The Biometric Future of Crossing Borders While Brown

What it's like to be flagged at every airport security stop for nine years

Shoes go through an airport security scanner. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

When I used to enter the United States on a student visa, I would keep my papers tucked into my bag until I reached the counter. Most likely no one cared, but I still felt the weight of collective side-eye that comes with learning that anyone clutching a sheaf of documentation is going to take at least 10 minutes instead of the usual few. Despite my Indian passport and United Arab Emirates residency, I’m lucky to never have been denied a visa or detained for flying while brown. It’s a privilege I suspect is rather gendered in a post-9/11 world.

In recent years, however, I have begun checking U.S. boarding cards for the telltale ‘SSSS’ which marks you as “selected for secondary security screening”—I love that it reads as a little hiss from the TSA. (“I remember when I first discovered that I was so bummed because I thought they were drawing swirly patterns for me,” an Iranian-American friend told me. “Interesting follow up: I've never gotten the SSSS since I started wearing a fedora. No joke. A lot of them comment on the hat. And then assume I’m just a leisure Arab.”)

Closer to home in the Arabian Gulf, I’ve seethed as I’m made to pay more for visas to neighboring countries like Bahrain than my travel companions with western passports, and as friends are offloaded from flights just because they’re the wrong nationality. Any visions of spontaneous travel are quickly scuppered by the need to apply for a visa in advance, replete with hotel bookings and confirmed flights. And until I got a machine-readable passport a year ago, I was unable to use many self-check in kiosks, leaving me feeling all too analogue in an otherwise teched-up space.

Jason Reed/Reuters

The idea of obstacle-free travel, and being welcomed home upon arrival? I thought it was something that only happened in movies, until I started asking friends. I was surprised to find this sort of seamlessness seems to be fairly standard for U.S. citizens, especially if they’re white. (A Chinese-American friend noted it happened to her only with Asian-American officials, which struck a particular chord.) Interacting with public officials anywhere, I expect to be treated just a little bit more kindly by people who look like me—a vague expectation of brown solidarity. This is never true in practice. Desi immigration officials at Heathrow are notorious for going out of their way to be especially rude to other South Asians, all the more rankling when you’ve watched them be perfectly civil to those right ahead of you.

As for my own countries? Indian immigration is a trying exercise in scowly grunty officiousness—eye contact seems verboten in their manual—and, frustratingly unlike most other countries, requires waiting hours in line with my compatriots as the foreigners breeze though. And to enter my adopted country of UAE, where I’ve lived since I was 2 years old, is to be reminded exactly where South Asians stand in its racial hierarchy. Sometimes I do my best to conduct the exchange in Arabic, to assert a sense of belonging, only to be reminded that it can never truly be my home.

In 2002, Dubai Airport introduced a new biometric electronic gate system called UAE Gate. Residents, Gulf nationals, and visitors who receive visas on arrival were all eligible for the program. It took just 15 minutes and $41 (now $55) to join, with offices all over the city as well as at the airport. Abu Dhabi followed suit in 2006, and the system was soon implemented all over the country. The way it works is pretty simple: You scan a card to open a set of sliding translucent gates, and scan your fingerprints to open the second gate on the other side of the kiosk. They’re not unlike the starting gates used in horse and dog racing, which feels rather fitting. As a child I dreamt of being a jockey, and thrilled in leaning forward during takeoff—hearing galloping hooves in the thrum of the engines before that delightful floaty weightlessness as the plane nosed its way upwards. Some stations require you to scan your boarding pass too, but you still get through immigration in under 30 seconds.

More importantly, in the age of convenience, you are spared having to interact with—or face derision from, depending on your nationality—a border official. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. In theory.

* * *

I don’t remember when I got an eGate card, though it was certainly magical to breeze through immigration, even if it meant you just transferred your waiting time to the baggage-claim area. I do remember when I started getting an “access denied” message in 2005, a fitting metaphor for both the UAE and international travel more broadly. At first I thought it was about my fingerprint scanning technique, and if I could just learn to do it right I’d be let through. The attendant official would call at me to try it again, maybe at another machine, before beckoning me over to the desk. As I backed my way out of the kiosk I’d perform what became a very familiar routine. My residence visa was in working order, and why was I getting the access denied message, I didn’t understand?

As officials keyed in my details and clicked through their files, I would be told why, with the smiling flourish of a mystery solved on an otherwise monotonous day. Indian passports are identified by a letter followed by 7 numbers, but the eGate system only records the number. And denuded of that initial letter, my passport number matches that of someone on the UAE’s ban list. Which means I have been permanently flagged as a result. Repeating this charade every time I entered or exited the country quickly got old, but it was still on the whole much faster than braving the teeming immigration hall, and so I continued. Over the years, I learned a little more about this person—my passport double—each time. And each time, details were reiterated—or sometimes contradicted—by several people.

He was an Indian man.

He was a criminal.

He had absconded.

He had overstayed his visa.

He had committed some kind of financial fraud.

He had issued a lot of bounced checks.

He had been deported and wasn’t allowed back in.

All this had apparently happened just before the global financial crisis, and I imagined he had gotten out just in time and was busy gleefully hustling and swindling once again, perhaps back in Dubai under a new passport number. I never learned his name or very much else about him, but he made his presence felt every time I had to interface with the UAE government. Each new residence visa issued in Sharjah had to go to the capital of Abu Dhabi for security clearance, and it became so difficult to open a new bank account that I eventually abandoned the application.

Occasionally, I would be told that I could call UAE Gate’s Abu Dhabi office the morning of any flight, at least three hours in advance, to get myself cleared. Upon doing this, the official would promise, my card would—surely, definitely—let me through. It seemed almost more trouble than it was worth, but after first hearing about this option, I tried it out the next few times I flew.

It worked zero times.

When I got that new machine-readable passport, I pranced to the UAE Gate office with renewed enthusiasm before being told that the card was linked to the visa in my old passport, and all I could do was to wait out the last year of my visa. It finally happened on a Hong Kong trip this May, and I entered and exited on my new card without any fanfare, almost disappointed after all these years when it finally worked.

And one summer during college I actually got that “welcome home” at JFK—from a grizzled old white man—shocking me into such a daze that I’m still not sure if it entirely happened.

Dubai Airport has recently overtaken Heathrow as the world’s busiest for international travel, and authorities have announced that it will be upgrading to a new system using IOM, or Iris on the Move technology. With it, identification and clearance will be essentially instantaneous. It’s like an E-Zpass for humans—the passenger need only walk through it, without even having to pause to look into a camera. An interim “smarter” eGate was recently piloted in Dubai. It couples biometric passports (India doesn’t issue these, of course) with a retinal scan and promises to halve the processing time down to 15 seconds. IOM is expected to be operational sometime in 2015, and the UAE Gate will soon be phased out. In spite of myself, I’ll be sorry to see it go.

As for my passport doppelganger, I never felt anything more than mild irritation. Sometimes I wonder what really happened to him. He had been deported just before the global financial crisis, and perhaps he lost his job. I hope he landed on his feet. Perhaps I’ll meet him one day in Dubai and never know it.