According to the TSA, my Mom is a suspected terrorist. Until very recently, so were my husband and son.
There are some that might joke about that being the price we pay for being Irish (a country with a fine history of home-grown terrorism) but I disagree. To me, the extra screening and sometimes aggressive questioning only points to inadequacies in the security systems which we’re all relying on to protect us from terrorist activities.
The FAQ on the TSA website explains the difference between the No Fly List and the Selectee List. But nowhere, ever, does anyone explain how you get off the list. In fact, it seems impossible. Once, frustrated by yet again not being able to use online check-in for my husband and younger son, I asked the agent at the check-in desk for advice. I was given a form and told I could submit the form, but that since the name match would re-occur, it was unlikely that doing so would do any good. Lovely.
The New York Times described the security screening experiences of Mikey Hicks, an eight-year-old from New Jersey who is also on the selectee list. A frightening way to treat a child by any definition. When you’re an adult from another country who is on that same list, your experience is not much better. Take my Mom for example, she was taken aside for secondary questioning in Atlanta in April 2009: Her passport was taken and she was held in a room patrolled by armed guards (with other people) while she waited to be questioned. She was terrified.
My mom’s planned trip was to visit her new grandson in Mexico. Initially her request for a transit visa was denied because she was on a TSA watch list. Not wanting to skip such an important life experience, she went to the American Embassy in Dublin and secured herself a 10-year tourist visa. A day later, she was allowed to board her flight, allowed to land in Atlanta and then held afterwards for questioning. Talk about a perfect example of agencies not sharing information – and as the Christmas Day bombing attempt shows, not much has changed since.
On that trip, my Mom was also held for questioning when she flew home via Atlanta two weeks later. Obviously showing that in April 2009 it took over two weeks for data to be shared between the U.S. Department of State (who issues visas) and the Department of Homeland Security. I can tell you that by October – when she transited through the U.S. again – she wasn’t held for secondary screening. Whew! Only five months to share data. We can all relax now.
For our most recent trip, I was able to use online check-in for everyone in our family and no-one was held for additional screening. Why? We registered for NEXUS cards early last year. Seemingly, if you’re willing to pay an additional $50 (each) and volunteer for background checks, the TSA will trust you and take you off their watch lists. Maybe Mikey Hicks’ parents should try that. Or maybe we should all start lobbying our respective representatives in congress to stop spending money on people to who do little except take away our toothpaste tubes and start spending money on building world-class passenger profiling systems.