The New York Times
May 17th, 2015
by Vanessa Barbara
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — I DON’T know if I’ll ever be comfortable with the silence that comes after I’ve handed my papers to the passport control officer. In that moment, I instantly recall all my faults and sins from my childhood, including the day I accidentally broke an entire bowl of ceramic fruits from a friend’s dinner table. (I later tried to glue them back together.)
There should be a German word for this fear, something long and terrifying. Instead of being afraid to fly, I’m mortally afraid of landing and being judged by the officer at the airport, even if I don’t have anything to hide.
It started in Dublin Airport, seven years ago, when I forgot to put my return ticket in my hand luggage. It was my second time abroad, and also my honeymoon. My then husband and I planned to stay a week before going back to Brazil. But nobody had told me I should present the return ticket to the immigration officer as proof that I really intended to return, so I checked it with my luggage.
The officers interrogated us separately, as if they wanted to catch any divergences. I showed them our printed hotel reservation, but they insisted on confirming the information by telephone; for some reason, the hotel clerk said we’d booked a room for one day only. Near tears, I mumbled in broken English. It was almost 6 p.m. and we were starving. Finally they took pity on us and let us in, stamping a seven-day travel visa. “She would never fit in our system,” one officer said — implying that, if my plan was to find a job there and stay on as an illegal immigrant, I wouldn’t have any luck anyway.
I thought that, being more cautious, I would never face this situation again, but there’s definitely something wrong with me. (In the mornings, I usually think it’s my hair.) A few years later, I had a hard time entering Britain, even after presenting my return ticket and hotel reservation. The officer asked me several times what the purpose of my visit was (“tourism,” I kept repeating) and then remarked: “Long trip, huh?” On another occasion, I was scolded for having answered “three weeks” instead of “19 days.” “It’s not the same thing, ma’am,” a grumpy officer said.
The U.K. border control is a nightmare for many Brazilians. Last year, according to British Home Office immigration statistics, around 18,000 travelers — .015 percent of the total number of visitors — were refused entry to the country. Americans, Albanians and Brazilians were the three most refused nationalities upon arrival, in absolute numbers. At Heathrow Airport, a friend of mine was once handcuffed and sent back to Brazil because her student visa had expired.
Sometimes I get so nervous at passport control that I start to find myself suspicious. In China, an officer asked me twice what I intended to do alone in Beijing (“tourism,” again) and then gave me a seven-day visa when I had planned to stay for 10. On another occasion, my friends — and my baggage — were allowed to board a ferry to Hong Kong while I was kept in Macau. I started to wonder why I bother traveling at all, instead of staying home in my pajamas.
Two years ago, my passport control angst led me to get a European passport (which I could do because my grandparents were Portuguese), hoping this would make me look less like a potential illegal immigrant in the eyes of the world. But now I’m afraid I look even more suspicious, since having two passports is obviously a spy thing.
Brazilian citizens are able to enter 146 countries either without a visa or by receiving one upon arrival. This makes us 21st in the world in terms of freedom of travel, according to the 2014 Henley & Partners Visa Restrictions Index. At the top of the list, with visa-free travel to 174 countries each, are the United States, Britain, Finland, Germany and Sweden. Afghans have the worst access, being able to enter only 28 countries without a visa, followed by Iraqis, with 31.
Before traveling to the United States, Brazilians must apply for a tourist visa. It costs $160 and takes a few weeks to be issued. The procedure involves filling out a long form that asks if you have tuberculosis or a mental disorder, if you’re a terrorist or a saboteur, or if you ever contributed to any charitable organization. The applicant must schedule both a personal interview and an appointment for fingerprints and a photograph.
Despite all that, a visa does not guarantee entry; Customs and Border Protection officials still have the authority to deny admission. In 2014, 223,712 people were refused entry to the United States. Grounds for inadmissibility included immigration violations and national security reasons. Sometimes, no justification was given.
I’ve never tried my luck at United States passport control before. Next week will be my first time, as I’m heading to New York for a three-week vacation.
Sorry, I mean 22 days.