Your Colleague Said So

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Tuesday morning, Michel and I will be heading back across the Atlantic to visit my family and friends. This will be the fourth time that we’ve taken this trip together, so we’re almost professionals at maneuvering the whole process. The first time we traveled together from France to the US in 2011, though, the situation raised an interesting immigration question for me:

As an American carrying an American passport, married to a Frenchman carrying a French passport, and whose marriage wasn’t yet recognized by the federal government, did I have to separate from Michel at border control?

I assumed that he couldn’t come with me in the “US Citizens and Permanent Residents” line, but why couldn’t I go with him in the “Everybody Else” line? Whether they liked it or not, we were a family after all, and I didn’t want our first trans-Atlantic voyage together to end with us being separated. As the occasional LBGT-rights activist that I am, I decided to make a statement. By the time we landed, I had created an imaginary confrontation in my head, and I was almost scrapping for a fight. As it turned out, though, Customs and Border Protection was surprisingly accommodating that day. While I wasn’t allowed to go up to the immigration officer at the same time as Michel — we had to go up individually — I was able to stay in line with him. One of the immigration agents even expressed regret that our marriage wasn’t yet recognized. Aw, how sweet!

Unfortunately, our experience in 2012 wasn’t nearly as pleasant.

Do you remember last year’s post about what I learned from a friendly Border Control agent about importing cheese? Well, this is the story from the same day that I didn’t tell you:

Let’s go back, shall we,
to Sunday, August 26, 2012 …

Yes, I AM traveling with a member of my family.
Yes, I AM traveling with a member of my family.

Before our flight landed in Charlotte that afternoon, Michel and I had decided — like every time we’d traveled together to the US — to declare on our customs forms that we were traveling with a family member. This time, though, the activist in me decided to push the envelope just a bit further. I wanted to approach the immigration officer together this time — just like any other family. When we arrived in the border control area, I explained our situation to the first agent we came to, and she confirmed that I could go with Michel in the “Everybody Else” line.

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We plodded along in the line until we reached the agent who was directing us to the next available passport control desk. I handed him my American passport and started to explain:

“I’m an Americ …”

“You’re in the wrong line.”

“Well no. I’m not. I’m traveling with my husband <indicating Michel> and he’s a French citizen. We were told back there <gesturing towards the first agent> to get in this line.”

“Oh. Okay. Just go up to … number 14.”

Then came the all-important question …

“Can we go up together?”

“Yeah. Just go up to number 14.”

Bingo!

When our turn came, we walked up to the passport control agent.

“Hello. This is my passport. I’m an American, but I’m traveling with my husband. <motioning to Michel, who was at my side> He’s French.”

The immigration agent stared at me coolly and then, in a dubious, slightly mocking tone …

“Are you a family?” <particular emphasis on the last word>

“Yes. He’s my husband.”

“Are you a fa—mi—ly?” <this time, emphasizing the word as if I might not have understood the meaning>

Yes. We’re mar—ried. He’s my hus—band.” I repeated, matching the agent’s rhythm, tone, and icy gaze.

It really was not the day to mess with Babydog and Teddy.

The agent sighed.

“Your colleague told us we could come up together.” I added, seeking to explain that we hadn’t just decided to come up together without asking first.

“Witchcuhleek?” the agent blurted out.

“Excuse me?” <legitimately not understanding what he had said>

“Which col—league?!” he almost shouted back at me.

“The gentleman in the green tie.” I replied calmly and politely.

I half expected him to call the other guy over, which might have been a good thing. Instead, he just sighed loudly and took our passports. He asked me a single question — what food I was bringing with me — before stamping mine. He then directed his attention exclusively to Michel. Speaking far too quickly for someone tasked with dealing with foreigners, he peppered Michel with questions and instructions for his fingerprint and retinal scans. He was clearly agitated when he had to repeat himself once or twice … ironic given that he enunciated about as well as I do in French class when I don’t know the answer. He finally stamped Michel’s passport and then literally slapped our passports down on the desk in front of us. Without a word or a second look at us, he yelled toward the waiting line, “Next!”

Michel was shocked and a little confused by the whole encounter. I was too. I’d never been treated like that by immigration. It’s not that I expected a warm smile and chit-chat about my life in France, but I also didn’t expect to feel insulted by some guy whose panties were in a twist because he … hadn’t had enough coffee? … really needed a vacation? … didn’t like dealing with two guys who were married to each other? You tell me.

In any case, we’ll be running the same gauntlet Tuesday afternoon. There’ve been some big changes on the LGBT civil rights front since last fall, of course, but whether any of that has made its way into the CBP procedures manual is another question. I almost want to end up again with my old friend, Mr. Welcome Home. I almost want him to be as disagreeable as he was last year. I almost want him to ask me one more time “Witchcuhleek?” just so I can say …

Janet Napolitano. Is that good enough for you?

Then again, I don’t want either of us to end up being whisked off to some special room for a special interview. I guess I’ll practice biting my tongue until we land just in case that’s a skill that comes in handy in passport control.

P.S. — September 4, 2013 update: The rude dude from last year was nowhere to be seen this year. We can hope he’s moved on to greener pastures (like retirement from civil service). In short, it was such a pleasantly smooth passport control, I’m afraid I have nothing more to write about — and that’s a very good thing!

© 2013 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

8 thoughts on “Your Colleague Said So

  1. We have been going through the US citizens line together as a married same-sex couple for 12 years and have never had a problem. I just hand them both passports and my wife with the foreign passport gets all the questions. They often apologized when we explained we couldn’t live in the USA together because of DOMA.

    We learned from the consul general that if you separate at passport control, you’re withholding information. You’re a US citizen with a foreign spouse and the correct way to go through is together.

    I suspect that asking permission and explaining your situation gets in the way. We did that once and got sent to the non citizens line. I know straight couples this has happened to so don’t be sure it’s because you’re gay. They have discretion and their job is to judge whether a partner may have immigrant intent.

    Good luck and have a great trip!

    1. Interesting that you’ve been going through the US citizens line! The first time we traveled together, I asked they told me we had to go through the non-citizens line together. As usual, I’ll ask when we get to the “traffic director” and see which line we get sent to. In any case, Mr. Welcome Home better be more pleasant this time around or … well … he’ll get the side-eye from me!

      Thanks for the good wishes on the flight. Stay tuned for updates from the other side of the pond!

    2. Another quick question for you: Do you fill out one form, or two? Do you guys have the same last name? The last time I asked about that, I was told we needed two separate forms because we have different family names.

  2. Always great to learn of your experiences. Being a citizen of the United States and Brazil and arriving in Miami from every trip I assure you this is not the worst I have heard on immigration. Some people have hair raising stories that would make you scare to ever travel again. Have a wonderful trip and keep those posts coming, your blog is awesome!

    1. Oh, I know! I’ve read some that are completely hair-raising. I’m always afraid that one of us will get hauled into “secondary screening” one day. I’ll probably have a heart attack if that ever happens.

      Thanks for the compliment on the blog. I’m glad you’re enjoying it!

  3. David is always treated with gruffness, as he has been a green card holder for “longer than I’ve been alive” the immigration officer tells him EVERYTIME we come through PHL. He is incensed that David has not become a citizen. (we seem to get the same guy ). Who would want to when they have this attitude and certainly don’t treat anyone that is not a citizen with much respect or kindness. I’ve seen it far too often.

    1. Keep your fingers crossed for us, Marti! Based on Martha’s comment above, I’m going to see if we can go through the US citizens’ line even though Michel has no American immigration status. In any case, we’re sticking together! Bisous

  4. Just an update on “Operation Welcome Home 2013”:

    The rude dude from last year was nowhere to be seen this year. We can hope he’s moved on to greener pastures (like retirement from civil service). In short, it was such a pleasantly smooth passport control, I’m afraid I have nothing to write about this time!

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