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Bump in the Road: The dreaded X, and the clock was ticking

MIAMI — My mom has many virtues. Patience isn’t one of them.

She’s routinely punctual, so I wasn’t surprised when my flight from Mexico landed and I found a message from her on my phone. “We’re in the cellphone lot,” she wrote.

I texted back that we had checked our bags — a time-wasting extravagance often frowned on in my family — and reminded her it might take some time getting through customs.

But the pressure was on.

My wife, Jess, and I divvied up the tasks to get us out as quickly as possible. She would wait with our restless 2-year-old in the jetway for his stroller; I would lug our carry-on bags and race to customs to get a spot on line.


Miami International Airport is gargantuan and notoriously confusing. I wended my way through the long, marbled corridors, up and down the escalators, across moving sidewalks, and onto a skytrain.

The line I found, however, wasn’t what I had expected. Instead of the usual rows for functionaries to stamp passports, I found a bank of newfangled machines that looked like high-tech ATMs, but with scanners and cameras.

I called Jess. She was still waiting for the stroller.

When I reached the front of the line at the “Automated Passport Control,” I followed the directions on the touchscreen and began answering questions such as whether I was carrying more than $10,000 in cash. (Sadly, I wasn’t.) I held my passport up to the scanner and smiled as the machine snapped a picture.

Was I traveling with family? Yes, I responded. The machine asked me to scan their passports; I complied. But then the machine asked to snap their photos too. I had to cancel the transaction.

I called Jess again. She was finally making her way over, carrying our son and pushing the stroller. Feeling the pressure, as my mom and her fiance were waiting for us after driving more than an hour, I thought I might expedite things by checking myself in first.


This was not a wise idea.

I went through the process of entering the information again, until I came to the question of whether I was traveling with family. I thought that if I had answered no, I could check myself in and then check them in when they had arrived.

But the next question gave me pause. Would I certify to the federal government that everything I had answered was true? Lying on an official document could probably be a crime, I thought. So I answered no, hoping that would again scrap the transaction. But it was too late.

I heard the sounds of the machine printing and found a small slip of paper. Ominously, it had a large X over my name, photo, and birthday. Did that mean I wasn’t going to be allowed back into the country? Was I now on some kind of watch list or considered a suspicious person? Was I heading to a secret room to be interrogated or strip searched?

It was not a warm welcome home.

When Jess finally found me, I reentered our information, again, and hoped for a better outcome. She and my son received a clean slip from the machine, carte blanche to prance through customs. I received another form with the same large X. An airport official standing next to the machines informed me that I needed to see a passport agent.


Jess looked at me like I was an idiot.

The official pointed us to the customs hall. When I showed my form to another official, he ushered me to a zigzagging line that looked like it would be quicker to walk back to Boston. Hundreds of people — most of them from foreign countries or others with the same mark of Cain on their forms — were snaking tediously through the cordons. I was trapped. I felt like I was gasping for air.

The only thing worse would have been waiting in line with our antsy son. So Jess left me the useless stroller, which he refuses to sit in, and they went to find our checked bags. That meant she would have to carry him, his car seat, and two weighty bags.

She wasn’t happy.

Nor was my mom. Despite the signs that said using cellphones was verboten, I stealthily sent her a text.

“Line is ridiculously long,” I wrote.

She suggested I prompt my son to start screaming. “I’m sure they’ll let you go through faster,” she wrote.

About 15 minutes later, a customs official announced that all those bearing the dreaded X needed to fill out another form, which I lacked. I would have to start all over again.

I began to sweat.

A woman standing beside me came to my rescue: She had an extra form and even provided a pen.

About a half-hour later, the line moving at a glacial pace, another customs official made an announcement. Were there any US citizens on line? I raised my hand — high. He waved me over, and like a guardian angel, escorted me to a much shorter line.


A few minutes later, a hand from behind a computer screen beckoned me to his counter.

The customs official looked at me with the warmth of a prison guard. Then he chastised me for not filling out my form neatly.

He saw that I had logged on to the machine multiple times, which he explained was a bad idea.

There was a long pause as he looked at his screen and then at me again. I wondered whether I was about to be sent to Guantanamo.

He looked at the empty stroller I was pushing and asked where the rest of my family was. I took a deep breath, wondering if that was some kind of trick question.

But he bought my explanation, which was the truth, and admonished me for my haste. Then he stamped my passport and pointed to the exit.

When I finally found my family, they had installed the carseat and loaded up the car. Jess looked like she would have rathered I had been sent to Guantanamo. My mom gave me a big hug, as if she had barely waited.

“That wasn’t so bad,” she said.

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.