Everybody will tell you that crossing the American border is no piece of cake. If you need a visa, the battle starts far before you actually get there: the list of documents to provide is impressive. You then have to go to the embassy and be interviewed by a consular officer—too bad for you if the capital city is light years away from your home. And as there are many candidates to enter the territory of the U.S. lines are long. In the 1990’s the process was simplified, but after the 9/11 attacks, complexity and ordeal made their way back, along with biometrics which has pervaded the world of border control. For those who read French, and who bother, read Sébastien Laurent’s recent book Politique sous surveillance. I of course recommend particularly the chapter about border control in the U.S. It is a very good one. I wrote it.

They are still good things about the border: the best thing being that you deal with Americans. First, they know how to make a movie: once landed, and while you are waiting (often in long lines), you are shown a movie giving you basic information about the admission process (biometrics). It also features Americans of all sorts (regions, classes and of course in the only Western democracy that has developed a racial classification of its citizens, ethnicities) greeting you with warm “welcomes”. I do not know what the effect is on visitors who are denied entrance moments after having seen the movie welcoming them, but the least I can say is that it is good publicity filming. Beautiful images, enough movement, captions of the landscapes of America… It does create a pleasing visual environment, and for having seen the film hundreds of time, I still find it pleasant enough.

Then, you are “interviewed” by a CPB (Customs and Border Protection) agent who asks you a few questions about the reasons of your stay. Sometimes questions are barked at you. At other times, the accent of your interlocutor is so thick that you have no idea what the question is. Sometimes, well, you just have in front of you one of these nasty human beings one meets in any profession. But quite often, you meet with agents who, while performing their duties thoroughly, are keen on displaying this most American quality: humor.

Recently, arriving in San Francisco, upon hearing that the purpose of my visit was to “see my in-laws”, the CPB agent cried “two weeks with your in-laws? Is it not too long?” He was reassured when I told him that I was to spend the week after in Ohio for my work.

A few years ago, as Chicago was my port of entry for a visit taking me to Texas, after a stop in Indiana, the agent asked: “why on earth one would chose to go to Texas?”

It happened to me to be a protagonist in this border humor. As I was in the line to be called for the interview, the CPB officer was talking to an old gentleman from Africa who did not speak English. There was some kind of problem, and the officer called me and asked me if I spoke French and English. Upon my positive answer, he told me that the old man had declared that he had food and the CPB officer wanted to know what it was. “Can you ask this gentleman if he has food with him?” I turned to the old man and asked him: “do you have food with you?” I heard the CPB officer coughing behind me: “that, sir, I could do myself”. I actually had just repeated the question in English, which my interlocutor understood no more with me than with the border agent. We laughed and I switched to French. It appeared that when the old man had filled his form he had indeed food. “And now where is it?” The answer was very stern: “in my stomach of course, I ate it all!”

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