File this one under…I don’t know what. My story begins with the desire to get cheap airplane tickets to visit our family in Germany this winter. Simple: Leave at an uncomfortable hour, fly Christmas Eve, save $200 per ticket, and still arrive at Grandma’s in time for Christmas breakfast. Anyway, we arrived at the Sacramento airport, produced tickets, passports, and so forth, and off we were to Chicago. In Chicago, out came the boarding pass, our passports were scanned again, and last flight was off to Frankfurt am Main. We arrived at Frankfurt, and off we go to German immigration, and…no passport. My wife and I looked at each other. I thought she had my passport, and she thought I had it. Back to Lufthansa, and a hurried request to search my seat area. We couldn’t go back on the plane, but they called the cleaning crew, which said the passport wasn’t there. But that was o.k., Lufthansa assured me, and I could just take it up with German immigration. The man at Lufthansa assured me that this happens all the time—even daily.
German immigration called Lufthansa again, and the airline lackadaisically responded that they could not find my passport. The immigration officer asked for my national identity card, and I offered them my California driver’s license, credit cards, and every other government issued picture i.d. I had. The immigration officer complained that the Americans never did have proper identity documents like every other country in Europe. I shrugged—what else could I do? Now German immigration started to get real concerned, and asked me to go to the airport’s police station There they found the supervisor who came out and explained that there were only three options left which were for me to:
a) Volunteer to deport via Lufthansa, or
b) Have a police case and then be forcibly deported, or
c) I could call the US Embassy, and in the highly unlikely event that the Embassy were there and cared, they could issue me travel papers and I could pass through customs. As an addendum, the German immigration officer noted that the US Embassy was the most unhelpful in Germany, and unlikely to be of any help to me at all, so I should be ready to get back on the next plane out.
Trying to be helpful, the police officer who was enforcing the “deportation” order pointed out that I was lucky that this was not happening in some “African country.” Having had a lot of experience with African Immigration officers (none of whom ever deported me), I started to think about why I thought that was not true. But then I just shut up, and decided to save all that for a later blog.
Anyway, to get to the point. I was at the point in deportation proceedings when you realize you are in real trouble with the law, get cotton mouth, and visions of that Tom Hanks movie “The Terminal” in which a man-with-no-country spends months in the airport of New York start to appear in you head. Feebly, I asked for option c), since somewhere I had heard that the US Embassy had managed to persuade German Immigration to let the CIA pass through Frankfurt on their way to being “renditioned” to third countries unknown. Any consular official who persuade German Immigration to let a terrorist through, could surely spring a careless hapless tourist out of the Frankfurt airport’s immigration office on Christmas Day! So German immigration called the Frankfurt Consulate of the United States who, as the German officers predicted were not present. Indeed, there was only a German language recording indicating that they were closed for Christmas Day (that Friday) and the following weekend, and would re-open only on the following Monday. Finally I did get the “emergency duty officer” at the US Embassy in Berlin on the police station’s phone. I asked him what he could do, and he too had a decision tree, which went something like this:
a) First he asked me for my birthdate. He also did not want to see my driver’s license, or any other i.d. He told me that I had not entered Germany because I was not past immigration (duh!), and that is up to Germany anyway, because they are a sovereign country and they do not have to admit and can deport me if they want,
b) He added that for the Americans to do anything, I would have to go to the Frankfurt Embassy, and since Christmas was (obviously) a holiday I would have to wait three days until the following Monday. And since Germany was a sovereign country, which I hadn’t even entered, this was therefore not his problem, they could deport me for not having any documents, even though the US Embassy was the only entity in Germany who could provide those documents, and
c) Germany was a sovereign country and basically my carelessness was not the US Embassy’s emergency, and anyway, he really didn’t know who I was, or for that matter much care.
So now I am down to a choice between “voluntary” or “involuntary” deportation. Helpfully, the German Immigration offered to strong arm Lufthansa into getting me on the next plane back to the United States. Another officer pointed out that I could show up in America, and get a new passport lickety-split, and then get back to Germany (I guess they have never applied for a US passport—there is nothing lickety split about that!)
Suddenly I knew that I was not going to make it to grandma’s for Christmas breakfast, or lunch, and probably not even New Year’s. I offered to live inside the security zone at the Frankfurt Airport until Monday (more visions of the “The Terminal”) but the Germans thought that that was a bad idea too—if I was going to live in an airport, it was going to be an American one.
My wife, who had loyally (and “voluntarily”) waited with me behind the locked door at the police station started to imagine how we would spend the “Christmas Holiday” in different planes and continents. Half way through this conversation, our friendly police officer appeared behind the bullet proof glass. He gave a big thumbs up sign: My passport had been found by Lufthansa! The only problem was that it was taken to the Lufthansa lost and found which was outside the security perimeter where I couldn’t go because—I didn’t have a passport. But not to worry, a patrolling police officer would pick it up and bring it to us. In the meantime, we could go get a cup of coffee.
The passport did turn up about an hour later. The patrolling police officer who brought it came in with a big “Ho Ho Ho” and we had another great conversation about the nature of immigration law, and why it was dangerous for Germans to go to Africa. But again that is for another blog.
For every story there is a moral, I suppose, and the most obvious one for this blog is:
a) Always keep track of your passport. Don’t lose it on a plane.
And here are some more morals:
b) The US Embassy in Germany doesn’t work on Christmas or weekends, and unless you are a kidnapped terrorist from Italy, don’t expect much help from them on any day.
c) German immigration officer can be really nice, but they also follow the rules.
d) If you are in trouble on a border somewhere, try Africa. Like I said, those stories are for another blog.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.