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After 9/11: Processed by the INS

By Diane Bell - posted Wednesday, 22 February 2012

I spent 17 years in America, exciting, frustrating years. The intensity of the intellectual life of the northeast of the country suited me. The energy and creativity of my multicultural, multilingual colleagues and students buoyed all of us who took the role of Higher Education in social change seriously. My Australian accent was always good for a laugh but did not hamper our robust discussions about U.S. democracy, human rights and media. I travelled in and out of the U.S. on my Green Card and was never tempted to take out U.S. citizenship. I was an Australian who was living and working in America.

On September 11, 2001, everything changed. I was in Washington DC when the twin towers came down. We all know that image. Less iconic is the shattered slab where American Airlines 77 smashed into the Pentagon. My office at George Washington University was six blocks from the White House. I reasoned the closer we were to that building, the safer we were. It might be a target but it would be protected. So together with my students, faculty, staff and maintenance workers, we gathered in the basement of a 19th century row house and watched a flickering television as the story unfolded. We did not emerge till dusk but that is another story.

Today, my story is about the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service now part of the Department of Homeland Security), an agency which, in the period immediately following 9/11, routinely terrorised non-citizens as a belligerent nationalism flourished. It was like a switch had been thrown. Open minds closed: suspicion of others, a license to hate wrapped in yellow ribbons of peace, a hot line to inform on unusual behaviors, flags draped over bridges, repressive legislation. It was no longer OK to be openly critical of U.S. foreign policy. Absolutes reigned: the axis of evil tipped us non-citizens into an undifferentiated block to be feared, corralled and processed.


2002: I landed in San Francisco after a long international flight. I handed up my Green Card and waited for the questions that usually followed, but this day the immigration official was not looking at me. He was flipping through my passport, looking at where I’d been, taking his time, and looking at his computer screen.

How long have you been away?

Three weeks. 

How long have you lived in this country?

Fourteen years.

And you’re not a citizen?


No, but I am very pleased to be home.

I learned to say this. Each trip I took after 9/11 entailed some edgy-to-hostile questions by U.S. immigration officers, an under-current. This immigration officer cared little about how happy I was to be back home, which I truly was. He stamped my passport and told me to fill in an I-90.

Just go to the INS website and download it.

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Article edited by Jo Coghlan.
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About the Author

Diane Bell retired as Professor Emerita of Anthropology at George Washington University in 2005 and returned home to Australia to write but was soon swept up in the struggle to return the MDB to health. Diane has published ten books including Daughters of the Dreaming and Ngarrindjeri Wurruwarrin and numerous articles. Her current research is amongst the peoples she calls the 'Water Tribe'. Professor Bell is currently Writer and Editor in Residence at Flinders University and Visiting Professor in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Adelaide.

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