It isn’t hard to fathom what angers so much of the world about America: its galling arrogance. This fuels a sense of impunity against being accountable for mistreating others. Hence, the term “The Ugly American” used to describe U.S. citizens who travel abroad and refuse to respect the sensibilities of the countries and cultures they visit.
Since the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center, American arrogance has only grown worse on U.S. soil. An extreme example is the unconscionable torture of terrorist suspects for which the military prison at Guantánamo Bay is infamous. A recent example, hardly world news but nonetheless characteristically deplorable, is the mistreatment of international vocalist-composer Mina Agossi.
She called me in November, due to perform at the Twin Cities jazz club The Dakota in December, and granted an extensive interview. In bright spirits, she reflected on her craft, career, and, when work brings her this way, a fondness for hanging out in Minneapolis and St. Paul to enjoy as she put it, the ambiance of a “progressive atmosphere.”
Agossi, who literally performs all over the world from Europe to Africa to South America to, until recently, the U.S. (she’s now sworn off playing the States), was promoting Just Like a Lady, her ninth album. We’re talking a renowned, veteran artist who is honored by President Nicolas Sarkosy with the Medal of Merit (that’s the president of France, not somebody’s local rotary club).
The article I wrote about Agossi for Twin Cities Daily Planet went well, came out in advance of the Dakota gig, and looked to be part of an enjoyable experience for her. Then asinine, ignorant authority prevailed, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Mina Agossi called again, this time far from upbeat. She was miserable. Distraught, Agossi relayed that the Dakota gig had to be called off. At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, she’d been refused entry into the country.
The difficulty was work visa complications. There was some discrepancy, it turned out, as to whether she had the right kind of visa. Subsequently, instead of what should’ve been no more than a matter of straightening out some paperwork or, at worst, simply turning her around and sending her back home to France, she was locked up.
Not merely detained — she was incarcerated. Under inexcusable conditions. Here is what Agossi told me: She was fingerprinted and put in a room the size of a box. Denied reasonable access to food and reasonable access to the ladies’ facilities. Without being charged with so much as suspicion of having committed a crime.
Wouldn’t they even let her make a phone call? ”No!” she said. “That’s the first thing I asked. And [they] would not explain why. I came so many times to perform in the clubs in the U.S. with no visas at all, and the customs officers were always cool, even wishing me good luck. I don’t even know how to express the huge surprise when this guy — [I] chose the wrong line — stopped me because of suspicion about my coming to jam and sing in the States.
“I have to tell you I have multiple U.S.-admitted entrances on my passport. I even paid a P1 visa in 2008, cost me $1,800, because if you want this work permit you need a lawyer to make sure you receive it. I asked for this work permit because I had to tour on festivals and big venues in the States.
“This was no club tour. This guy stopped me because I [didn’t have] this work permit for a club show. I told him to look at all my entrances. I come every year once or twice a year, and never ever have had a problem.”
Nothing doing: Mina Agossi was treated like she was some sort of undercover scout for Osama bin Laden. ”They asked me things about my father, my mother. They had the guts to scan my credit card. They threatened me saying if I don’t answer, I won’t be able to come back in the States for five years to come.
“I said, ‘I really don’t care.’ Do they really think I want to come back after such treatment? It was five hours! Detained and interviewed in spite of the jet lag of seven hours. It was four am when they started the interview.
“[I was] arrested and lost my citizenship for all that period. I could not touch or know where my passport was. They gave it back to me in [a] plane going to Amsterdam!” And they never apologized for unnecessarily putting her through hell.
I called Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to hear their side of the story. Waste of time. Talk about being led on a not-so-merry chase.
I got an Officer Vanstrom on the line who Agossi said had been there. He wasn’t permitted to discuss it and gave me a number to call at an office in downtown Minneapolis. A woman there transferred me to the public affairs office where, you guessed it, I got yet another number to call.
I called that number and was literally back at square one, talking to Vanstrom again. This time he told me to call the public affairs field office in Chicago. I had a few choice things I wanted to tell him to do but thought better of it. Instead, I called downtown Minneapolis again, got voicemail, and left a message. Which was not returned.
The whole thing is way above and beyond the call of common sense. Common decency, for that matter. And, sadly enough, completely in keeping with the character for which this country, the vaunted United States of America, is long well known.
Somebody’s butt should be in a sling behind this. Won’t happen. Because this country is not now, never has been, nor ever will be accountable for how it treats people.
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.