A Short Course in Clearing Customs

A Short Course in Clearing Customs

I probably enter and leave the US about two dozen times a year. By far the most unpleasant part of traveling—more than the delays, the endless hours in a flying cigar tube, and the irregular schedules it entails—is going through customs and immigration. The people working for these agencies are about the bottom of the barrel.

I suspect many, even most, people resent being herded like cattle into lines in order to be interrogated, have their baggage rifled, and have their government-issued papers stamped. But, in years of watching my fellow citizens being processed, I find it rare that any have other than an ingratiating smile for the agent. Clearly, most Americans are whipped dogs, ready and willing to have a cavity search performed on their person if some nothing-nobody in a uniform sends them to a back room.

It’s part of a general process causing Americans to lose whatever self-respect and individuality they might still have—which was the main thing that’s always distinguished them from nationals of other countries, most of whom are inured to acting like sheep.

I suggest you study your body language, and that of others, when next you clear customs. Here are a few practical suggestions. Do these, and you’ll feel better about yourself:

  • Don’t cringe and supplicate. Stand tall, look the agent straight in the eye, and under no circumstances, smile. Your demeanor should not be, like most, that of a child, afraid to be scolded. It should be that of an objective scientist studying a familiar but unappealing insect.

  • Answer questions curtly, with a single word. Don’t volunteer anything. Don’t make small talk. Don’t make pleasant conversation like all the whipped dogs around you.

  • If the agent proves inquisitive, ask, in a firm and businesslike way, exactly why he’s asking. If you get an unsatisfactory brushoff, ask to see the regulation authorizing him to ask you that specific question.

  • Never lose your temper or cool.

  • Don’t adopt an attitude or be a hard case; you’re not looking for trouble. You simply want to maintain your space and integrity in a nonaggressive manner, which is quite enough to come out way on top.

  • Never lie or say anything from which you’ll have to backpedal. You don’t want to give them an opening to go on the offensive. It’s imperative to maintain the high moral and psychological ground.

  • If you have a problem with the agent’s attitude, ask to see his supervisor. In dealing with the supervisor, be businesslike, rational, and a concerned citizen, interested in seeing that everything is done in a 100% correct, proper, and by-the-book fashion.

  • If you’re not treated in a correct and proper manner, ask for the names and numbers of those involved, write them down, and then write a letter to their superiors. You won’t, incidentally, get their names. But I promise you’ll ruin their day.

  • If the agent says “Thank you,” your response should be neither “Thank you” nor “You’re welcome,” unless you’d also thank a mugger. You’ve just had your privacy violated, and it could have turned into a nightmare. One time when an agent thanked me, I simply looked at him and walked off. He had the impertinence to call after me, saying “I said, thank you.” I looked back at him and said, “I heard you the first time.”

I’ve had many fascinating interchanges with these people over the years, and practice makes perfect. If everyone treated these bedbugs with the disdain they deserve, it would quickly cave in their fragile personas, and they’d have to go out and find productive employment. The reason I suggest you deal with them as I’ve described, however, is for your own benefit and that of society, not for that of the agent.

Only once have I encountered an agent who seemed like he might be a decent human being. On that occasion, I said, with true interest and concern: “You know, you seem like a decent guy. What are you doing here?” His response was a look of unhappy resignation, and he said, “I don't know. I’ve really got to get out of this game.”

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Tags: travel tips, police state,