Brian Edwards Media

Guardians of the Frontier – An Unflattering Look at Immigration Officers

 BRITAIN IMMIGRATION

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In an earlier incarnation, more than a quarter of a century ago, I was contracted by the State Services Commission to media train public servants. With my Fair Go colleague Judith Fyfe – she of the huge, eccentric specs – we put people from pretty well every government department through crash courses on handling the press, radio and television. We enjoyed these sessions and so, mostly, did the participants. But, after a time, we began to notice that the personalities, and even the wardrobes of our students, very much reflected the departments they came from.

So the Foreign Affairs people were witty, urbane and looked as though they’d just stepped out of a Moss Bros commercial.

The Social Welfare people were rather worthy, appeared not to have had time to brush their hair, and their wardrobe must have come from their local op shop. We concluded that this might be deliberately intended to help them fit in with their clients.

The Treasury people, who all had first class honours degrees from Oxbridge, were dressed like university dons and invariably began by making it absolutely clear that they had nothing to learn from anybody, least of all subhuman media whores like us. We enjoyed reducing them to gibbering wrecks during the interviews.

The Police always insisted on wearing their uniforms and sat stiffly erect in the interviewee’s chair, responding to questions as though they were giving evidence in court. ‘I was proceeding in a Northerly direction on the day in question, when I observed two male persons behaving in a suspicious manner.’  This at a speed so slow that even a court  stenographer would have had time to nip out and make a cup of tea.

But it was the people from Immigration who really got up our noses. A bigger collection of jumped up, tin-pot Hitlers it would be hard to imagine. ‘We’, they declared, ‘are the guardians of the frontier. Without our approval, no one may set foot in this green and pleasant land.’ (I made up the green and pleasant land bit, but the rest is true.)

I’m reminded of those sessions every time Judy and I go overseas. And every time I go overseas, I find myself asking the same question: Why do immigration officers world-wide have to be such total arseholes?

Our trip to Vietnam and Cambodia was no exception.  The arrival area in Hanoi is a barely lit hanger devoid of any decoration or furniture other than two desks behind which sit two uniformed apparatchik. Before they have spoken a word you are left in no doubt at all that you are in a communist country. As it happens, they never do speak a word. Like most immigration officers worldwide, they summon or dismiss as though directing traffic – with robotic hand gestures: Come here! Stop! Wait! Step back! Behind the yellow line! Go! Next! They have all been to Grim Scary lessons and have had their smile muscles Botoxed.

There is of course no greeting, no Hello, no Welcome to Vietnam, no expression of interest whatsoever. Even ‘So where do you come from, you filthy lackeys of the corrupt capitalist West?’ would have been nice.  But nothing.

Well, nothing except “Passport!” One might have thought that one of the purposes of examining a passport was to confirm that the passport actually belonged to the person standing in front of you. But the apparatchik’s eyes never leave the table in front of him. You are not even worthy of his glance. Open, flick, stamp, close, push forward, wave away, summon next non-person.

This is the first person you’ve met in the country you’re going to be living in for the next three weeks. These are your first impressions. My god, you’re going to be holidaying with the Viet Cong!

It may take no more than five minutes when you leave the immigration hall to discover that you are in fact going to be holidaying with one of the most delightful, the most charming, the most beautiful people on earth. Immigration officers are rarely good ambassadors for their country.

Our next country was Cambodia. Much the same story at Siem Reap airport as at Hanoi. But the immigration hall is much more attractive and the immigration officers considerably more colourful. About a dozen of them sit in line like judges behind a gently curving high desk. They are in full regalia – brass buttons, braid, epaulettes – a rather fine sight. But which one to go to? You are spoiled for choice. You head for Number 3, but are waved away. Other passengers are variously waved away from Numbers 2 through 10. We all line up behind Number 1.

Number 1 neither speaks nor smiles. Nor does he return my passport, instead handing it to Number 2 who in turn hands it to Number 3, who in turn…  Job creation scheme? Can there really be 10 separate processes involved in checking a passport? I’m finally waved to a chap at a separate desk just next to the exit. There is an eye on a stick attached to the desk.

‘Good Morning.’

‘Good Morning.’

‘You are from New Zealand.’

“Yes.’

 ‘I see you in New Zealand.’

‘You’ve seen me in New Zealand?’ (International fame at last!)

‘Yes, I see you in New Zealand.’

When?’

‘When I go to New Zealand one day. Ha Ha. But now I see you when you look in here. Ha Ha.’ (Pointing to the eye on a stick.) ‘Maybe I see you in New Zealand. If I win the lottery. Ha Ha’

We engage in a little more banter before he hands me my passport and wishes me a pleasant stay. A friendly, joking immigration officer. I’m gobsmacked. Can he  be the exception that approves the rule that most immigration officers are total arseholes? I think he can. But I wait ages for Judy who has been given the third degree by some of his colleagues and is visibly upset.

Leaving Siem Reap to return to Godzone was a re-run of Hanoi.  As we always do in these circumstances, we thanked the non-speaking, non looking, non smiling officer profusely. ‘Lovely meeting you. Thank you. Thank you so very much. Goodbye.’ For the first and only time his eyes left the table. He looked taken aback. ‘Grunt’

There are degrees of arseholeness of course. The Americans are probably the most unpleasant, something to do with knowing that you live in the greatest county on earth and, fella, you better goddam well understand how privileged you are even to set foot on American soil.

At the other end of the scale, you get a pretty friendly (and musical) welcome in Rarotonga.

And New Zealand? Well, maybe it’s just because we’re Kiwis returning home, but I suspect that, despite the jumped-up, tin-pot Hitlers of 25 years ago, our Immigration officers are nicer than most. It’s a lottery, mind you. We have our fair share of Hanoi style immigration apparatchiks  as well.  

Lovely guy this time – where’ve you been, what was the weather like, pleased to be back? Welcome home.

Nice. Immigration officers are your first and last point of contact with a country. They have a serious job to do as ‘guardians of the frontier’, but they should also realise that they’re ambassadors for their country so well.

So yes, we’re glad to be back. Until we get to the final luggage security check which, this afternoon,  is staffed entirely by women. Now this is a word that Judy hates  but it is the mot juste in this case and I’m going to use it anyway. These women are bitches. Total bitches. Total lazy bitches. Total fat, lazy bitches. They stand there with their hands at their sides, issuing orders and watching elderly and sometimes frail passengers of both sexes heaving heavy suitcases onto the ramp without moving a finger to help.  They’re a disgrace.

Welcome to New Zealand. Welcome home.

Two questions:

Are immigration officers representative of the people of the country? Not in our experience. We’ve been all round the world. We’ve always liked the tangata whenua.

Then why are so many immigration officers arseholes?

That one’s easy. Power corrupts.

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15 Comments:

  1. Nah – it has nothing to do with power or any of that.

    Do you know why so many people working the McDonalds counter or any service with low pay dealing with smug middle class people who run blogs are so arseholish?

    Because they hate themselves for being stuck in dead end jobs.

    Because they hate their customers because they seem more healthy, wealthy and wise as they do.

    Because they hate the class system that put them there.

    And most of all they hate the fact that they’re smart enough to realize what’s happening to them but not smart enough to move up.

    And I know – I’ve been there myself, worked at McDonalds for 2 years and at immigration for 3. There’s just something about dealing with too many people for too little pay that frazzles out a little empathy in the human psyche.

    • Nah – it has nothing to do with power or any of that. Do you know why so many people working the McDonalds counter or any service with low pay dealing with smug middle class people who run blogs are so arseholish?

      Well Francois, that has just got to be bullshit. The comparison between working at McDonalds and working as an immigration officer just can’t stand. I’d accept much of what you say abour working at McDonald’s, but the big difference is that the McDonald’s worker has almost no power and has to suck it up, while the Immigration officer has enormous power over other people’s lives. That makes a huge difference about how you feel about yourself and about other people. And, even if some of what you say about the job is true, it’s no excuse for being unpleasant and rude to travellers, most of whom have done nothing wrong and are in no way responsible for your situation. There are a hell of a lot of people who don’t like their jobs or don’t like parts of their jobs. That doesn’t give them the right to treat the rest of us like shit. We may not like our jobs either.
      Or maybe this is just the politics of envy. All those people away on holiday having a great time and I’m stuck here having to deal with them when they get back.

      I would have thought there were lots of prospects in this line of work. The people at our session certainly though so too and were enormously proud of their profession.

  2. I understand what Francois is saying. It’s pretty hard to keep a smile on the dial when you are in repetitive boring and ultimately tiring work for crap pay. stop expecting ‘customer service’ and leave the poor buggers alone.. Get into customs, get out of customs.. And get over it. Yeah!

    • I understand what Francois is saying. It’s pretty hard to keep a smile on the dial when you are in repetitive boring and ultimately tiring work for crap pay. stop expecting ‘customer service’ and leave the poor buggers alone.. Get into customs, get out of customs.. And get over it. Yeah!

      This is really helpful. It’s helped me to understand how utterly unreasonable I am expecting people to maybe say hello or at least smile when I arrive at immigration in another country or even in my own country. The proper thing for them to do is treat me as though I were the mastermind behind an international paedophile ring or maybe a suicide bomber. And even if I weren’t, there really is far too much pleasantness and kindness and smiling in the world. We’ve got to get over it and accept that life sucks and stop complaining. Though we should of course keep complaining about our repetitive, boring and ultimely tiring work for crap pay.

      So thanks Cath. I enjoy a good argument. When you have one, let me know. Yeah!

  3. With regard to your arrival back to NZ, I think, you’ve got to judge it on a case-by-case (or individual officer) basis. I travel a bit, and I’ve noticed a real improvement in the overall manner of the customs and ag officials; compared to, say, 20-30 years ago, where there was this authoritarian brusqueness that assumed Hitlerian proportions.

    The venting of your spleen — towards the slothful and overweight “she-dogs” — I’m guessing, refers to the loading of your bags on to the conveyor belt, for X-raying. This is a real high-traffic area, where speed is of the essence. So, I’m not sure if niceties can be expected. I’ll forgo the smiley “Howdy-doody” pleasantries for quicker processing time any day of the week. When you’ve just de-planed, you’re anxious to get the hell out of the Arrival Hall asap.

    • With regard to your arrival back to NZ, I think, you’ve got to judge it on a case-by-case (or individual officer) basis.

      Absolutely.

      As to your second point, things would go faster if these sloths actually moved their arses (must be this week’s word) and helped people who aren’t weightlifters by profession, to lug their suitcases on to the conveyor belt. But as I watched this girl stand with her arms by her side as an elderly woman struggled to get her luggage onto the ramp, my blood boiled.

  4. First point; after this the chances of you and Judy getting back into NZ without undergoing an intimate body search are nil. The border guards will be on red alert just waiting for Edwards and Callingham in order to remind them not to write rude blogs about the immigration service.

    Second point; I suspect that immigration oficers become arseholes because so many of those with whom they deal are arseholes (your good self and JC excepted of course). One only has to watch Border Patrol and similar programmes to realise that it takes enormous self restraint not to Taser most arrivals. I have been behind obnoxious travellers and listened to the way they have talked to the officers. I have been tempted to suggest that the IO gives them a wallop while I turn the other way.

    Civility and cordiality work both ways and those who have the misfortune to work with the public and be regarded as ‘menials’ will attest to the fact that it is very hard to keep a smile on one’s face. Perhaps you could expand your media training to include training for the arseholes who make up the general public and teach them how to treat service providers. There is a large section of the general population who are pigs and have the manners of pigs. Those of us who try to be polite to others suffer because of them.

    • First point; after this the chances of you and Judy getting back into NZ without undergoing an intimate body search are nil. The border guards will be on red alert just waiting for Edwards and Callingham in order to remind them not to write rude blogs about the immigration service.

      I’m not too worried, Ben. I think we were pretty nice to the New Zealand immigration people. That said, I don’t disagree with what you’ve said, other than your ‘most arrivals’. In almost 30 years of travelling round the world, we’ve seen very little evidence of the passenger behaviour you describe. Most people seem pretty nice.

      But there are undoubtedly many assholes among the travelling public. I have no objection at all to the immigration officers giving them short shrift. But when saintly and angelic people like Judy and me go through, we at least expect a Hello and a smile.

      By the way, I wouldn’t take too much notice of Border Patrol. It’s a TV programme, Ben. It’s not interested in nice, normal travellers.

  5. It’s a while since I have had to given customs any business, 1985 in fact.
    We arrived in Wellington after having visited 15 countries and like most travelers were looking forward to coming home. The customs guy that “greeted us” might as well have had POWER in 42 point stenciled on his forehead. Apart from his general supercilious manner, one particular incident got me going. At the time Trivial Pursuit was enjoying a world-wide popularity and I had brought back 5 versions, movies, music, NZ etc. Our interrogator, obviously aware of world trends had no knowledge of the phenomenon. I explained that they were games which tested players skills at various subjects. He decided that they were in fact toys, which were dutiable rather than games, which were exempt. His decision tended to peeve me somewhat, not particularly because of the financial accept but because of his illogical ignorance and I attempted to help him see the error of his ways. My wife, being of a somewhat calmer nature, suggested that my course of action was inadvisable and best if I capitulated. The rest of the interrogation continued in the same manner.Talk about ambassadors. Nice to see that the status quo is being maintained.

    • It’s a while since I have had to given customs any business, 1985 in fact. We arrived in Wellington after having visited 15 countries and like most travelers were looking forward to coming home.

      Now Customs is technically a different area. But some of the same issues arise. We’ve always found New Zealand customs extremely reasonable. This trip we brought back some lacquered chopsticks and some fully sealed Vietnam lollies. We declared them of course – silly not to – and the customs officer said, ‘no problem’. Didn’t want to check our bags and welcomed us home. Makes such a difference.

      BUT check out the Aussie programme Border Security I watched an elderly woman who had mistakenly shoved some bananas, she’d been given on the plane, in her carry bag and didn’t declare them. She had no cash and couldn’t pay the $210 fine. So she had to sit there for hours, till she could arrange payment of the fine. The customs officer was an absolutely heartless and unreasonable harridan. You see a lot of power-driven unreasonableness on the show. Some of these are people who clearly get their jollies from searching through people’s luggage, item by item. There’s a serious purpose in their work of course. Australia’s agriculture sector could be devastated by seemingly innocent plants and insects. But you soon begin to recognise the power trippers.

  6. I worked in a low paid, front line position a few years back. I always made sure to give a smile and a friendly word and be helpful. The payback in most cases was a positive reaction from the public which made me feel good. A job is what you make it and if you have to do something to earn a living you might as well make it enjoyable. No, I am not Pollyanna, but you never know who will notice you doing a good job, I had several job offers from people who appreciated my attitude.

    • I worked in a low paid, front line position a few years back. I always made sure to give a smile and a friendly word and be helpful. The payback in most cases was a positive reaction from the public which made me feel good.

      That’s it in a nutshell, Sophie. And I can’t understand why being an Immigration Officer should be a dull job. Great skill is required in assessing the character and truthfulness of the thousands of people who come through your gate every week. Far from being dull, it strikes me a highly interesting and challenging. It’s also very important indeed. You job, as you say, is probably what you bring to it.

  7. Speaking on behalf of the rest of we non-customs folk..Welcome back!

  8. (Now Customs is technically a different area. But some of the same issues arise. We’ve always found New Zealand customs extremely reasonable. This trip we brought back some lacquered chopsticks and some fully sealed Vietnam lollies. We declared them of course – silly not to – and the customs officer said, ‘no problem’. Didn’t want to check our bags and welcomed us home. Makes such a difference.)

    Just so you know, the above people you are talking about are MAF. Customs officers act as immigration officers processing your passport, and also have an area where they search bags looking for drugs etc, Customs are not in the slightest bit concerned with your food, that is MAF.

    I find NZ Customs officers friendly and efficient, compared with overseas, despite the fact I have seen them be treated like check out chicks at Pak N Save by other travellers who forget they are speaking with fellow human beings and government officials. A little bit of common courtesy goes a long way and when I travel I find a hello and thankyou will suffice to ensure a pleasant and speedy exit from the airport.

    Travelling can be stressful and you may be in a foul mood, but people need to remember that the customs officer in front of you has probably been at work longer than you have been on your flight from Australia or the islands, so tiredness is no excuse for rudeness from travellers.