I arrived at Toronto airport at 1:50 pm (December 12, 2002) after a four hour flight from Edmonton. I had one hour to clear US customs and immigration before boarding my flight for Washington DC. I had been invited by the George Town University’s center for Christian-Muslim understanding for the meeting of the Advisory Committee for planning a major conference next year, "science in the Islamic World."
At the immigration counter, I hand my Canadian passport to one Kulczyk, who scans it and stares at his computer screen. He asks the usual questions: where are you going, why, for how long. I explain.
Then he looks at his computer screen again and after a few seconds, he turns off the screen, picks up his stamp and walks to a counter behind all other counters; this one says: Immigration Supervisor. But on his way, he meets another officer and says something to him. "For sure," the other officer says, "for that you have to second him."
Mr. Kulczyk talks to his supervisor and comes back to me. "Come with me, sir," he says. I follow him to another office. There are 10 other people sitting there, including a very old woman on a wheel chair. They all look upset and exasperated.
I sit quietly and wait. Time passes. Five immigration officers continuously walk in and out of their offices which are made by erecting walls in the hall where we are all sitting. People are taken in, they are interviewed and some come out in tears, others are given some papers and still others are being fingerprinted and photographed. Everything is happening in slow motion. No one is in a rush.
2:45: My flight is at 3:00. Will I make it?
"Aslamo Alaikum," the person sitting next to me says quietly. We talk. He is an Afghan who has lived in the United States for more than a decade. He came to Canada two ago to visit his cousin. Now he cannot go back. "I am US citizen, but they say they cannot find my citizenship records in their computers. They have called my wife, my employer, everyone, but still, I am sitting here for the last four hours."
The old woman on the wheel chair is also sitting there since morning. She only speaks Persian. She does not understand why she is being held. No one explains.
New passengers arrive. Each one in fury. But after a while, they resign to their situation and sit. Some talk to each other. There is one Anglophone, all others are from somewhere outside North America. Five passengers who were brought to the room after me, were processed while I was sitting there.
3:50: I go to the Supervisor, an Afro-American. "I have already missed my flight. I understand your need for security, but you have no right to disrupt people’s lives. Can you tell me what is going on. Is there an order? Why are others being processed and I am held."
"Sir, we are doing our best. Some cases are more complicated."
"I understand, but if I could make the 4:50 flight, I would appreciate it."
"I will see, just have a seat."
I go back to my seat.
Ten minutes later, the supervisor passes by. I get up. "O, just a minute," he says, as if he has just recalled something. He goes to a room and returns. "Someone will be with you shortly."
When I am called by an officer, I go to one of the side rooms with him.
"So, you are a Pakistani citizen," he says.
"No, I am a Canadian citizen, you have my passport in front of you."
"I mean you were born in Pakistan."
"When were you in Pakistan last time?"
"Where else have you been?"
"During the last few months."
"Saudi Arabia, Spain, England, Kazakhstan."
"What were you doing in Saudi Arabia?"
"I went for Pilgrimage."
"A UNESCO conference."
"What do you do?"
"I am a writer."
"I will be back in a few minutes."
He leaves the room with my passport.
I notice a sign on the wall. "All conversations in this room will be recorded." There is a video camera next to the sign.
He returns after 5 minutes and asks the same questions, more or less.
I repeat my answers.
"Come with me," he says, "this is not my computer. We need to go to another office."
In the new office, he tells me that he will have to enroll me in the program called "Special Registration Procedures for Visitors and Temporary Residents."
The way he said it, sounds like a reward air miles program that would allow fast entry to the US. He gives me a piece of paper, which is a photocopy of a brochure by U.S. Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service (Form M-526(09/11-02).
"I will have to ask you a few questions," he says, "but I give you this other information which I generally give out at the end." He gives me a few more sheets of paper.
"If I could make the 4:55 flight, that would be great."
"We will try."
"What is your postal address?" I tell him my address.
I tell him the postal code which he mistypes. I point out the mistake. He corrects it and then moves the computer screen away from my sight.
I sit back and quickly glance at the brochure. I read: "You will be fingerprinted, photographed, asked to show documents, and interviewed as to the length and purpose of your stay in the United States…"
"Does this apply to me?" I ask, "this fingerprinting stuff…"
"Yes," he says, still looking at his computer screen.
"I refuse to be treated as a criminal. I have lived in Canada for 22 years and your Secretary of State has just assured us that we will not be discriminated on the basis of our country of birth."
"I will have to call my supervisor." he said and left the room, only to return with the supervisor–the same person with whom I had talked earlier.
"Let me explain to you, Mr. Iqbal," the supervisor says, picking up my passport from the desk, "what this program is about."
Now I have a name. I look at him. He is wearing a name tag: He is M. Samuel.
"I have already read the brochure," I say, "I refuse to be treated like a criminal. I have been invited by the Georgetown University to help them in planning a conference and I am not interested in subjecting myself to this treatment. Your Secretary of State was in Ottawa recently and he made a public statement that no Canadian Citizen will be discriminated on the basis of country of birth."
"You know how politicians have to make such statements," Mr. Samuel says, "but we have to follow the rules."
"I understand that. But rules are only accessible to you. General public goes by what they are told through public statements."
"We have to protect our country."
"Indeed, you have the right to do so, but you cannot humiliate citizens of other countries. There is an 85 year old woman sitting on wheel chair outside this room. Do you think she is going to attack your country… she can hardly stand on her feet."
"We go by the rules, sir," he says.
"I refuse to be finger printed. Our government has also assured us that it will not tolerate such things. And Pakistan was not even on the list."
"Now, it is, and they are adding more countries everyday. But if you do not want to register, that is your choice. We will have to refuse entry or say that you withdrew your application."
"That is fine."
I quickly pick up my passport because just then I gleaned from the brochure that "If you decide that you do not want to or cannot follow the special registration procedures, you may be allowed to withdraw your application for admission into the United States, but you may still be fingerprinted, photographed, and interviewed by INS inspecting officer as part of the withdrawal process."
The brochure also explains that all registered persons are required to report to the INS if they are staying more than 30 days, the registered visitors can only leave the United States from certain designated points of departure and they must report their departure to INS, failing which, they can be arrested, fined or both. If they travel to different places in the US, they are required to "bring documents to INS to show who and where [they] are visiting."
I realize suddenly that the registeration system is much more than just initial finger printing; it is a complete code of apartheid based on race, religion and country of origin.
"What happens if Air Canada does not book me on today’s flight to Edmonton?"
"They will put you on the next available flight, we have an understanding with the airlines."
"But what if they have no seat? Will INS cover the hotel expenses?"
"No, we do not have such provisions."
"So, what would I do?"
He has no answer, he shrugs his shoulders.
I leave with the officer, who takes me to the air Canada counter. No one is now responsible for my wasted time.
The person at the Air Canada counter sends me to the domestic counter and there I am booked on a flight back to Edmonton. My ticket is not changeable, I cannot even return without a Saturday stay but after a few minutes of arguments, the supervisor waives the conditions and the additional charges and arrive back in Edmonton at 10:00 pm, 14 hours after leaving.