The Man Who Waits All Day: My Miami vice – and the curse of the fingerprint-scanning machine

Click to follow
The Independent Travel

George W Bush is smiling at me. His grinning portrait presides over a large, triangular room whose 80 or so chairs are only just sufficient for the number of occupants. Most of us are staring at the grubby carpet, rather than at the leader of the free world, while we wait for our number – or rather name – to come up.

We are the people of "Secondary". This is the holding area for would-be visitors to the United States, or indeed anyone who simply wishes to change planes in America – a kind of mini-Guantanamo Bay, only without the orange jumpsuits, and with some prospect of release before the end of the day. But, before then, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) wants to ask a few more questions.

Along with a couple of dozen other government agencies, the CBP knows exactly who is flying to America on a particular day, because "Advance Passenger Information" has to be transmitted by the airline before a plane can depart for the US. The next hurdle is when you arrive and line up to be quizzed (and photographed, and fingerprinted) by an immigration official. If he or she identifies any potential irregularity with you or your documents, you will be led away to Secondary.

Dialogue is not encouraged. New arrivals at this holding area are shown the sign that bans the use of laptops and mobile phones, and are told, "You will be here until your name is called and you are processed. Do not bother the officers."

Always tell the truth to immigration officials: that is a cardinal rule of travel. But there is one particular question that you should resist answering honestly.

Suppose you endure a delayed 10-hour flight from Heathrow to Miami, and three hours sitting in an airless room when you really should be feeling the South Beach sand crumble beneath your feet as the ocean soothes away the stresses of the journey. If someone in uniform asks, "How's your day?", do not reply truthfully: "Well, it was going fine until I arrived in the United States."

The official sat back into his chair about as abruptly as I realised I had just said something very foolish.

"You know," he growled, "I feel like that when I come to work and I have to deal with someone with attitude." Our relationship went downhill from there. Yet, 15 minutes later we were holding hands. Well, the official was gripping tightly first my right, then my left hand, because he was taking my fingerprints. All of them.

I had already undergone "fingerprinting lite", as every visitor to the US must do, where the left and right index fingers are scanned at passport control. But this was the full treatment, all 10 digits plus "family portraits" of each hand.

The procedure was carried out in a back room whose contents included, I was alarmed to note, an industrial-sized box of High Five Latex Exam Gloves.

The scanner did not take well to my fingers. "Wipe them on your brow to get some moisture on them," he instructed.

I did. It was furrowed.

We eventually stopped holding hands and he took a photographic portrait, of sorts. On screen, the image (complete with furrows) looked just like one of those taken shortly after arrest. Perhaps the mission statement of Secondary includes the line: "If you don't feel like a criminal when you come in here, you sure will by the time you leave."

Back in the main holding area I met a criminal, of sorts.

A man from north-west England in his Forties had joined we detainees in Secondary because of an offence he had committed decades earlier. When he was aged 18, I learned, he became involved in a fight on a train and earned a criminal record.

The US never regards offences as "spent", so he had to apply for a visa. It had been granted, but they apparently wanted to take a closer look at him to make sure that youthful folly was insufficient grounds for excluding a now-respectable tourist.

Meanwhile, my digits were digitally transmitted heaven-knows-where to be checked against the records of master criminals.

My "irregularity", apparently, stems from the days when Britain's passport offices dispatched documents by ordinary post, helpfully (for villains) in passport-sized envelopes. These carried the address of the passport office just to make doubly sure the package was worth pinching.

A new British passport dispatched to me five years ago was one of 2,000 that routinely went astray annually. It appears that someone has used the stolen passport to enter America, and the authorities are after him. Or, it seems, me.

"Unless I take your fingerprints, how do I know you are who you say you are?" explained the official who I had inadvertently upset earlier.

I kept my mouth shut.

Almost four hours after my incarceration had begun, I was told I could leave.

As I gathered my possessions and retrieved my passport before checking in for my connecting flight, George Bush was still smiling. But no one else was.

Transit Gloria

When Terminal 5 opens in March, it will basically be one huge transit lounge; this is why domestic fliers will have their fingerprints taken. In contrast, the US has no such concept; every arriving passenger must apply for admission to America, even if they are planning to go no further than the airport and stay just a couple of hours. I was in transit, en route for La Paz, but I had booked a connection with plenty of time to spare (luckily, as it turned out).

This year, The Independent Traveller is celebrating America, running a story on a different state every week. To do my bit to persuade you to explore more of the United States, I had planned a column that extolled the long transit stop in Miami.

So I booked the first Heathrow-Miami flight of the day, and the latest possible departure from there to the Bolivian capital. The reward for shrewd planning, I hoped, was nine hours in Florida's biggest city: enough time to spend a glorious afternoon devouring the divine design in South Beach, followed by dinner in Little Havana.

I had reckoned without Secondary. By the time I was allowed out, I had to settle for a meal at La Carreta, a cheap Cuban cafeteria that makes you feel you are in Havana, except that, a) the food is excellent and, b) this comedor is incongruously located in Miami airport's Concourse D.

I dined on ropa vieja – a concoction of vegetables and stringy beef that translates appropriately (given my travel-worn state) as "old clothes". Then I flew off to spend my money in a land where visitors are welcome.