We really know how to put out the Unwelcome Mat

As Americans, we like to imagine our country as we think of ourselves: open-hearted and welcoming; efficient and practical; easygoing, above all. These values are the foundation of our culture, of an open economy fueled by ideas and immigration, and of our soft power — America’s ability to change the world simply because it is admired.

Whatever foreigners think of the American experiment, though, it’s unlikely the experience of crossing our border has made them think better of it.

Imagine that you’re the citizen of a prosperous, democratic ally like Britain, Spain or Japan, and you’d like to visit America. Before traveling, you must pay $14 to complete an online United States government form called ESTA, short for Electronic System for Travel Authorization.

ESTA asks for basic personal data, like your name and birth date. It also asks whether you are guilty of “moral turpitude,” whether you’re planning crimes or “immoral activities” and whether you suffer from “lymphogranuloma venereum” (don’t ask). If you’re involved in terrorism or genocide — and for some reason you’ve decided to take this opportunity to inform the United States government — there’s a box for that. And if you’re a spy — a particularly artless one — please let us know…

…ESTA also duplicates the personal data that passengers must still provide for the separate Advance Passenger Information System…

Before landing, travelers (including Americans) must additionally complete a paper customs form. But asking travelers whether they are carrying snails or “disease agents” is as futile as asking whether they collaborated with the Nazis (another ESTA question)…

Americans may be surprised by the conclusions of a 2006 survey by the U.S. Travel Association, which found that foreign travelers were more afraid of United States immigration officials than of terrorism or crime. They rated America’s borders by far the least welcoming in the world. Two-thirds feared being detained for “minor mistakes or misstatements…”

Add in long lines and senseless, disparately enforced rules — for instance, agents shouting at travelers for using cellphones in some arrival halls, while at others, such technology is treated as something other than a threat to the republic — and we give the strong impression of an authority-minded culture that’s coming slightly unhinged…

No country’s border staff is perfect, as every traveler knows. But America — a land where strangers greet one another in elevators, waiters act as if they like you, stores deploy professional greeters and government serves the people — should aim to be the best. That means a smile or “hello” as we approach every agent, a “please” and “thank you” to bookend every official request and an occasional “welcome” as we cross a secure border.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of that to happen, though.

One thought on “We really know how to put out the Unwelcome Mat

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