An Open Letter in Response to Barriers to Free Movement
Greetings from the Bahamas!
Over the years I’ve had the pleasure to interact with you on multiple occasions. The most recent one was two days ago, at the US border control in Nassau, Bahamas, when I tried to fly back to Washington, D.C.
It started out in the same passive-aggressive but rather innocent way as all border control interactions do—the officer was looking with a perplexed air between my passport and me. I know what it looks like—a young woman with a Swedish passport, a distinctively non-Swedish name, accent, and look, who’s going to the U.S., with a vast collection of “axis of evil” visas. He stared at me and said “So… What were you doing in Pakistan?” with an “aha, got you there” air on his face.
“What sort of work?”
“I’m a U.S. Government contractor. I do research in conflict zones.”
“A U.S. government contractor!?”
He kept staring at the passport for another 10 minutes, before he concluded that it was too confusing to deal with.
“Follow me to the backroom, please.”
A Caucasian American guy, looking like a typical Midwestern college geek, was sitting there with a tired look. I asked him how long he had been there, and why.
“Hours. When I said I was here to scuba dive, they brought me back here.”
“Since when is scuba diving a suspicious activity?”
The handful of others, most of them U.S. citizens, had similar stories. Then the actual backroom interrogation started with the usual questions, designed for illegal Cubans who’d been hiding out in some basement in the U.S. for months.
“Why are you going to the U.S.?”
“Business. I own properties and a company there.”
“A condo in [Washington], D.C., and a church in Pennsylvania.”
“A church in Pennsylvania?”
“Yes. I was drunk and bought it online. It was really cheap. We’ve all done crazy shit when we’re drunk, right?”
“Yes, that’s true, but I never bought a church online.”
“Aha. Each to their own vices.”
“Have you ever been arrested?”
“No.” (I opted not to tell him of my arrest warrant in Pennsylvania for not cutting the grass on the church property—which I got because I was hanging out with rebels in Libya during the revolution. Hence, I didn’t check my mail in DC for months, and the fines eventually turned into a warrant. But I never did get arrested.)
“What business are you going back for?”
“Fight a couple of lawsuits. Deal with the IRS, clients, and employees. You know, the usual mind-numbingly boring rubbish.”
“I got a one million dollar lawsuit for smoking in my condo. It’s not a non-smoking building, by the way.”
“So who are your clients?”
“The U.S. Government.” (I gave him the names of departments and individuals.)
“Why would the government hire… um… a young Swedish women?”
“I’ve been asking myself the same question for years.”
And it kept going in the same vein for another hour, or two; I lost track of time. The officer eventually left the room, and I was alone. Other officers came, stood at the door, stared at me for a couple of minutes, and then left again, like I was some sort of circus animal. I asked to get my passport back, but didn’t. So, finally, I asked to speak with the supervisor.
The young officer came back, with the supervisor—an angry African-American woman in her mid-forties. “What do you want?” she screamed. I explained that I didn’t understand why I was being held in interrogation for hours, without access to my phone or passport. “Well…” The junior officer started saying, but the supervisor interrupted him “Why are you looking at him? Look at me; I’m the supervisor!” I understand that, I asserted as diplomatically as I could, just pointing out that he caught my attention when he was trying to say something.
“You do understand that you overstayed your visa?”
“No, I’m afraid I’m not aware of that.”
“Your visa is valid for 90 days. You stayed 91 days.”
“Ah ok. I’m sorry; that was not intentional. I miscalculated the days. It certainly won’t happen again.”
“You are not allowed to enter the U.S. anymore,” she said with a sadistic—and for the first time—happy glimpse in her eyes. Hence, I was finally released, after 4.5 hours of interrogation and having to sign a form saying I was not allowed to go back to U.S.
Dear U.S. Government, I’ve been working for you for more than seven years, since the age of 22. I’ve risked my life in multiple war zones, received countless numbers of death threats, and I’ve had employees kidnapped, imprisoned, and killed in various places from Afghanistan to Libya—for you. I’ve invested more than half a million dollars in your country, at a time when most foreign investors were fleeing the defaulting economy. I’ve started companies that employ US citizens. I’ve paid taxes—from property taxes to employment taxes and a vast range of other taxes. I’ve spoken highly of you in foreign media. And now you tell me I can’t enter the country because I overstayed my visa, obviously unintentionally, by one day?
Arrest warrants for not cutting the grass on my own property; a one million dollar law suit for smoking in my condo; and now, not being able to enter the country again because I overstayed my visa by one day. And I have no idea when or if I can ever enter again, to see my properties, friends, colleagues, clients, etc. Seriously? I won’t go as far as saying that you’re creating enemies (I don’t want more problems with the TSA than I already do, anyways.), but you’re certainly alienating friends. Your country is about to implode in its own dystopian bureaucracy. And frankly, there are plenty of other country options out there, with healthier economies and less insane laws. I don’t think I speak only for myself when I say that if foreign entrepreneurs and investors get treated like this, we’ll just go somewhere else instead.
Dear U.S. Government, I don’t have to advise you to go and fuck yourself, because you’re obviously doing that already.
With all due respect,
Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof will be on The Stateless Man show for a live interview at 1 p.m. EST on Monday, January 21, 2013. She was a 2012 presenter with TED in Gothenburg, Sweden, and you can watch that below. She discussed alternatives to the current nation-state system, specifically non-territorial corporate states. This will be the topic of her forthcoming book, The Googlement.