Yes, I’ve been in the news.
Well! I’ve been in the news. Read all about it below, including my own take on events.
But first, my latest, and one of my most passionate books is out and about today, and sitting on the shelves of bookshops, waiting to be loved. It’s called I’m Australian Too. The illustrator, Ronojoy Ghosh, whose feet I kiss, became an Australian citizen in 2015. The story behind the new book, and my reading of it, can be found elsewhere on this site. It was meant to be a happy, up-beat book but it seems everyone’s crying over the last three verses. I hope that’s a good thing.
And here’s why I’ve been in the news:
On my way to present the opening keynote at the Wisconsin State Reading Association conference in Milwaukee, I was held up for almost two hours in immigration at LA airport. It was Week Three of President Trump’s administration: Monday February 6th.
I was interrogated as if I were a some kind of prisoner, in a holding room, in full public view and hearing of everyone in the room—and was kept standing throughout, imagine, because I was earning an honorarium from the conference. The Border Control patrol officer said I was ‘working’ and had come in on the wrong visa. He was wrong, as it turned out. I was right. I knew I was right. It was my 117th visit to the USA, after all. I had every contract and international tax form filled out correctly, in my hand-luggage. The interview was terrifying. The insolence of the officer was like a physical attack. By the time I got to my LA airport hotel I was shaking. Less than two hours later I woke from a sleep sobbing. (Remember, I’m 70 years old. 71 in a few days’ time. Arrgh.)
I am ageing and white, innocent and educated, and I speak English fluently. Imagine what happened to the others in the room, including an old Iranian woman in a mauve cardigan, in her 80s, in a wheelchair. I heard and observed everything. We all did.
My beloved America editor, Allyn Johnston, to whom I wept on the day it all happened, was all for making a big fuss. She thought I should send a complaint immediately to the immigration office at LA airport. She was so on fire about it that she wanted me to make it known to the American media. But I was drained and exhausted. And I needed to be sure of getting to the conference and getting home safely. The only thing I did, at her insistence, was to write it all down in my journal: 19 pages. It took two hours. I wrote everything that had happened, almost in script form. So, anyone who might query the details or veracity of my story needs to be careful where they tread.
My daughter, Chloë, who was a journalist for seven years, cried on the phone with protective rage when I told her what had happened, and she’s a feisty, resilient woman who cries so rarely I can’t remember the last time it happened. She was outraged on my behalf. She said it was an appalling story and that the media should be alerted.
Once again, I said no, no, no. I wanted to leave it behind completely and move on. I don’t like dwelling on the past, over things that can’t be changed. I pride myself on being resilient. Besides, when I arrived home, my terminally ill sister was my main concern. Our other, Italian sister was here to be with her, and there was a lot of coming and going. And I was tired beyond belief, having flown to and from the America in seven days, door to door, with a chest infection I’d picked up in Milwaukee, making the 15-hour flight home particularly dreadful. As far as I was concerned the whole hideous episode was over.
Then last week: Feb 24th, I was interviewed by Deborah Bogle—a journalist at my local paper, the Adelaide Advertiser—about my forthcoming book: I’m Australian Too, published today March 1st. In the interview, I told her about the irony of my book being about welcoming immigrants after I’d just had such an unwelcoming experience as an immigrant to the United States. Her subsequent article exposed the LA airport story. It was taken up worldwide over the next few days. It hasn’t stopped.
My publicist is unhappy. The story of my entry to the US has almost overshadowed the publication of my book. (Sorry, Sarah! I promise to work hard on the book tour.)
But the way my story has snowballed to include the airing of stories of the many others who have suffered similarly disgraceful treatment by immigration officers makes me proud, even though my telling of the story was neither brave nor purposeful, simply an accident of timing. The focus is where it should be, but the question remains: if this can happen to me as an ageing, educated, articulate, white English speaker, what on earth happens to those who aren’t like me?
The New York Times reported this on February 26th, which I found shocking, but not in the least bit surprising:
The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said on Tuesday that the president wanted to “take the shackles off” of agents, an expression the officers themselves used time and again in interviews to describe their newfound freedom.
“Morale amongst our agents and officers has increased exponentially since the signing of the orders,” the unions representing ICE and Border Patrol agents said in a joint statement after President Trump issued the executive orders on immigration late last month.
I contacted the Australian embassy in Washington, for comfort, hours after I had arrived in America. They were wonderful. I didn’t contact any American officials until I returned home, at which point I complained politely to the American embassy in Canberra. They, too, were fantastic. It was obvious from their very kind email that they felt my pain and were embarrassed by what had happened to me. I took their email as an apology and thanked them profusely for getting back to me within hours of my having contacted them.
Despite all this, the world is full of good-hearted people. I’ve received hundreds of messages of love, outrage, and a support from Americans whom I have never met and never will. I can’t begin to acknowledge them personally, but I want you all to know what a comfort you have been, what a difference you have made, and how deeply touched and grateful I am.
In a few days’ time, I’ll let you know the other lovely things that have happened since I last wrote in December.
Best of all, I still have two sisters.
Mem Fox March 1st 2016