Sunday, December 28, 2008

The List

link to photo

Surely I have written about this before. It's about flying while named Jose and Maria. Those are my parent's first names. They are in their mid eighties. Every time they fly they are searched. Why? Because their names are Jose and Maria. As Juan Fernando Gomez writes in his article in today's WaPo, too bad for any kid named Juan (or Jose and Maria). Think twice before you name your newborn.

Somebody out there, who the TSA is afraid of, has the same name as my parents. Every time their wheelchairs are pushed through security, someone says "stop!."

Of course, this isn't as bad as what Gomez experiences. The first time this happened to them, four years ago, the porter who was helping with their baggage had a quiet talk with the airline clerk at the check in counter. I called Continental and they assured me it wouldn't happen again. They were wrong.

Luckily, when we flew my Dad to New York for the opening of the 2007 Yankees season, the guy who searched him was sympathetic. With an apologetic smile, he gently searched my 84 year old father.

Let's hope Obama gets some sense back into our Department of Homeland Security. He needs to have a talk with the head of the TSA.

My Dad fought in the Pacific Theater in WWII. He was part of the invasion of Luzon. He even took his kids to see the Alamo. That's pretty American for a guy born in Mexico. He doesn't deserve to be on anybody's list of questionable travelers. Neither does Juan Fernando Gomez.


Why Can't I Get Off This List?
Washington Post
By Juan Fernando Gómez
Sunday, December 28, 2008; Page B03

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...more

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

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