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July 3, 2015

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Customs officials could learn from Las Vegas

An open letter to Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security

Dear Madame Secretary,

Maybe it is just me, but ...

Having been born and raised in arguably the most tourist-savvy place on the planet, I have come to understand the importance of a friendly hello, a courteous handshake and a welcoming smile that say to visitors who have come our way, “Thank you for coming to Las Vegas. We are glad you are here.” And to those who return to or live in this wonderful city, “Welcome back.”

We have emphasized forever to those who work at the airport, those who drive taxis and limousines and anyone else who has initial contact with people who provide the lifeblood to our economy that theirs is the first impression we make on our guests, so make it worthwhile. And, for the most part, they do.

So, now I want to tell you about a recent trip I took to Cuba. No, no, this isn’t about the homeland security part of your job, Secretary Napolitano. Getting through airport screeners is certainly a challenge that a bit of common sense could rectify. But those complaints are for another day, especially knowing how busy you are.

No, what I want to talk to you about is the welcome mat that awaits both U.S. citizens upon their return to this country and the millions of visitors to the United States who come with open hearts and wide open eyes and who, I am afraid, get something ugly in return.

Back to Cuba. Cuba, as you know, is a Communist police state ruled by Fidel Castro, et al. There is no reason to think anyone traveling to that country, especially from the United States, which has tried to starve that man out of office for over 50 years, should expect anything but a difficult time when entering the country.

Click to enlarge photo

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano speaks about advances in airport and travel security at the 2011 Travel & Tourism Summit on Thursday, May 19, 2011, at Aria in Las Vegas.

I entered that country a few weeks ago. So did a couple dozen colleagues from the United States whom I joined on a people-to-people program. What I expected did not happen. From the moment we landed and until the time we retrieved our luggage, went through customs and whatever other bureaucratic requirements were imposed on incoming visitors and took off for our hotel, almost 30 minutes had elapsed.

During our wait at the airport — in the lines to get approved for entry and generally espied by any number of workers — not once did we meet a person who did not welcome us with a big smile and a few curious questions. Not once was there a voice raised or an order barked by some official police-stater. And not once were we treated in any way other than as a welcome guest to Cuba.

Similarly, when we left Cuba there were lines, mostly short, to check our luggage — and have our luggage checked — and to get stamped out of Cuba, which meant some kind of customs effort to make sure we weren’t taking whatever was left from the impoverished country. And while we waited for our on-time airline to not be on time — not an unfamiliar position for American travelers — not once did we run into a surly gate agent, an unfriendly customs or police official or any other person representing Cuba who was less than cordial.

Soon we were airborne, headed to the United States. Although it was a very interesting, enjoyable and valuable learning experience — as almost all foreign travel that I have been fortunate enough to take has been — I still experienced the same feeling I always experience when headed back to my country.

I was thrilled to be an American and overjoyed that I was coming back to the United States of America.

Then, we landed.

I don’t need to tell you, Madame Secretary, what it is like to land at an international terminal in the United States. There are people, hundreds and hundreds of them, all looking for a luggage cart at the same time, each one trying to figure out where they must go to get their luggage and what they must do once they have it. Organized chaos at best.

And, then, we all have to get in lines, very long lines, to go through customs. Some lines are for returning U.S. citizens; some are for visitors. As best I can tell, lines are so long because only half of the customs booths have a person taking passports and stamping forms. I am not complaining about the work they do because it is important, just that there are not enough of them doing it.

We found a line way at the end that looked shorter than the rest so we scampered over to find a place in it. And we waited. And we waited. And we waited. We soon realized that it wasn’t going anywhere, as did others in that line, and like them, we moved.

To a slower line. And soon everyone in line was talking to everyone else. Can you guess the subject of conversation?

And that is when I realized why only half the booths had agents: because other agents on duty practically sprang from nowhere, grabbing customs forms from people and, in many cases, snapping back at them that something wasn’t filled out correctly and that they should do it over. And those were the polite ones.

You know those yellow lines that run along the length of the airport intended to keep people from crowding the agents in their booths? Well, there was one fellow in particular whose job must have been to keep people off the yellow lines. While everyone was waiting for 30 minutes or more to get through customs, some of them shifted positions ever so slightly so they could converse like humans with others in line. In the process, a few of them edged onto, not over, the yellow line! Like a flash, this one agent was all over these people.

“Get back! Get off the yellow line!” he bellowed. You would have thought someone had done something drastically wrong or even dangerous. Alas, all they had done was inch onto the line.

Give me a break.

This country is spending tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars — and my friend Stephen Cloobeck is leading a national effort — to encourage international tourists to choose the United States as a destination, and the best we can do is throw these officious martinets in their face the moment they step onto American soil?

Please, Madame Secretary. I know you can do something about this. You come from Arizona, so I know you are familiar with Las Vegas. So, if your folks need a refresher course (or an initial one) in how to treat the people who help us all make a living, bring them here.

Here is the deal I will make. You pay for the hotel rooms and food, and I will pay for the fortune tellers. Because if you don’t get this figured out, I know what the fortune of the United States will be when it comes to tourism.

There won’t be one.

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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  1. How true it is. This is a knee jerk reaction to 9/11. Before that going through customs was a joke now it is the other extreme. Border crossings are the same north and south. I live 21 miles from the Canadian border and now when you enter the USA it is like I was the terrorist of the week. They have most of the information on you in their computer so they know who you are. I can only imagine what a foreigner thinks of us. Try flying with no carry on this sends off the bells and whistles. The airlines are screwed up enough now we have to be insulted by the TSA. They need to go to charm school so when you get thru the line you do not feel like you just walked the Green Mile.

  2. "Cuba, as you know, is a Communist police state....."

    Greenspun -- good article, and welcome to Amerika.

    A fundamental promise of our Bill of Rights is freedom from unreasonable searches and seizure, something Cubans don't enjoy as a part of their nation's foundation. I'm surprised you didn't even hint at that. But then what can be expected from men who allow their little girls to be groped and their elderly, incontinent mothers forced to have their diapers inspected, all with the excuse of keeping us safe??

    So which is the police state now?

    "We must choose between freedom and fear -- we cannot have both. If the citizens of the United States persist in being afraid, the real rulers of this country will be fanatics fired with a zeal to save grown men from objectionable ideas by putting them under the care of official nursemaids." -- Scales v. U.S., 367 U.S. 203, 270 (1961), Justice Douglas dissenting.

  3. Lol, and you think she'll understand any of the above, she won't.

    Janet Napolitano has no clue what she's doing or what her job entails. Look at Arizona; she supports the illegals, not the law. She only got her job because she's from Arizona and she would kowtow to illegals and the Obama plan, more free crap for his minions and voting pool. Obama knew he was going to have an uphill battle this election and he needs the Mexicans to vote for him in order for him to have any chance in getting reelected.

    Anyway, the only branches of the government that are functional would be the military. The rest of them have always been dysfunctional and always will be. Their system is broken; they're taught from a playbook and can't deviate from it. They're told what and when to do it. They are forced to hire incompetent workers under the diversity programs otherwise they lose funding for not employing the dumbest of the dumb. They have unlimited funding with zero accountability and they like it. Once they're hired, they have a lifetime job regardless of their stupidly.

    Nothing will change until this administration is booted.

  4. You know what we have here is a double edge sword. If they are too nice and someone gets into the country, we say they were not doing their job, and when they do the job to the ninth degree, we say they are not friendly.

    I can tell you from 32 years policing experience it's the small details that reveals results.

    In 1982 I arrested a mental unstable subject who wanted to confess to about 20 murders, and after extensive investigation by senior detectives they wanted me to take to a mental hospital.

    However after dealing with him for some 8-10 hours I noticed extensive band-aids wrapped around his large diamond ring. I thought this unusual and asked him about it, to which he replied the size and quality of this ring was so unique that any jeweler would recognize it from a famous robbery in Alberta.

    Needless to say a simple call to Alberta resulted in an investigation that led confirming that, "Young" had actually committed all these murders and is now serving life in prison.

    In 1988 a simple stop of driving offense and the person after being questioned for some 20 minutes resulted in the arrest of the FBI's #2 wanted hiding out in a small Vancouver suburb.

    In 1995 a longshoreman leaving after work and driving erratically was stopped for almost falling asleep, during his erratic stopping of his vehicle various boxes of ammunition slid out from under his front seat, this resulted in a warrant being issued for his residence for failing to notify a change of address for his legally registered 3 handguns, needless a search of his residence resulted in the largest privately kept seizure of weapons in Canadian history.

    In excess of a million rounds of ammunition and over 150 weapons from grenade launchers to explosive ammunition was recovered.

    In these three cases all resulted from minimal questioning of subjects where the questions did not correctly match the answers.

    So the next time a customs officers asks, what appears to be to you, senseless questions, stop for a minute, and see that he might be looking for a greater cause, then just what you have been doing out of the country.

    I travel extensively across the border some 150-200 times a year, and although I do not like the wait times, I understand them and appreciate the work done by the front line officers in keeping our country safe.

    I necessarily do not like it however it is the correct first approach to catch that 1 in a million person who comes to this country to do harm to its people and property.

    I guess at some point a Custom officer prior to 9-11 had interviewed one of the 22 terrorists and perhaps should have been more aggressive in his reasons for being in this country, but attitude was to welcome all people into this country with open arms.

    We really cannot have it both ways

  5. ive just returned from vegas to uk
    good to see building work going on & hopefully more americans in jobs in did seem to have more of a buzz in the shops and casinos with more players than last year
    sad to see the the imperial palace going down hill fast as ive had many happy stays there--but good to see the best vallet staff walter & richard at the IP again had many nice chats with them
    vegas is the best adults playground on earth along with the USA the best country to visit with a mix of nice friendly people
    but i like many people find the screening process used by the TSA lets the visit to USA down --join togeather americans and get it sorted as you have good place to visit we are TOURISTS - NOT-TERRORISTS
    so finally good luck vegas and god bless america

  6. Author, shame on you. Stay out of Cuba. That ruthless dictatorship will die sooner if you and others stop propping it up.

  7. For anyone who doesn't know, there's a program called Global Entry that allows US citizens to bypass lines when returning to the States. You have to complete an application, be interviewed, pay a $100 fee, and have your fingerprints and photo taken to become a "trusted traveler." Once approved, you just scan your passport at a kiosk.

    It's worth the hundred bucks just to avoid having to deal with the surley border protection people.