I tried getting into Trump’s America as a Muslim Pakistani-Canadian, and here’s what happened
When I decided to travel home to Toronto for reading week this March, my parents urged me to stay put. I was living in New Haven, Connecticut, with just two months to go before finishing my law degree at Yale. News of Muslim bans, deportations, and visa cancellations made my parents anxious. We were Muslims and Pakistani-Canadians, the sort of people who now had targets on our back. The immigration attorney that my law school hired gave me the same advice as my parents: do not leave the country. My passport picture looks—how I shall I put this?—haggard and dark-eyed (I had been partying the night before it was taken). To people with badges, it might scream terrorist. My name is as Muslim as could be—not Osama or Saddam or Muhammad, but close enough to warrant additional scrutiny. As they say, I “fit the profile.” Why risk the possibility of being denied re-entry into the United States?
Of course, I needed no reminder of the risks of Travelling While Muslim. In 2014, I was detained by U.S. border guards while flying from Toronto to San Francisco for a job interview because of an Iraqi stamp in my passport. For a half-hour, I tripped over my words trying to explain that the stamp was from Iraqi Kurdistan, that the Kurds were American allies and that I had visited Erbil not for terrorist training but to conduct research as a grad student. That detention took place in the Obama days, when I could place faith in reason and rationality. I didn’t begrudge the men and women who subjected me to interrogations and body checks. They were simply doing their jobs.
In the end, I flew home on March 10. The president’s infantile actions were not going to force me to re-organize my life. To limit my autonomy out of fear was to surrender something precious about human life. I decided to treat my trip over the U.S. border as a social experiment. What would happen when a Yale Law School student (good), who had written fondly of America (great), but had no American citizenship (bad), and was Muslim (worst), tried to cross the border in the Trump era?
After seven days at home, I returned to Pearson Airport on March 17 to fly back to New York. The customs agent asked to see my papers, and I gave her a neat file with my student visa, an immigration form from Yale and a valid Canadian passport. In case anything went wrong, I had the numbers of two lawyers saved in my phone. The agent ran through the usual questions and took my fingerprints. Then, she called over another agent who had the delightful name of Stumpf—a German name not unlike the president’s original family name of Drumpf—who typed something into the computer and left. The first agent closed my papers in my passport and asked if I had anything else. I knew where this was going: already, it was taking too long, and the line behind me was lengthening.
“Follow me,” she said, and led me to a door nearly camouflaged in the wall. The other passengers glared at me as if I had committed a grave offence. The agent opened the door, let me in and said, “Wait here, and do not use your phone.”
The room had a white floor, white ceiling and white walls. A TV played the news on mute. Customs and Border Protection rules were written in black letters on one of the walls; on another wall was a picture of the Statue of Liberty—an irony that felt like a cruel joke. Another detainee, an older black man was sitting in front of the picture. He gave me a nod. I returned the gesture. We were strangers suddenly turned into companions.
I sat down and began reading a collection of Albert Einstein’s writings. I read the same paragraph over and over again—about Einstein’s warm reception in the United States after leaving Germany—and then shut the book. I could not concentrate. A flurry of questions filled my mind: Why had I been detained? How long would I be here? Would I be denied entry into the U.S.? If so, would this go on my record, and would I be able to finish my law degree remotely? If not, how would I explain that to my family?
Ten minutes passed, then 20, then 40. I asked the black man waiting patiently whether this happened to him a lot.
“Every time, this happens!” he said. “And for you?”
“Sometimes,” I said.
“Are you a U.S. citizen?” he asked.
“I am, and these people still put me in here. Every time!”
I went back to my book. Albert Einstein had been a refugee who, like so many others, was grateful that America had taken a chance on him. But as much as America opened its doors, there are plenty of examples of it shutting them: the anti-immigrant Know Nothing party of the mid-1800s, the description of Italians as swarthy criminals in the early 20th century, the initial rejection of Jewish refugees in the 1930s, the depiction of Asians as stealthy job-stealers by some today.
A side door I had not noticed swung open, and an African-American border agent came in. “Aziz?” he said huskily. I told him that was me, and he asked me to write my parents’ name and address on a paper.
“Is everything okay?” I asked innocently.
“Yeah, for now. Apparently there’s been a name match with you and someone we’re keeping an eye on, so we’ve sent the file to the people up top and they’re sorting through the databases right now.”
“Why did the name match?”
“Look,” he said, “I can’t tell you everything about our methods, but I can tell you this. When names match, we need to be extra careful and check all relevant databases, but this will be figured out shortly.” And then he added casually, as though we were at a café, “Do you want water?”
I said yes and instantly regretted my answer, because the agent led me out of the screening room and back into the main customs area, where the line of travellers had grown longer. Again I felt their eyes on me, but I hoped that by walking side-by-side with the border agent instead of in front of him, other passengers would think I was a customs official-in-training and not a detainee.
“You know you got the wrong guy, right?” I said.
“I know, man,” he said, “I know.”
Then, I blurted, “Am I being stopped because of racial profiling?”
The idea of a brown man asking a black man if he was being profiled nearly made me laugh. The customs agent stopped walking. He pointed to the ground. “Let’s get one thing straight, man. See that line?” I looked down at one of the thin lines separating the tiles on the ground. “We can refuse you entry into the United States for any reason—we don’t need probable cause like the police.”
“I was just curious,” I said apologetically. “I study law.”
“That’s very nice, man. Since you’re a lawyer, I’ll grab you some of our CBP brochures that outline what we do.”
I got my water, and the agent walked me back into the detention room before disappearing again. The other man in the room was still sitting and watching TV. I lay down on the seats and closed my eyes. I couldn’t check my phone or tell anyone I was here—not even the lawyers. My mind began to drift to authoritarian regimes in Europe and the Middle East I had read about—regimes that not only interrogated you, but tortured you. They did not try you; they “disappeared” you. Get a grip, I told myself. This is the United States.
The television said it was 5:45 pm. I had missed my flight. I had been in this cramped room for an hour and a half, but my sense of time and reality were severely distorted. I was hoping that the border agent would come back and ask me questions so I could at least speak, clarify the situation and regain some sense of control, but I was engulfed by silence and powerless to do anything but wait. When the mind stills, anxiety creeps in. I thought about reaching for my phone but the two cameras in the room deterred me.
I was starting to get restless. I fidgeted with my shirt. I stared at the ceiling. I examined the callouses on my palms. My irritation had turned to annoyance, then to indifference, then to hopeless acceptance of my situation. Perhaps I would be let out in one minute. Perhaps I would be there for the rest of the day. What difference did it make anymore? I began to wonder who exactly was reviewing my file: the agent in the other room? His superiors checking “the databases” in Langley or Washington, D.C.? What made my confrontation with the national security state so terrifying was the faceless machinery of it all and the banality of its agents. This Leviathan of surveillance was unfathomable in its magnitude.
Suddenly, the door swung open and the border agent poked his head into the room. “You single, man?”
“Yes,” I said, and he left.
The other detainee shook his head. “So stupid.”
We laughed together, connected by our common predicament. If the world was mocking us, we would mock it right back.
“Where’s your family from?” I asked.
I sat up. “Do you know how long we’ll be in here?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “This is the longest they’ve kept me.”
“Trump,” I said.
“Trump,” he repeated.
I was starting to get desperate. My parents thought I was on a flight to New York. Yet here I was, in this interrogation room, silenced and, in a way, disappeared. Two hours had passed, but it felt like much longer. I’d done nothing wrong other than having a name matching someone else’s and, of course, looking Muslim.
Finally, the border agent came back into the room and handed me my papers and the CBP brochures without saying a word. I was free to go. I would have to rebook my flight and deal with all the additional costs of arriving hours late, but I was relieved it was over. I turned to the other detainee and wished him good luck. He gave me a head nod. I did the same.
Heading to the departure gates, I felt like I had stepped out of a twilight zone, a parallel universe. There are many such rooms around the world. Being detained in one of them denudes you of your identity and subjects you to questions that presume guilt. To the border agents, I was a number, a file, a “name match” caught up in a war against terrorism.
I wanted to be angry at my treatment, but as I slumped in my chair and reoriented myself to the real, free world, I couldn’t help but laugh at it all. The whole experience was absurd, and the policies that led to it were doltish and irrational. How much human potential was being wasted in this fearful entrapment of free citizens? The Somali-American man from the interrogation room appeared, and I noticed that he too seemed relaxed. I was glad he was let out.
My experience as a brown-skinned migrant living and studying in America has made me sensitive to the armed agents of the state who stand between me and my freedom of movement. Like all borders between peoples and cultures, the dividing line between Canada and the United States is artificial, an imaginary division drawn by imaginary communities—the results of wars, treaties and adjustments. But the fact that borders are man-made makes them no less real. Lines must be crossed if I am to live as a free individual, and when those lines are crossed, there will be people accusing me of tresspassing. Detentions, questions and maddening silence will follow.
In the era of Trump, this is my reality. I’ll face it with a smile. I’ll give them all the answers they want and be patient, but I won’t let them control my emotions. Detain my body; you will never have my freedom.
Omer Aziz is a J.D. candidate at Yale Law School who recently worked for the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria and for a start-up in Shanghai. His debut novel, The Brother, is forthcoming.