On Being ‘Inadmissible’

Last Christmas Eve my wife and I set out from Vancouver to Sydney. At 11:30 PM the plane put down at Honolulu airport, where we intended to break the nineteen-and-a-half-hour flight, change out of our Canadian winter tweeds and continue our journey on Christmas morning. Shuffling forward to the immigration desk, I saw the woman officer was working with a black book—a literal black book, heavy and thick. I had seen nothing like it since I entered Egypt by boat at Alexandria twenty years before, during Nasser’s paranoiac reign. When the woman took my passport and flicked the book to W, the smile she wore for tourists stiffened. She made a note on my form and pointed to a line of chairs. An attendant took our passports into an inner office where I saw a man pick them up, glance at them, and wander away. A little later he called us into his room. He looked embarrassed.

Mr. Woodcock,” he said, giving a bureaucratic detachment to his voice, “I have to inform you that you are inadmissible into the United States of America.” I knew immediately what distant ghost had unexpectedly returned, but I still asked why. “You’re on the lookout list. I can’t tell you why.” I protested that for years I had been regularly crossing the land border from Vancouver to the state of Washington without trouble. “We’re stricter here. You could have a hearing,” he volunteered, “but it can’t take place till Tuesday.” It was Saturday; I would have to stay three days in a lockup before they could consider letting me loose in Honolulu.

The Qantas agent appeared, saying he had another plane leaving in an hour for Sydney. I could have stood my ground, insisted on being locked up for three days, and been given my hearing, and perhaps I would have got publicity for an absurd situation. But we had bookings and appointments in Australia, and at one o’clock on Christmas morning we resumed our journey. As we flew southward through the night I remembered, with a vividness I had not experienced for a quarter of a century, the long-ago events that had led, almost on the very eve of 1984, to my being treated as something near to a criminal by an American official who knew nothing of my life or even of the reasons why he was turning me away.

Back in the 1930s, like many of my generation, I made political choices that have had lasting effects on my life. I was then living in England, starting my writing career in a world shadowed by the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. The left-wing turn I took, if not inevitable, was not unusual in my generation. Graham Greene, for example, was for a time a member of a student communist club, and years later was refused entry to Puerto Rico on the strength of his past.

From the beginning I distrusted the …

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