On being detained in the airport

On being detained in the airport January 28, 2017

hand and bars - 2

Once, when my wife and I were returning to the U.S. after a visit to her home country of Peru, we were detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the airport.  They never told us why.  As far as we could tell, the man who reviewed her passport on entering looked at the wrong page and saw the wrong visa and registered the wrong validity dates.  He must have pressed some hidden button while we stood there unsuspecting, all the while talking soothingly to us before uniformed agents came to collect us and take us to the detention room.  My wife was seven months pregnant, so it wasn’t long before she needed to use the bathroom, which turned out to be a stark metal stool with no removable parts that might be re-purposed as a weapon.

I’m remembering our time in the airport detention center today in light of President Trump’s precipitous ban on people traveling from certain Muslim-majority nations, including people already bearing “green cards.”  My wife had a green card.  I’m thinking about our experience, seated in that room, surrounded by that micro-mosaic of humanity from every continent, wondering when the officers would tell us what the problem with her papers was.

I’m having a hard time following the rationale of President Trump’s actions.  It feels ill-conceived, off-the-cuff.  It feels shameful, a betrayal of people who put their lives on the line to act as translators for the U.S. military operation in Iraq, but also of regular folks who have followed the rules and gone through the processes and are now stuck far from their families holding papers issued by a government that suddenly isn’t playing by its own rules.

Perhaps more importantly, President Trump’s executive order is also a betrayal of the biblical calling to show mercy to immigrants and refugees (Matthew 25:44) and treat foreigners justly (Ex. 23:9).  Jesus was a refugee (Matthew 2:14).  The church does well to remember that fact.

My wife and I were no refugees in that immigration holding room.  Far from it.  After waiting around for a while, we said a prayer, and I approached the officer at the desk.  I politely asked for an explanation.  “There’s nothing I can do,” he said.  “The system’s down.”

“We’re going to miss our flight,” I responded.  “You know there’s nothing wrong with her papers.”

“The system’s down.”

“We’re going to miss our flight,” I repeated.

And then something strange happened.  The officer looked at me.  He looked at my wife’s passport.  And he stamped it three times hard and said, “Here.  Go.  Just go.”

And we did, catching our flight home where we collapsed in relief.

If only those unjustly detained could do the same.  We say a prayer tonight.

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