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The US version of the welcome mat

Most Americans are not aware that visitors to the US are subjected to questioning whose intrusiveness is exceeded only by its absurdity.

It comes mainly in the form of an online form called the Electronic System for Travel Authorization that you must fill before you travel. An airline pilot has written an article titled How Not to Attract Tourists that discloses some of the questions visitors are asked.

ESTA asks for basic personal data, like your name and birth date. It also asks whether you are guilty of “moral turpitude,” whether you’re planning crimes or “immoral activities” and whether you suffer from “lymphogranuloma venereum” (don’t ask). If you’re involved in terrorism or genocide — and for some reason you’ve decided to take this opportunity to inform the United States government — there’s a box for that. And if you’re a spy — a particularly artless one — please let us know.

And you have to pay $14 for the privilege of filling in this form.

As the author of that article says, American immigration practices give the “give the strong impression of an authority-minded culture that’s coming slightly unhinged.”

Comments

  1. cswella says

    “Yes, I’m a terrorist spy who is hoping to get a job in America where I can work against the government and install Sharia Law everywhere… …Why do you ask?”

  2. Luke says

    Yep, I even had to do this recently for a trip from Ottawa to Melbourne just because I had a transfer in the US. Fun times.

  3. sumdum says

    I wonder if even the people who process the filled in forms ever expect an honest spy to reveal themselves. On second thought, I don’t wonder, I know they don’t expect that. It’s amazing such a question still gets asked.

  4. Aeryk says

    Having had to use this system (being a Swedish citizen living in Canada) I can tell you those questions aren’t actually new. I’ve always had to answer those to get entry to the US, it’s just that now I have to fill out an electronic form before my trip instead of filling out a card at a border stop. Also as far as I can tell the ESTA process is automated in that I get the authorization as soon as the form is submitted, not sure if any other processing is done behind the scenes after.

  5. magistramarla says

    Wow – I wasn’t aware of this.
    As an American citizen, I’ve traveled in Mexico, Japan and Greece. In each case, the customs agents seemed to be mostly concerned that my passport was in order and that I wasn’t carrying any contraband into the country. There were no personal questions and no hassles, especially in Japan and Greece. The Mexican border is a little touchier, for obvious reasons.
    I would have expected that the US could be at least as courteous to foreign visitors as we are treated when we visit.
    Now I understand why so many friends from other countries aren’t thrilled about visiting the US. Besides fearing being interrogated, I’ve heard several say that they are afraid of being shot at while visiting.

  6. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    They don’t expect a spy to announce that he is one on the form. However, if he gets caught spying, he can be charged with making a false statement on the ESTA.

    If you look at the federal income tax instructions, you’ll discover that you are legally required to report and pay taxes on illegal earnings. So if you’re found guilty of bank robbery, then you can also be charged with tax evasion. Remember, Al Capone wasn’t found guilty of murder, bootlegging, or any other criminal offenses, he was convicted of tax evasion.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    What other kinds of turpitude are there, and which ones are legal in which states?

    Bored inquiring minds need to know!

  8. Pen says

    It’s been like that for years, so I’m used to being asked about my personal participation in the Holocaust. What’s changed is now you have to pay and organise yourself to get on the internet and submit that form. Before you just showed up and they gave you one. Now if you just show up, they send you away.

    The other side of the coin is that many countries have started charging US citizens to enter their countries in retaliation. People are not only discouraged from visiting the US, US citizens are discouraged from travelling. Slightly – it still isn’t as bad as going to Russia!

  9. davidharper says

    As a British citizen married to an American, I visit the U.S. at least once a year, so I’m accustomed to the intrusive questions on the ESTA form, and its predecessor, the I-94W visa waiver form.

    What the airline pilot’s article fails to mention is that since 2004, non-Americans entering the U.S. are fingerprinted and photographed like common criminals every time they pass through U.S. immigration.

  10. scotlyn says

    Waiver of Rights: I have read and understand that I hereby waive for the duration of my travel authorization obtained via ESTA any rights to review or appeal of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer’s determination as to my admissibility, or to contest, other than on the basis of an application for asylum, any removal action arising from an application for admission under the Visa Waiver Program.

    In addition to the above waiver, as a condition of each admission into the United States under the Visa Waiver Program, I agree that the submission of biometric identifiers (including fingerprints and photographs) during processing upon arrival in the United States shall reaffirm my waiver of any rights to review or appeal of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer’s determination as to my admissibility, or to contest, other than on the basis of an application for asylum, any removal action arising from an application for admission under the Visa Waiver Program.

    This is the real kicker. See, under Irish law, courts continue to rule that it is not possible to voluntarily waive or give up your rights. For example, you can sign all the pieces of paper you want waiving your statutory holiday leave entitlements in favour of your employer, for example, but your rights continue to exist regardless.

    The demand that you “waive the right to review or appeal” the actions or decisions of ANY US border official or “to contest any removal” is quite a steep price to pay for entry to the US. And if you do not sign, you do not pass.

    So, how DO US courts view this matter. Is it actually possible to waive your rights, or do your rights exist independently of any waiver you sign?

  11. kraut says

    Having observed the behaviour of US border officials (not personally, as I refuse to ever travel to or even through the US)
    as reported by friends from Europe and Canada alike, I wonder why anybody actually want to visit such a shithole?

  12. dexitroboper says

    Many people don’t want to visit there, but you are required to fill out that form and pass through immigration even if you are just transiting the US.

  13. says

    Huh, according to the article, Australia is doing this sort of thing too. I didn’t know that, and I can’t find much substantiation. There is the Electronic Travel Authority, but that’s like an on-line visa. Visas have fees, meh.

    The passenger arrival form card does have a check box on criminal record (which leads to endless jokes about how they didn’t know it was still required) but it doesn’t ask anything quite so stupid as the US ones.

    We do have some serious questions on the arrival forms about dirt and honey and fruit and other biological stuff, but that’s quarantine, and it is for very good reason.

  14. Timberwoof says

    In 1986 I drove across East Germany to get to West Berlin. (On the Autobahn in the DDR, the signs directed you to Berlin or West Berlin. The distinction was important.) On entry to the DDR, I had to give my passport to one border cop, who put it on a conveyor belt that carried it fifty or a hundred meters along the road. I was surrounded bu concrete and steel barriers that were obviously designed to box me in if they decided they didn’t like me. The conveyor belt delivered my passport to another border cop, who upon comparing the photo with me, gave it back along with a transit visa. Another border cop, carrying an assault rifle, asked people whether they were carrying any explosives or unauthorized radio transmitters. Oh, no, Ma’am! I don’t have any explosives or unauthorized radio transmitters!

    The East German VoPos did their jobs out of a totally fucked up political situation. Did they really think anyone would answer “yes” to those stupid questions?

    The US Homeland Security (the name makes me shudder!), TSA, and border police are behaving the same politically fucked-up ways, and they keep ratcheting it up. I fear there is no way to get that whole setup to back down and cool off without the kind of revolution that East Germany experienced.

    How can you tell ahead of time when it will be too late to leave?

  15. Stacy says

    How can you tell ahead of time when it will be too late to leave?

    Good to know I’m not the only one who’s wondered.

  16. Steve LaBonne says

    As the author of that article says, American immigration practices give the “give the strong impression of an authority-minded culture that’s coming slightly unhinged.”

    Well, truth in advertising is a good thing, isn’t it?

  17. mnb0 says

    Has the question “are you gay?” disappeared from the list? Be sure that a few honest Europeans were denied access to the USA for giving the wrong answer at least in the 80’s.

  18. James Power says

    In Australia there’s also border police who can’t read their own forms, I was very nearly refused entry because I said I was staying 1 month or 30 days which the tool at immigration read as 1 month and 30 days. And then told me I didn’t have enough money to stay for two months because they didn’t know Dollars were worth half what Euro was worth at the time. Never have I wanted to slap someone so badly. A trained gerbil would have been more effective.

    Still not as bad as Malaysia though which has a little reminder at the bottom of every page of the form telling you that the penalty for drug trafficking is death, welcome to Malaysia! Death. Death. Death. Hmmmm… does Asprin count? Did I pack the Asprin? They’re going to cut my head off! Panic! Yeah… I’ll never go there again.

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