“When was the last time you were in jail?”
That is how the American border agent greeted me. No “hi” or “hello” or even a nod of acknowledgment, just a caustic question meant to shock, befuddle, and humiliate me.
It was 2008, and I was at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, in the secondary screening room, an oblong glass-and-metal structure stripped of mystery under harsh fluorescent lighting, built off to the side of U.S. immigration counters where people traveling from Canada to the U.S. could be pre-screened before boarding their flights.
I stared at the man, who didn’t make eye contact with me but who nonchalantly leafed through my papers. He looked like Dennis Franz, the actor who played Detective Andy Sipowicz on NYPD Blue.
When was the last time you were in jail? The two seconds between when I heard this question and responded felt like eons. When a stumbling answer in the negative finally left my mouth, I wondered if any of the other passengers in the room—predominantly young, male, and of color—could hear me.
Five years before, I’d had a daughter with my ex-wife, an American citizen. For some time, the three of us lived in Bangladesh, before our marriage ended and my ex-wife moved back to Washington, D.C., when my daughter was less than a year old. I gave up my green card following my divorce, and for a period of three years I juggled my job in Bangladesh (at a large NGO called BRAC) with visiting my daughter. It quickly became apparent how unsustainable that was. So in 2006, I resigned from my job at BRAC and enrolled in a Ph.D. program at the University of Toronto, figuring that, in the absence of an American green card, it was one way to be closer to her. I planned to complete my degree while visiting her every month. Usually, these trips from Toronto to Washington were by airplane. When my finances demanded it, I took the train or the bus.
That was what had brought me to that immigration counter that day.
Following the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration imposed the National Security Entry Exit Registration System (NSEERS) program, under which male nationals of predominantly Muslim countries were required to register with the government and be fingerprinted and photographed. These male nationals were to inform the government if their domestic address changed, and they were allowed to enter and leave the country only through specifically designated ports of entry. When leaving the country, NSEERS registrants could only “check out” to board their flight or their train if they first obtained a stamp on their passports at a special immigration counter. God help you if you forget, stony-faced border agents would intone to me. You won’t be let back in the country again.
As father to a young daughter, with an international border between us, I became terrified of missing that crucial seal of consent, which was usually slammed onto my passport by bored agents, often late at night. The times I would take a train back to Toronto from Washington—a day-long journey—I dreaded having to ask the conductor to stop at the Canadian border and wait for me as I ran out to get my emancipatory stamp from the border office.
I had been in America, completing a Masters at George Washington University, when 9/11 happened. On that fateful Tuesday morning, I saw smoke rise from the Pentagon from the balcony of my Northern Virginia apartment. As policy, NSEERS was more reflexive than reflective, like a number of other policies adopted by the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11. I wondered what it had achieved other than putting law-abiding individuals under needless stress and strain.
Not all border agents I encountered in those eight long years were as rude as Agent Sipowicz. Most were polite and professional. A few were downright kind. Once, an agent advised me that I need not go through NSEERS anymore and to not bother with registering when leaving the country because a technicality had exempted me. Rather than feeling relief, I only felt distress. One missed stamp based on an agent’s well-intentioned but inaccurate information could result in my being barred from America for life. It was a risk I could not afford to take. I decided to ignore the kind agent’s advice and kept going back to get my passport stamped.
By 2011, my passport was covered in them. On the occasions I’d be requested by border agents to find a particular stamp from one trip or another, I’d be lost. There were so many—page after page of red, black, and blue ink melded together like tattoos on the body of a prison inmate.
This elaborate bureaucracy was more effective in demoralizing Muslim men than in being any kind of effective deterrent against terrorism. This became clear to me one day when an agent swung around his computer monitor and asked me when I had shaved my beard. The picture attached to my profile was that of a bearded man who clearly was not me. I told the officer as much.
“Oh,” he said, shrugging. “I guess we should fix that.”
In April 2011, the Obama administration suspended parts of the NSEERS program, arguing that it had proved ineffective in its aim. When I first learned of this while standing at the U.S. immigration counter at Pearson airport, it felt as though I had gained wings. No more being shunted off to a side room for extra interrogation. No more being limited to leaving the country only through certain airports. No more constant terror of forgetting to get my passport stamped.
My fears would return with Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, after which there was an expectation that the NSEERS program would be reinstated. Perhaps anticipating this, one of the outgoing acts of the Obama administration was to dismantle the NSEERS regulatory framework entirely, making the program’s reinstatement much more difficult, if not impossible for the incoming administration.