Dom Joly: So, did you pass any secrets to Mr Bigfoot, sir?


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The Independent Online

I'm in San Francisco, relaxing for a couple of days in an unseasonably sunny City of Fog before venturing up into the wild Californian north to try and find Bigfoot. I'm always a bit wary of travelling to the United States because of the rather extreme immigration policies that George Bush brought into play after 9/11. The US started something called NSEERS (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System) that basically decided that anybody born in any of 25 named countries (whether a national of that country or not) were subject to intensive additional scrutiny before being allowed into the States.

Now I'm all for added security if it is effective. However, NSEERS was a shambles. Of the 25 countries listed, only one, North Korea – was not a Muslim country, and all were either African or Asian. America had decided that everybody born in these countries was under suspicion. It was a direct parallel to the incompetent US foreign policy in these areas.

So when you presented your passport to a normal passport desk, a Homeland Security officer would come and escort you past the "unthreatening visitors" to a separate room where you could wait, without any information, for up to six hours before being interviewed by officials who would probably flunk an application for Dunkin' Donuts.

My interviews were always laughably pathetic. I've been asked on two occasions "why" I spoke fluent French. My answer – "to communicate" – was never accepted as a decent reason. In fact, I was always surprised they hadn't included France on the list of "danger countries". One time, an official couldn't grasp that I could be a comedian and a writer at the same time.

For me, this was just an annoying hindrance. My parents were both British, but, like many people, they worked abroad and I was born in Beirut, Lebanon. This didn't matter to the Department of Homeland Security – everyone was grouped into one huge potential threat. The system was so unbelievably clunky and dysfunctional that it seemed to do very little apart from anger the targeted people, who were treated like criminals from the moment they arrived on US shores. My being part of this programme through "bad luck" (as one official described it when he saw I was born in Lebanon) gave me a tiny glimpse into what "folk" from countries not entirely in sync with the West have to go through every time they travel. It's not pleasant.

The irony was that while you waited in these modern-day Ellis Islands you were surrounded by posters, telling you that these officials were the "Public Face" of the US and that you were entitled to politeness in the way you were dealt with, and to always know what was going on. You never knew what was going on.

So I arrived at San Francisco fully expecting a minimum of two hours' delay while my family waited for me outside. But it was not to be. As of 27 April this year, NSEERS has been "indefinitely suspended". And not before time – it was so inefficient that it never caught a single member of al-Qa'ida and only ever served to alienate and anger foreign visitors to this amazing country.

I have one regret as I was looking forward to telling a confused official that I was here "to hunt down Bigfoot". Obviously this would have resulted in a full cavity search and a prolonged stay while an official asked me whether "Mr Bigfoot" had ever met with me in Pyongyang to pass over nuclear secrets. But at least I was in town in time for dinner.