“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
— Emma Lazarus, 1883
If you don’t mind thinking about the Bush legacy a year early, there are worse places to begin than with the case of Erla Osk Arnardottir Lilliendahl. Admittedly, she isn’t an ideal “tempest-tost” candidate for Emma Lazarus’s famous lines engraved on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty. After all, she flew to New York City with her girlfriends, first class, from her native Iceland, to partake of “the Christmas spirit.” She was drinking white wine en route and, as she put it, “look[ing] forward to go shopping, eat good food, and enjoy life.” On an earlier vacation trip, back in 1995, she had overstayed her visa by three weeks, a modest enough infraction, and had even returned the following year without incident.
This time–with the President’s Global War on Terror in full swing– she was pulled aside at passport control at JFK Airport, questioned about those extra three weeks twelve years ago, and soon found herself, as she put it, “handcuffed and chained, denied the chance to sleep… without food and drink and…confined to a place without anyone knowing my whereabouts, imprisoned.” It was “the greatest humiliation to which I have ever been subjected.”
By her account, she was photographed, fingerprinted, asked rude questions–“by men anxious to demonstrate their power. Small kings with megalomania”–confined to a tiny room for hours, then chained, marched through the airport, and driven to a jail in New Jersey where, for another nine hours, she found herself “in a small, dirty cell.” On being prepared for the return trip to JFK and deportation, approximately twenty-four hours after first debarking, she was, despite her pleas, despite her tears, again handcuffed and put in leg chains, all, as she put it, “because I had taken a longer vacation than allowed under the law.”
On returning to her country, she wrote a blog about her unnerving experience and the Icelandic Foreign Minister Ingibjoerg Solrun Gisladottir met with US Ambassador Carol van Voorst to demand an apology. Just as when egregious American acts in Iraq or Afghanistan won’t go away, the Department of Homeland Security announced an “investigation,” a “review of its work procedures” and expressed “regrets.” But an admission of error or an actual apology? Uh, what era do you imagine we’re living in?
Erla Osk will undoubtedly think twice before taking another fun-filled holiday in the United States, but her experience was no aberration even among Icelanders visiting the US. In fact, it’s a relatively humdrum one these days, especially if you appear to be of Middle Eastern background.