Red Lines (Washington-Dulles Airport, USA)

“Next,” he calls from behind the glass, and I cross the yellow line.
“Hello,” I greet him. I slide my passport and customs form across the counter.
“Where are you coming from?” he asks, glancing at my passport and tapping at his keyboard.
“Somalia.” The US doesn’t recognize Somaliland as an independent nation, and I figure this isn’t the moment for the distinction.
“Somalia,” he repeats, and abandons tapping the keyboard.
“Yes.”
“How many days were you there?”
“Three and a half months.”

He looks me over for a moment, his gaze apologetic, and yet not quite. He takes my passport and places it into a red plastic box, like a narrow shoebox, and points to a red line on the floor — one I’d never noticed before. I’ve come through this customs line dozens of times, and I’ve never before noticed this line.

“Take the box, and follow the line to the end. Do you have a connecting flight?”
“Yes.”
“How much time do you have?”
“About an hour.”
“Tell the next officer you’ve got a connection.”
“Okay.”
Pause.
“Welcome home. Good luck.”

The red line snakes around the baggage claims, past two desks with customs officers, around corners, behind large glass windows, through which you can see the rest of the airport passengers. They claim their luggage, and walk through the “green lane.” I can see the families waiting with their reunion signs, the businessmen rushing to make their connections. Nobody else is holding their passport in a red plastic shoebox.

I follow the red line into a large room, where a uniformed man sits behind a desk and points to a cluster of papers taped to the glass, each showing some version of “no phones,” written in different languages.

“Read,” he says loudly, not looking at me.
“Got it, no phones,” I reply. “The other officer told me to tell you I’ve got a connection.”
He still doesn’t look at me, and doesn’t respond.
“Passport,” he demands, and I hand the box to him. “Sit and wait for your name to be called.”

I am not surprised by who is sitting here, from what I know about uniforms in America. I wish I were surprised. Other than myself, every seat is filled by someone with brown or black skin. White men in dark uniforms are taking apart suitcases on large tables. More dark uniforms wander around, tapping at computers, walking back and forth across the room. Nobody is in a rush.

I can’t find a clock. Someone pulls out their phone, and it is immediately noticed. They are reminded to READ the papers taped to the glass. Another plain piece of paper taped to the wall instructs us to request an escort if we need to use the bathroom. Otherwise, the uniforms don’t acknowledge us. 

I wonder how much time has passed. I wonder if I’ll miss my flight, if they’ll pay for a new flight if I do. I wonder what they really want from me, what they’re doing when I wait. I wonder if they’re doing anything at all. It occurs to me that this is the power of authority, how quickly autonomy and agency can slip away. I don’t know what happens next. I don’t think I can just leave. I don’t know how long they’ll keep me here, or who decides when I can go. I am not the person who decides when I can go, and as much as I try to calm myself, that fact makes me nervous and frustrated.

Do the others know? Do the families with their luggage, the rushing businessmen, the anticipatory sign-holders, do they know that this room is here? I am acutely aware of my privilege, not having known of its existence until now, not having noticed that red line, never pointed this way before. I wonder about another traveller, having never passed straight through, always pointed towards the red line. I hope they don’t exist, but I’m sure they do.

A female officer calls my name, and I stand and walk to her. She smiles grimly, and asks me a lot of questions. I don’t know why, or if she’s allowed to ask so many questions. I just know that I have a connection, and I’m not the one who decides whether I get to leave.

Where were you?
Why?
Can you spell that?
Who is that connected to?
Why did you decide to go there?
How did you find out about it?
Where did you live there?
Who did you live with?
Did you have many friends there?
Why are you coming to the US?
How long are you staying?
Are you going back there?
What is your job now?
Where in the US are you going?
Are you from there?
Where are you from?
Why are you going there, then?
What is his name?
Can you spell his last name?
Where does he work?
Where does he live?
Do you know the address?
How long will you be there?
Where will you go after that?
Do you know anyone else there?

She writes down every answer, and then gives the paper a long stare. Then, she gives me a long stare, and gives the paper another long stare.

“Okay,” she says.
“Okay?”
“Okay, you can go,” she nods once, handing me back my passport — free from its red plastic container. And just like that, it has been decided that I can go. 

Welcome to the United States.

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