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I’m in the Little Rock airport on my way home. After having an abysmal travel day yesterday that started off at 5:30am with me being detained By U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Toronto airport, I finally got to Little Rock around 4pm, made it to the Startup Arkansas event around 5:30pm, and did two hours of open office hours, a Startup Communities talk, and general Q&A. When I got back to my hotel room around 10:30pm and crawled into bed after hanging around with the entrepreneurs at a great after party, the crappy US CBP experience had been washed off of me. I had a great evening, and, like entrepreneurs everywhere, the people I got to hang out with in Arkansas are optimistic, fun, excited about what they are doing, and building the future. And they like beer, which I needed after a very long day.
I had two separate bad dreams last night about being detained. The first was a strange, complex one that is now fuzzy in my head, but happened in a futuristic, very dark setting. The second is still fresh – I was with Dick Costolo (Twitter CEO) somewhere in San Francisco and we were detained by military people who put us in a room, took away our iPhones because they were afraid Dick would start a revolution since he controlled Twitter, and made us sit silently back to back. I woke up before that dream resolved.
When I woke up from my second dream, I realized I was wondering why you are forbidden from using your iPhone in US Immigration areas. I notice this all the time when I enter the US – you go through a door into where the giant immigration room is and you are bombarded with the universal “no phone” sign. Then, when you break this rule and tweet a photo of the “no phone” sign, one of the CBP people inevitably comes over to you and tells you that you can’t use your phone there.
Yesterday, after I ended up in what I have been told is called the “secondary” room, I quickly sent Amy and Kelly an email telling them where I was. I then tweeted that I had been detained by CBP. This took about 30 seconds, at which point one of the CBP agents very aggressively told me that I couldn’t use my phone in this room.
I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask why, nor do I think it would have been particularly helpful. I’m sure the formal reason is something like “you are on government property and we get to set the rules on what you do” and then there is – if pushed – some separate justification about security. But I’ve used my iPhone when I was in the White House, I’ve taken a photos of Obama with it, I check in on FourSquare at various government buildings, and I have spent many mindless minutes waiting on a line for some government service somewhere using my iPhone. And some very creative people have videoed their own experience with CPB and DHS agents doing ridiculous things, making absurd statements, and demonstrating what happens when they don’t understand civil liberties and our constitution as well as the people they are trying to question.
Why am I forbidden from using it in an Immigration facility? Are they afraid of people videoing what they are doing? Are they worried that I’ll rally a twitter mob to break me out of the secondary detention area. Or are they just enjoying exercising their ability to eliminate my ability to communicate with the outside world?
I’m clearly still riled up about yesterday, although I’m mostly just sad about it. It’s horrifying to me how, as a government, we treat non-US citizens who are legally in this country. It’s also disgusting to me how difficult we make it for people to come into this country and startup businesses, which ironically is the foundation on which much of this country has been built. And now that I had a very direct and minor taste of it, I’m sad that we’ve let things get to this point.
I’ve had a shitty morning.
After a really fun day yesterday in Waterloo at Communitech, which is really impressive, I woke up at 4:30am to make my 6:30am flight from Toronto to Chicago on my way to Little Rock, Arkansas where I’m speaking at the launch of Startup Arkansas. I was going to run the Little Rock Marathon on Sunday but I’m undertrained and – while I could get it done – decided I wasn’t ready to deal with the physical and emotional recovery cycle given all the work I’ve got going on. So I bailed on the marathon, but since they’d organized the Startup Arkansas event around my schedule and managed to procure me a number for the sold out marathon, I decided to go ahead and fulfill my commitment to that.
At 5:30am after checking in and getting my boarding pass, I slammed into the wall of US CBP. I’ve been through the Toronto checkpoint a few times and it’s always a long line that moves slowly. I got to the front by 5:45am so I felt like I had plenty of time to make my 6:30am flight.
As I waited for my turn, I noticed the CBP agent whose line I was in was moving slowly. The guy two people in front of me took about three minutes to clear – he had to take off his hat, then his glasses, and had to do some fingerprint thing on the scanner that I can’t remember ever having seen used before. I didn’t really think much of it, but I noticed it.
When it was my turn, I said a polite hello to the CBP agent, gave him my passport and customs form, and waited patiently. He handed me back my customs form and said “Put your correct address on this.” I looked down and noticed I had written my P.O. Box in Eldorado Springs as my address, since that’s my address. I responded “That’s my correct legal address.” He responded, “Do you live inside a P.O. Box?” I said, as politely as I could, “No.” He then said “Is your house inside your P.O. Box?” I said, “No, I have a house a mile away, but the P.O. Box is my address – at least that’s what the US Postal Service says.” By this point I realized he wanted a street address and not a P.O. Box, so I said “I’m sorry, I’ll write down the house address I have” which I proceeded to do.
I stood there quietly for about a minute as he typed stuff into his computer. He then handed my passport and my customs form to me after scribbling something illegible on it, handed me a yellow card, pointed at a room, and said, “Go into that room.” I asked whether there was a problem and he said more forcefully, “Go into that room.”
I did. It was a bigger room with about 10 CBP people. There were about 5 non-CBP people. No one acknowledged me as I walked into the room. I went up to one of the CBP people and said, “I was told to go to this room – can you tell me what I need to do?” He responded, “Give me your documents and go sit down over there until called.” This time I asked “Can you explain what’s going on?” The response was “Go sit over there until you are called.”
At this point I got anxious. I went and sat down. I sent Amy and my assistant Kelly an email telling them where I was. I tweeted that I had been detained by CBP. I started looking up flight information on my iPhone and a different CBP agent barked at me, “Sir, you must turn off your cell phone in this room.” So I did.
I looked at the clock. It was now 6:00am. I resigned myself that I was going to miss my 6:30am flight. At 6:15am I heard someone from the other end of the room call “Feld.” I got up, took my bags, and went to where that person was. He told me to put my bags down and stand in front of him. He proceeded to empty out my bags and go through them carefully. After he packed them back up, he typed a few things into the computer, asked me a few routine questions, including where I lived, which I answered more precisely this time with a house address, explained that the postal service wouldn’t come to deliver to my house, so I had a P.O. Box as the US Post Office that I used as my address. He stamped my forms, handed them back to me, and pointed at a door and said, “Go through there.”
I had no idea whether things were about to get better or worse. I asked him politely, “Can you explain why you are detaining me.” He responded with “Because you are traveling to the US.” I said, “I was asking why you’ve detained me for 30 minutes. Specifically, what was the reason?” The CBP officer said, “Because you are traveling to the US – we don’t have to give you a reason.”
I quietly picked up my stuff and went through the door he had pointed at. It led me back to the security area, in front of the long line to go through the xray machine, but behind the CBP checkpoint. So apparently I had now cleared customs, but still had to go through security.
It was 6:25am at this point. No way I was going to make my flight. I took a deep breath, realized my heart rate was high (probably over 100), and I was extremely anxious. I went into mellow shut down mode as quickly as I could, just soldered through security, and got to my gate. At the point the normal absurdity of air travel took over and even though I was on a United / Air Canada codeshare, the gate agent for the flight I missed (Air Canada) wouldn’t help me, the United Global Services people couldn’t figure out how to change my ticket, and ultimately I wandered over the gate that I figured out with the United Global Services person was my replacement flight, where the gate agent there was very helpful and soothing for the first time this morning.
I’m now in Chicago waiting for my flight to Little Rock. Given the flight times, I’ve got a lovely three hour wait, which I’m filling up with a long blog post to empty my head, all the phone calls that Kelly scrambled to reschedule, and some email time.
I’ve been awake for 7 hours. I’ve managed to get from Toronto to Chicago. My heart rate is back to normal. I feel fine but the 45 minutes of CBP stress, which was minor compared to what I know a lot of people face, sits with me in a very bitter way. CNN is in the background with the talking heads blathering on about sequestration and all the problems it, and our government, are creating. And I remember that getting into Canada on Wednesday took me literally five minutes, was pleasant, and welcoming.
What a shitty morning.