PHOTO: Author Mem Fox has quite the border tale to tell. (Photo via Flickr/Mosman Library)
“They made me feel like such a crushed, mashed, hopeless old lady and I am a feisty, strong, articulated English speaker. I kept thinking that if this were happening to me, a person who is white, articulate, educated and fluent in English, what on earth is happening to people who don’t have my power?”
The above are the words of Australian children’s book author Mem Fox, as told to The Guardian.
It’s part of a harrowing account of the moment she was detained and questioned by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents. Fox, who is the author of such books as “Possum Magic” and “Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes,” was asked to step out of line on what she says was the 117th trip into the United States.
The moment came at Los Angeles international Airport during a recent trip wherein she was headed to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to deliver a speech on diversity—a twist of irony that will become clear shortly. According to Fox, who spells out the entire ordeal for The Guardian, officials believed she was in the country on an incorrect visa.
What played out was something ripped from the pages of a crime novel when the protagonist has to wait out time in a holding cell.
Fox paints a vivid picture of what some International travelers have to deal with when entering the country, coming face-to-face, literally, with a border agent.
Fox is a well-regarded author, but, as she asserts in the quote posted above, there are some who don’t have the voice that she has.
One person in the holding area was a particularly apropos subject: “There was an Iranian woman in a wheelchair, she was about 80, wearing a little mauve cardigan, and they were yelling at her—'Arabic? Arabic?.’ They screamed at her ‘ARABIC?’ at the top of their voices, and finally, she intuited what they wanted and I heard her say ‘Farsi.’ And I thought heaven help her, she’s Iranian, what’s going to happen?”
As Fox tells it, she was detained in a small room with no toilet. She was there for an hour and 40 minutes when finally, she heard her name. Rather, someone else cautioned that they were calling her name. The author was trying to immerse herself in a book and had missed her name.
She writes that she suddenly heard, “They are calling for Fox.’”
The 70-year-old author continues: “I didn’t know which booth to go to, then suddenly there was a man in front of me, heaving with weaponry, standing with his legs apart yelling: ‘No, not there, here!” I apologized politely and said I’d been buried in my book and he said: ‘What do you expect me to do, stand here while you finish it?’—very loudly and with shocking insolence.”
READ MORE: Donald Trump, Travel Ban Blamed For Drop in NYC Tourism
Fox continues: “The way I was interviewed was monstrous. If only they had been able to look into my suitcase and see my books. The irony! I had a copy of my new book 'I’m Australian, Too'—it’s about immigration and welcoming people to live in a happy country.”
Things became rather sensitive during a perilous moment. Fox explains to The New Yorker: “I was close to collapse. He (border agent) told me that I was traveling on a visa illegally, which I knew not to be correct, but I was not about to argue…I said, ‘It’s probably going to be my last trip to the United States anyway.’”
The officer took umbrage with the comment: “At this, he reared up and said, ‘Did you say that before to anyone?’ I was determined to maintain my dignity. I told him that perhaps I was too old to work and travel so intensively, and perhaps younger people could give speeches. And he said, aggressively, ‘Well, maybe you haven’t been teaching them well enough!’”
Her talents and prestige as an author led to an ending so congenial it’s rather chilling.
The author explains that one of her books had been gifted to Prince George. Officials looking over her documents discovered this and decided Fox had had enough.
“He held out his hand and said: ‘It’s been a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Fox.’ I was close to collapse, very close to fainting, and this nearly broke me—it was the creepiest thing of all,” Fox proclaimed.
The part that might break some Americans is that this ordeal, hardly an isolated incident, negatively colored this wonderful country and its value as a welcoming nation for the prolific traveler.
Fox states: “In that moment I loathed America. I loathed the entire country.”
The American embassy, as well as fellow authors, have apologized to Fox. After some consideration, she has some thoughts as to what may have transpired: “I am a human being, so I do understand that these people might not be well-trained, but they now have carte blanche to be as horrible and belligerent as they want. They’ve gone mad—they’ve got all the power that they want but they don’t have the training.”
Through it all, Fox asks a very simple but profound question, “What on earth is happening to people who don’t have my power?”
It’s the 80-year-old lady sitting in a wheelchair who can’t speak English. Those are the people who will find a new, possibly insurmountable hurdle, to entering and enjoying this land of acceptance and tolerance.