August 18, 2008
I was recently stopped by Homeland Security as I was returning from a trip to Syria. What I saw in the hours that followed shocked and disturbed me.
I arrived at JFK Airport two weeks ago after a short vacation to Syria and presented my American passport for re-entry to the United States. After 28 hours of traveling, I had settled into a hazy awareness that this was the last, most familiar leg of a long journey. I exchanged friendly words with the Homeland Security official who was recording my name in his computer. He scrolled through my passport, and when his thumb rested on my Syrian visa, he paused. Jerking toward the door of his glass-enclosed booth, he slid my passport into a dingy green plastic folder and walked down the hallway, motioning for me to follow with a flick of his wrist. Where was he taking me, I asked him. "You'll find out," he said.
We got to an enclosed holding area in the arrivals section of the airport. He shoved the folder into my hand and gestured toward four sets of Homeland Security guards sitting at large desks. Attached to each desk were metal poles capped with red, white and blue siren lights. I approached two guards carrying weapons and wearing uniforms similar to New York City police officers, but they shook their heads, laughed and said, "Over there," pointing in the direction of four overflowing holding pens. I approached different desks until I found an official who nodded and shoved my green folder in a crowded metal file holder. When I asked him why I was there, he glared at me, took a sip from his water bottle, bit into a sandwich, and began to dig between his molars with his forefinger. I found a seat next to a man who looked about my age -- in his late 20s -- and waited.
Omar (not his real name) finished his fifth year in biomedical engineering at City College in June. He had just arrived from Beirut, where he visited his family and was waiting to go home to the apartment he shared with his brother in Harlem. Despite his near-perfect English and designer jeans, Omar looked scared. He rubbed his hands and rocked softly in his seat. He had been waiting for hours already, and, as he pointed out, a number of people -- some sick, elderly, pregnant or holding sobbing babies -- had too. There were approximately 70 people detained in our cordoned-off section: All were Arab (with the exception of me and the friend I traveled with), and almost all had arrived from Dubai, Amman or Damascus. Many were U.S. citizens.