I travelled to Egypt two weeks ago and arrived home at JFK on Saturday, 28 January, around noon. I am from Iran and have been a US citizen since 2015. Last summer, returning from Europe, the electronic passport machine let me straight through. This time however the machine didn't let me through and I had to stand in line to see a Customs and Border Protection officer. For the fifteen minutes I was waiting, I didn't see a single white person among us. The line of US citizens denied automatic entry were all, without exception, black and brown people who predominantly seemed Muslim. In front of me was a Muslim Indian man who had lived in the US for over ten years. Behind me was a Muslim Sudanese-American woman who was back from visiting her family in Sudan.
When I got to the front of the queue, the officer told me the passport number they had in their records matched an old passport I had lost and their records were not updated with my new passport number. Therefore the passport I was travelling on was not valid. He admitted that it could be an error on their side, but I had to go for a secondary evaluation regardless. He handed my passport to another officer who accompanied me into a room packed with travellers who hadn’t been granted entry.
Everyone had had their documents taken away. A family from Saudi Arabia, a group of Indians and a Turkish woman were all nervously waiting to be called. An elderly Iranian couple who had arrived four hours earlier with their green cards were still waiting to be called. There was no bathroom. Most people did not have a US cellphone and had no way to tell the people waiting to meet them that they had arrived but were being held at passport control. Those who did have cellphones were reading the news about President Trump's executive order banning the citizens of seven Muslim majority countries from entering the US.
I was called forward after a short wait. The officer asked me where I lived, who I lived with and what my profession was. I've never been asked anything like that by an immigration officer before. He also asked why I had travelled to Egypt and where I stayed. He didn’t write down any of my answers. The questioning seemed to be mostly a display of authority and intimidation. Eventually he let me through. I asked him if I could take messages from the people still waiting to be interviewed to the people who'd come to meet them, but he wouldn’t allow me back into the room.
There was a large crowd of people waiting to meet their friends and relatives in the arrivals hall. Some of them had been there for hours. The airport staff couldn't answer any questions. The uncertainty and chaos only added to the general nervousness. Nobody could do anything other than wait. The protests started a few hours later.
The scene at JFK yesterday was unlike anything I had seen before in the US. For the first time in many years, I was reminded of my childhood in Iran, when the intelligence services would knock on doors, enter people's houses and ask random questions. The America I came back to yesterday doesn't feel like the country I left two weeks ago.