Why Can't I Get Off This List?

By Juan Fernando Gómez
Sunday, December 28, 2008

I call it the little room. In most cases it's actually not that small, but my claustrophobia seems to kick in as soon as the immigration officer separates me from the other passengers on my flight and escorts me through a door into my own private travel hell.

As you sit in crowded airports waiting for your long-delayed flights, cursing yourself for traveling over the holidays, remember: It could be worse. You could be me. My ordeal begins before the plane touches down in the United States, some time between the moment when the flight attendant begins handing out blank immigration and customs forms and when I hear the wheels disengaging in the belly of the plane. Will I sail through immigration and customs, I wonder, or will this be the time that they get me? Might I even be whisked off to Guantanamo?

The crazy thing is that I have done nothing wrong. I am a U.S. citizen and have no criminal record. I pay my taxes (well, except for those few years when, right out of grad school, I was convinced that taxes did not apply to me). I don't litter. The problem is that I happen to share a name with at least one shady character on the Terrorist Screening Center's watch list. At least, that's the list that I believe I am on, although no official will tell me for sure.

My name is common in Latin America, the Spanish equivalent of John Smith. It also seems to be particularly popular among law-breakers. I once sneaked a peek at an immigration officer's computer and saw an entire screen full of my doppelgangers. Who knows how many of them were bad guys and how many were law-abiding saps like me?

It doesn't help that my travel habits are similar to those of people who actually belong on a watch list. I grew up in Medellín, Colombia, during the height of the Pablo Escobar drug wars and have worked for the better part of the past decade in some of the most dangerous places in the world. In countries such as Afghanistan and Colombia, I help farmers find legal, profitable and sustainable alternatives to growing coca and poppies, the raw material for cocaine and heroin. So I guess it's understandable that my passport -- packed with added pages and stamps marking my entry into and exit from countries such as Cambodia, Bolivia and Haiti -- raises eyebrows.

It seems to me, though, that airport security should know enough to tell me from the terrorists. I'm not easily offended, but being treated like a dangerous criminal every time I enter the country is getting a little old.

The airport routine is always the same, whether I'm in Miami, Washington, Atlanta or any other city. I step off the plane after sitting in coach for hours, my knees bruised from hitting the seat in front of me, and watching films that I swore I'd never pay to see. I'm always cautious as I wait in the immigration and customs line. On the Transportation Security Administration's Web site is a running total of the number of people arrested each week for suspicious behavior or fraudulent travel documents. (For the week ending Dec. 21, 15 people were arrested due to suspicious behavior or fraudulent travel documents and 19 guns were found at checkpoints.) I would hate to be hauled in for scratching my nose or for tying my shoe while in line. So I do my best to act relaxed, as if I were just coming home -- which is exactly what I'm doing.

The real terror begins when my toes touch the yellow line, where I wait to be called forward. Approaching the immigration officer before being summoned could make me appear too eager (and often earns me a stern reprimand). On the other hand, any hesitation could be interpreted as a sign that I'm afraid of facing the law. So I walk up to the officer and nonchalantly hand over my bright blue passport. Seconds feel like hours as he starts hitting the "page down" key on his computer, scanning screen after screen, periodically glancing at me and my passport. This is when I break out in a cold sweat, which makes the officer even more dubious. When he reaches for a yellow highlighter and marks my customs slip, I know I'm headed to the little room.

I'm so familiar with airport-security personnel that I often recognize the officers who escort me. In Miami, I cringe to see the large female officer who once screamed across the room that her advice, if I wanted to spare my family some trouble, was not to name my son Juan. Of course, not all officers are like that. I occasionally run into a young woman who stopped me once a few years ago. New to the job and eager to help, she took down my information and assured me that I would never be stopped again. But she was wrong; upon my next entry into the country, I was held for longer than ever before.

The little room in Miami is my favorite, partly because it has vending machines and partly because it is always full of people who, like me, seem familiar with the routine of being waylaid by airport security. Most of us are cleared within minutes or hours, though the process continues to be intimidating and cold. Others are taken into still smaller rooms, where I can only imagine what happens. Maybe I should stop watching all those bad in-flight action movies.

The room at Dulles is particularly intimidating. I recently landed there before dawn, after an overnight flight, and found myself alone except for two young guys in plastic handcuffs. While they seemed nice enough, I couldn't help but wonder about the company I was keeping.

Time and time again, I've been cleared for entry into the United States. So why does my name remain on the list? Will I have to go through this for the rest of my life? In desperation, I always ask airport-security officers how my name can be removed. I've heard it all, from writing to my congressman (as if that would do any good) to filling out a form (never mind that no one has been able to produce the document or tell me where I can find it). The most honest answer came from a young, Afghan American officer at Dulles a couple of weeks ago: "There's absolutely nothing you can do."

It's not the countless missed connections that bother me or the fact that I have to politely decline offers from well-meaning travel companions to wait for me, because they don't know that they might be waiting for hours. It's the powerlessness of being unable to clear my name and of having to go through this humiliation over and over.

I heard rumors that the Terrorist Screening Center watch list would hit 1 million people by the end of 2008, but the TSA Web site states that the real number is actually closer to 400,000 and that there are fewer than 16,000 people on the "selectee" and "no-fly" lists used by the TSA. The site also asks, "Got Feedback?" Well, I have plenty of feedback, but I'm a little scared of the consequences of saying what I really feel.

Juan Fernando Gómez is a director in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region for Chemonics, a Washington-based international development consulting firm.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company