spreadsheets and suitcases

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Adventures in Passport Control

on April 14, 2016

First, a long-winded story.

In Ecuador and many other Latin nations, you officially use both your father’s last name and your mother’s last name until you get married.  So let’s say I am born to Juan Valdez and Chita Rivera, and they name me Maria, with a middle name of Luz.  My non-US passport would say Maria Luz Valdez Rivera.  Both Valdez and Rivera are officially my last names.

In High School, I had no interest in getting a driver’s license, but I did need a photo ID for various reasons.  In NJ, we had the State ID option, and in order to get one issued, I had to bring in identifying documents, for which I used my Permanent Resident Alien card (I had not yet become a naturalized US citizen), and my Ecuadorian passport, plus some school and work stuff.

OK, enter real-world me at the oft-hated DMV, with the situation above.  1st problem: the literal interpretation of “Last Name.”  They put me down as Maria Rivera.  I said, no, the name you need to use is Valdez, I’ve been attending school for 12 years as Maria Valdez.  They told me, they can only go by “Last Name,” as in, ” the actual last word in your full name.”  I said, NO, here is my school ID and my work ID, both of which were issued using the same identifying documents you are holding in your hand, and they all say Maria Valdez.  2nd problem: after MUCH discussion and argument on my part, they deigned to modify the ID (after telling me modifications weren’t allowed for any reason.  If that were even remotely true, why do they tell you to check it for errors before taking the picture?  So if there is an error, they can modify it, right? Whatever). So I wait for a full 25 minutes before being presented with an ID that says Marialuz Valdezrivera.  I’m not even joking.  I was told that I couldn’t only use some of my names, I had to use ALL of my names, and further, it would be illegal for the ID to not reflect what was on my passport/Alien card exactly.  THEN WHY DID THE FIRST ID THEY SHOWED ME ONLY HAVE SOME OF MY NAMES?! I refused to accept the modified ID.  The lady was getting angrier and angrier, and trust me, I was matching her glare for glare.  After calling my parents for advice,  I asked for a supervisor, or at least someone that wouldn’t contradict a rule they had spouted off only minutes earlier by making up a different one, and went to sit down and wait for such a person.  3rd problem: I’m convinced that they wanted me to give up and leave, because I waited for at least an hour or two before they called me up again.  I didn’t care; I had a book with me, of course.  Well, after a little back-and-forth with a different person, I finally left with a state ID bearing the name Maria Luz Valdez.  I may or may not have stuck my tongue out while going out the door.  In my defense, I was 17.

I became a naturalized US citizen when I was 19.  A US passport!  The golden ticket to easy travel, right?


Hilariously, my mother is convinced that the Great NJ DMV State ID incident is what began my journey of not-quite-harassment from the US Customs and Border Protection Agency any time I re-enter the US from being abroad:

  1. I debuted my Approval for Naturalization upon returning from a Spring Break trip to Ecuador. I had not yet had the interview/test, so I didn’t have a physical US passport and had used my Ecuadorian passport to travel.  Upon arrival at Newark, I was pulled aside to the room for questioning.  I thought it had to do with the fact that Ecuador was in political turmoil at the time, and in fact all the airports had been closed because of a national strike until the morning of my departure from Guayaquil, when my aunts yelled over the crowds that I needed to have priority in getting on the plane to leave because I was going back to my US college and I couldn’t miss class.  The crowd parted- Ecuadorians value education, yo.  Anyway, no, they just had random questions for me in Newark, and I pulled out my Naturalization papers, they looked them over, and finally released me after a good 40 minutes.
  2. I landed in NY with my sister who had just finished her study abroad semester in Europe.  Who got stopped?  Me, despite the fact that she had spent 6 months away on a student visa and I had been to visit for 2 weeks total.  It was short this time, about 15 minutes.
  3. when I took my DD to Ecuador for the first time, they asked me to produce the document that her father had signed allowing me to get a passport for her travel.  Being overprepared, I had it.  But it wasn’t strictly necessary to even carry it with me, and I’m convinced they only asked me because we have different skin tones.  Yay for preventing international child abductions, I guess?
  4. I came back from a brief trip to Spain, not pulled aside to the questioning room, but extra-grilled at the passport control booth.  In fairness, this had been a very brief trip due to an emergency, so it made sense for them to ask questions.
  5. returning from when we lived in Spain for 6 months, I got pulled into the room again, at JFK airport.  I was with my dad, 3 month-old- DS, and DD.  They let my dad take DD on through, but of course I had to keep DS with me.  They asked me questions forever, and finally I pulled my trump card: baby was hungry and I needed to nurse him.  2 more questions and I was outta there 🙂
  6. returning from the Disney Cruise to Alaska, we flew back to HNL from Vancouver.  Pulled aside by CPB for questioning in Canada, before boarding our flight home.  This agent was tricky, and asked me the same questions over and over again, just worded slightly differently.  All of them were relating to my “name change,” which I had never had, except for hyphenating my last name after getting married.  She droned on and on about original place/date of entry into the US, and Valdezrivera vs Valdez Rivera.  An hour later I was released.  Thank goodness we were early to the airport, and didn’t miss our flight.  After this line of questioning, I had to admit that my mother might have had a point.

Fed up, I asked an immigration lawyer friend of mine what I could do to eliminate this problem. She suggested submitting a Freedom of Information request on the Customs and Border Protection (CPB) website, officially called a Department of Homeland Security Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, or DHS TRIP.  Here is the description of who should use this service:

People who have been denied or delayed airline boarding; have been denied or delayed entry into or exit from the U.S. at a port of entry or border crossing; or have been repeatedly referred to additional (secondary) screening can file an inquiry to seek redress.

<raises hand> Me, me, me!

I did the request, a few weeks after we got back from the cruise…7/2/2013 to be exact.  And to their credit, I did get a reply.  On 9/18/15.  Yes, it took over 2 years.  And boy, was that report a doozy of very detailed information, right down the credit cards I had used to book all my trips throughout the years, my email address, and my frequent flyer #s.  Unfortunately, the information I was looking for, as far as what triggered the extra screenings, was redacted.  Just completely blacked out.  I learned nothing.  But I’ll tell you this: Since receiving the report in September of last year, I have not had any trouble.  Coming back from a 3-week trip to Ecuador, on a one-way ticket (remember I had to split the coming and going between American and United to be able to use miles), traveling with 2 kids on the return reservation when it had only been one kid on the way there (DH had come back earlier) = stopped for sure.  I even built in time in the flight itinerary for my visit with Passport Control.  And…nothing!  I breezed on through!  I guess the process works?

OK onto the main subject.  Recently, TSA Pre√ has been in the news, as the program urges travelers to join and reduce their wait in security lines.  TSA in general gets news coverage that is mostly in a negative light, as agents continue to be caught stealingprofiling, and oh yeah, stealing.  Good times.  PreCheck, which is officially a Transportation Security  Administration program, is included as one of the Department of Homeland Security’s Trusted Traveler programs, along with Global Entry, NEXUS, and SENTRI.  Here’s a handy chart they sent me after we renewed DS’s passport recently.

tt card

So, it’s pretty easy to determine which of these programs might be right for you, if any, based on the frequency of your travel, and the destinations you normally visit.  Here’s a nice analysis of TSAPre√ and Global Entry from a travel writer. It seems to me that NEXUS is the best deal money-wise.  But here is the problem- see where it says you have to visit an enrollment center for an interview?

nexus hawaii

Sigh.  They’re mostly located at Canadian airports, and US cities/airports near Canadian borders, like Seattle.  Certainly not making a special trip for NEXUS, though we often have a several hour layover in Seattle on the way to/from NJ…we’ll see.  So, the next best thing is Global Entry at twice the price.  Better news here, though not for Neighbor Island folks:

global entry hawaii

I’m not really in the market for another credit card right now, but if I were, I’d consider one of the several Amex cards that offer a Global Entry fee credit, along with the Citi Prestige, Barclay AAviator Silver , and several more that offer a generic “airline credit,” which often covers things like luggage fees, in-flight wi-fi, and/or Global Entry.  These benefits are often offset by hefty annual fees, though…$450 for that Citi card, yikes.

Anyhoo, I briefly looked at SENTRI since I had never heard of it before receiving this mailer.  It seems useful for folks living near southern land border crossings, and the only enrollment centers are in Arizona, California, and Texas.  I don’t plan on driving to/from Mexico anytime soon, and certainly not frequently.  So that doesn’t work for me.  And it doesn’t make sense for me to get PreCheck on its own, because it helps for when you are traveling FROM a US airport to an international destination, but no benefits when traveling BACK from a foreign airport.

Unfortunately, I have many months to wait before our next international trip, so I guess I’ll make a decision later as to when to apply for Global Entry.  If I have the benefit, any children on my reservation can also go through with me.  Since we often split reservations with the 2 kids, this means my husband will also have to get it if we want to all stay together.  Also, do I really need it if my problems at Passport Control have stopped?  Don’t know the answer to that.

Finally, this Onion article re: the TSA made me LOL 🙂



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