, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. I don’t know if I was chosen at random or because a white male in his 60s traveling alone looks like a pedophile to the Office of Customs and Border Protection. It’s possible I was profiled for being a white Anglo-Saxon male of a certain age!

By the time they had finished with my carry on, they’d somehow decided I was not a criminal. That would explain why the large bags weren’t given the same treatment and also why, when I asked where I needed to pay the duty, one of the men said to the other, “I don’t see any dutiable goods here, do you?” and the other agreed. They waved me through, but not before thanking me for handling this so well, and I them for being so polite and professional.   In my longhaired 20s, I had a very different encounter with a border official in Miami who was not so pleasant, so I truly did appreciate their calm and professional manner. I ran for the plane and I just made my connection home to Boston.

My welcoming committee at Logan!

My welcoming committee at Logan!

"Pipa" is my grandpa name.

“Pipa” is my grandpa name.

American citizens have very little privacy now. We have given away so much ourselves, in our Facebook accounts and online presence. The government has the legal right to know a huge amount about us. In this case, the border agents were up front about what they had the right to do and were required to hand me a flyer explaining their authority to go into my phone.

I find this troubling. Yet if it would spare one child from being abused or trafficked, I can live with it.

What I cannot live with is the government’s illegal (in my view) access to and ability to grab any phone conversation I have and email message I send without even a warrant. I’d just seen this on screen in one of the in-flight Bourne movies, in which the CIA pulls up the most obscure information on Jason Bourne and the woman he is traveling with. Jason Bourne is me (and you and you).

Last year in Germany we visited a friend in Ulm. Petra showed us a store window full of Lego boats on a Lego river, with spectators lining the Lego banks. The Danube flows through Ulm. Each year a parade of boats competes for prizes as floats do in a parade. One boat in the window bore the American flag and the proud proclamation: “WE READ ALL”.   The Germans are particularly sensitive to the NSA’s monitoring, not only because we tapped into Angela Merkel’s cell phone but because they remember only too well the years when STASI, the intelligence system in East Germany, was spying on most of its citizens.

The Danube flows through Ulm.

The Danube flows through Ulm.


WE READ ALL!  Look for the American flag.

Thanks to Edward Snowden, we Americans now know that our government is spying on all of us. It is not a comfortable feeling, and it’s wrong.

As for profiling, I was given that rare gift of being put in someone else’s shoes. It is not usual for a white middle class male to have this experience so common to people of color. It offers me a small sense of what it must feel like for an Asian or African or Mexican or Arab to approach the citizenship lines or be stopped by a police officer and wonder what they may be suspected of.

When Lina was traveling with her Filipino passport and a US visa, she could never be sure of getting through the line, as the interviewing officer has the power to turn back anyone, even if they do have a valid visa. That never happened, but it could have.   I know there were people in the Detroit immigration hall who were not as fortunate as I on Tuesday.

So I am grateful for the gift of empathy from this experience. I’m also grateful that I was dealing with decent human beings and that I found some calm inside throughout.   And that I did not miss my flight!