Thursday, March 4, 2010

Fly Again? May Be Not!

This story goes back a few years--to June of 2005. My son was getting ready to graduate from high school. Now he had been living with his father and his aunt in Virginia for nearly four years by this time and I had to learn how parent him long distance. Not easy--not impossible either. 

Getting him through high school was a major achievement for him and a sense of accomplishment for me. All around me, friends' children were dropping out of high school like flies and there was a time when I feared the same would happen to my son.  He talked about it from time to time. I would usually do the same routine--"Son, you aren't ALLOWED to drop out. It's forbidden, you understand me? Or in your lingo--Do you feel me?!?!?! I guarantee if you drop out, you'll be feeling me...feeling my hand on the seat of your pants all the way back to New Mexico!" Child of mine is taller than me, stronger than me but I had the power of MOM (Mom On a MISSION) backing me up. 

So the wonderful event is about to arrive. D and I searched for the cheapest airfares, hotel rooms, car rentals and got the best package we could. A friend of mine stayed with the cats and the rabbit to care for them in our absence. We got up at o'dark-thirty one morning, got ready, and drove to Albuquerque to begin our journey to Virginia. At the airport, we only had a minor snag. My tickets were branded with a big red X inside a circle. D's were not marked like this but the ticket agent put that on all my tickets, including my return tickets. At the time we figured it was like having to take off your shoes. We just shrugged, slipped off our shoes and socks and proceeded right on through. 

We had to change planes in Houston, and that gave us our first inkling that something might be amiss. As we went through the line, I was asked to step to one side for inspection. The woman agent asked me if I had any metal anywhere on me. I showed her my tongue post (Yes--my tongue used to be pierced!) and informed her that I was wearing an underwire bra. I suddenly had visions of coming back from Turkey (when I was 11 years old and back in the 70s) and getting the naked pat-down all over again--but this time the agents weren't going to check for illegal drugs but for explosives.  I remembered hearing stories about people being stripped searched and cavity searched because they chose flying instead of other modes of transportation. My imagination started to kick into overdrive but the agent wanded me and declared me safe to board. 

I figured then that maybe TSA was using something similar to a stratified sample and my number was one of the lucky draws. We flew into Virginia, found our hotel and got something to eat. The next morning we found Mimo--my son and his family. Two days of graduation festivities passed quickly and D and I got to visit the Lincoln and the World War Two Memorials before we left--one of our dreams. My son had graduated from high school--and that was our pride and joy.

Leaving was a different story. We were standing in line to be cleared for boarding and  D had walked through first, showing his ticket and his picture ID. I was right behind him. She saw that big X inside the circle and looked at my picture ID. She developed an immediate case of memory loss. She wanted to know why I didn't show my visa. I asked her why I would I need one. 
TSA Agent: You need a visa from your country to travel to this country or in this country. 
ME: This is the United States, correct?
TSA Agent: Don't you get smart with me. I can't just let someone in from Mexico without a visa.
ME: I'm from NEW Mexico--we are part of the Big 50. Congress let us join the union in 1912. 
TSA Agent: Mexico has never been part of the United States of America! I can't let you on that plane. 
ME: Look Lady--I'm sorry you didn't pass geography but I'm going  home to Albuquerque, New Mexico--which is north of El Paso, Texas and south of Denver, Colorado. I'm getting on that plane with my husband!
TSA Agent: Don't sass me. I can't let suspicious people on a plane!
ME: Explain to me like I'm a five-year old--what's suspicious about me?
TSA Agent: This ID is fake. It's not issued from a state government source. 
ME: It's not fake--you let my husband pass and he's from the same state. 
TSA Agent: You are on the watch list. 
ME: What watch list? How did I get on?
TSA Agent: You are going to have to to with that other agent for a body search. Otherwise you can't board this plane.

We barely made it in time to make our flight. In Newark, I had to go through something similar again. Ahead of me was this gentleman and his sons and they were from Russia. They cleared without having to prove they were from Russia. I had to go through the threat of being stripped searched again; drink out of my water bottle to prove it wasn't a liquid bomb, and explain that I travel light from practicality. All I carried with me was my ID and my book. D had our tickets and his camera bag. The rest of our stuff was in our checked luggage. D never got asked to come to the side and submit to a wanding or possible strip search, or asked to empty his camera bag, or asked questions about his intentions or origins. 

It wasn't until later I found that I was on the TSA Terrorist Watch List simply because I did my internship at the local peace and justice center in my last year of graduate school. Because of my internship, I traveled to the state legislature a couple of times to talk to state legislators about issues, participated in a local forum that worked to prevent the US Forestry Service from poisoning our local watershed, marched in a couple of rallies for peace, and listened to several tele-conferences about voting reform. I did other things too but those particular events got me on the watch list. I can't get off the list either--there's no protocol or directions to prove my innocence. I'm guilty of being a possible threat to this country. I have been convicted without due process.

It's ironic because when I was a kid living across the Black Sea from the USSR, I was told that in the USSR, people weren't allowed to travel freely like they were in the United States--that people had to produce papers and identification. I was told repeatedly how lucky I was to be a citizen of the United States because I was allowed to travel cross country without check points or worries about being held up because someone thought I looked "suspicious." I was told that citizens of the USSR had to submit to body and luggage searches and weren't allowed to move freely within the boarders of their country without arousing suspicion. 

My teachers drilled it into my head that citizens of the United States were the luckiest people in the whole wide world because we had freedoms that other countries didn't have. The other countries believed their people being guilty of anything, but here in the USA we are innocent until we were proven to be guilty. We had nothing to fear but fear itself. Other countries told their citizens if they weren't guilty, they had nothing to hide; and if they had nothing to hide, they had nothing to fear. My teachers said that's why everyone wanted to come to America because it was the land of the free and that we didn't live in fear, like other people in other countries did. 

Right now, driving is still free.


  1. Cathryn, another great story. No wonder you don't fly. So much for all that freedom, huh? We're losing more all the time.
    ~ Marianne

  2. oh oh oh. I know how you feel. Traveling as a german to the US regularly for the last 3 years, I can tell you I have similar stories with you "friendly" immigration officers. That would be a long post like yours.... But I need to say that this conversation with the TSA lady made me laugh real loud. I love how you could answer like that. I was always too worried they would send me back out of the country or put me straight into jail. My theory is that the people that work in the TSA are working at the immigration because they cannot be in control anywhere else, but there they are in charge. Sorry for you - but parts of that story are really funny. Thanks for sharing, Mrs Mexicana.

  3. My question is - how did "whoever" even know about the activities you participated in?

  4. To answer your question Granny, my activities were listed in the P&J's newsletters that we sent out monthly. My former boss (she's still the director of the center) is also on the no-fly list, along with several other members. None of us know HOW we got on the list...And none of us know how to get off the lists. Kind of like that little boy who's been on the list since he was born...or the Boy Scout who's also on the list...or the 88 year old wheel-chaired bound Gramma who's on the list...*shrugs*

  5. thank you for sharing that story
    made me think
    also made me laugh !
    your mixed up Mexico mess
    reminded me...
    we fly to Florida to scuba dive as often as we can.
    We pack our regulators (dive computers) in our carry on
    Scanners always take a second look
    On one trip the security person asked my hubby
    what the item was . He replied "that's my scuba regulator "
    what said the agent
    "your DETONATOR"!!!!
    I can tell you my life did pass before my eyes !!! LOL !!! m.e.

  6. Bad words are going through my head. I hear these stories about paradoid fanaticism in airports and can't help but wonder how many US citizens shot each other or died because of a drunk driver while you were being strip searched because of where you went to school. Pointless and violating.

  7. Unbelievable. I heard GLAD is coming out with luggage-size ziploc bags.

  8. Oh my gosh Cathryn! What an experience. I had no idea it was like that. Thanks for the great story!

  9. Oh geez, how ridiculous. I'm not much into flying anyhow. I hope when I go see my son something like this doesn't happen to me. That would be it for me LOL.

  10. So much freedom lost all because of 9/11. Things will never be the same for us here in the USA and that's exactly what the culprits behind 9/11 wanted and accomplished.
    My hubby and I have gotten so we too hate flying and whenever possible we drive.

  11. Dear Cathryn,

    My neighbor got the earrings you sent me in the mail in her mailbox and promptly forgot about them...until today! Thank you sooooooo much for the lovely purple earrings. They are beautiful. I am thrilled that I won the drawing by default!

    As for your travel story, what an experience! I hope I never have to experience anything like this.