‘Where will you be in July sir?’
‘I’m hoping to make it to Idaho, or maybe Utah.’
‘Which one sir? It’s a simple question, treat it as such.’
My right foot shifts from its assigned spot. I’m blinking too much.
‘Em, Utah… no, Idaho. Idaho.’
‘Why was that difficult sir?’
Fluorescent tubes cover the ceilings and walls, there’s no room for shadow at American Immigration. My questioner is a nearly retired Asian man with a blue uniform and binary mindset. His face brightens as I trip over answers.
There is a band of light skin on his ring finger. Strange age to get divorced. Did he pull it off and throw it away, the catharsis of twenty unhappy years? Or was it a sombre affair involving soapy hot water and bitter tears? Maybe the ring is getting cleaned. It’s difficult to read too deeply into another’s affairs during a brief encounter. He was giving it a good shot though.
‘I’m sorry, I …’
‘How much money do you have sir?’
‘With me, or in the bank?’
‘How much money do you have sir? answer the question.’
I pat my pocket and look up. The Immigration hall is the architectural equivalent of catatonic depression. The grey colour chart has been exhausted twice. Tightly ribbed carpets whisper ‘get back to your country’. The immigration officers sit in a line of perspex cubes like Gladiators awaiting Christians. There is nothing on the walls but vague doors. None have opened yet. I’m aware one is a gateway to hell.
‘Around $300 in my wallet.’
‘That’s not enough sir. Where were you yesterday?’
‘Em, yesterday including the time difference? I was either in bed or at the airport.’
‘That isn’t a valid response sir. You’re struggling to answer simple questions, why would that be sir?’
That’s a very good question. I am struggling to answer simple questions.
I’m tired and displaced. I’ve just rerun the creation process: the forced intimacy of security, the hours of darkness in a flying womb, legroom as vast as a small woman’s stomach. All this to then be pushed down the birthing canal of immigration. It’s disorientating, night is day, up is down.
That isn’t why I’m struggling though. I’m lying. I have no intention of being in Idaho or Utah in July. Or ever.
‘What was the name of your first pet sir?’
‘Does a gerbil count?’
His eyes set to work digging through my face and skull, hoping to reach brain.
‘What was the name of your first pet? Sir.’
‘My first pet was called Gerbilly.’
He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath through his nose. He has visibly aged during the interview.
Philip can deport me if he so chooses. I am being subject to Controlled Cognitive Engagement (CCE). Several hundred million dollars have been spent by various governments to discover how to catch those trying to deceive immigration. The answer? Ask difficult questions and gauge the response:
‘Who was your first teacher?’ Follows ‘What time does your flight land?’ Follows ‘What did you have for dinner last night?’
As your mind jumps between topics it causes cognitive load. Your reactions are then scrutinised for subterfuge. If you’ve done nothing wrong you’ll have nothing to hide. My mum has employed CCE since the early 90’s.
He flicks through my passport a couple of times then peers at my face like he’s waiting for a mask to fall off. I decide to put him on the back foot,
‘Can I ask you a question please?’
‘No you cannot sir.’
‘What did you have for dinner last night Phillip?’
He jerks at the sound of his name. His badge says Phil but I’m not his buddy. Philip has drifted out of the bay and into stormy waters. He stutters,
‘You can’t, you…’
‘Why did your wife leave you Phillip?’
I already know I’m getting deported, may as well enjoy it.
‘What?’ He glares at me.
I struggle to hold back a smile. The bubble of fear that has encompassed me pops. I look around at the other pale faced travellers. Everyone looks guilty. If it was my call they’d all be starring in a back-room cavity search.
There is a flaw in CCE that a few million dollars hasn’t sorted. Its 70% success rate means 30% of deceivers aren’t caught. It just takes one villain to cause a fair bit of bother. Immigration is a sweaty livestock pen of fear, the immigration officers’ days spent deciphering who is naturally flustered and who is lying. If the honest punters were allowed to relax, the difference in reactions may be easier to detect. But common sense and government institutions can’t be seen fraternising.
Instead everyone is distressed, tired, and uncomfortable. There are long lines and no seats, short films on big tv’s threaten life in prison for smuggling cheddar, special officers march around demanding travellers put away their phones and face the front. Do they not realise Smartphones are the pacifiers of the masses?
Phillip and I look at each other. For the first time I see a human below the uniform. As with parking attendants and other plastic positions of authority, I have to fight the feeling I’m dealing with a misery pervert. Really he’s just trying to pay the bills.
‘I’m sorry Phillip.’
He stares at my passport to compose himself.
CCE is now being trialled for interviewing purposes, to weed out those who have exaggerated their previous experience or qualifications. It also shows promise at uncovering insurance and tax fraud. All very useful. Another tool for corporations to hack our minds and remove all wiggle room. Billions are being spent on decoding human behaviour and thought patterns in our ever-decreasing circles of autonomy. Would I like to live in a world where no deviance exists in return for corporations being able to read my mind? For how long can fear be a tool to dispose of freedom?
The sheep are letting the wolf in their paddock in the hope he’ll sort out the mole problem.
‘Why do you want to visit America sir?’
‘To seek adventure in the great unknown.’ I say, hands on hips, staring into the distance.
‘That’s not a valid answer sir.’
‘Em, to explore the vastness of the American experience.’
‘No sir, that’s incorrect. This isn’t a difficult question to answer.’
I can’t hold the posture anymore, my shoulders sink.
‘That’s better sir. You’re still struggling to answer simple questions sir.’
I hang my head and apologise. At this Phil stamps my passport.
‘Welcome to America sir.’