Last year before Thanksgiving I was helping my boyfriend Sherif apply for the United States tourist visa so that he could come with me to the United States to meet my family.

We were told many things about the application process.

We were told what we should say so that he would be more likely to get the visa. (Don’t say that he is your boyfriend or else they will think he is just using you to immigrate.)

We were told what he should do when he goes in for his interview. (Wear nice clothes, but not too nice. Don’t smile too much and act bored like the interview isn’t a big deal.)

We were told all the reasons why we shouldn’t worry about his application. (He will definitely get the visa because he is white, has an American accent, and is a Christian.)

We were told many things but none of it mattered: he was denied the visa on the spot.

We never lied to the government about the nature of the trip. But as a young Arab male with a sizable amount of money, no family history of USA visas, and a looming mandatory military service, Sherif was denied on the grounds of INA Section 214(b):

Did not overcome the presumption of immigrant intent, required by law, by sufficiently demonstrating that you have strong ties to your home country that will compel you to leave the United States at the end of your temporary stay.

I was more devastated than I anticipated. I had prepared myself for that outcome, but I didn’t expect the gut-wrenching reality that our movement could be restricted indefinitely. But not from money or circumstance or any of those likely variables: but from a vague blanket ruling that at any time can say thanks, but no thanks.

Because for me it always had been and always will be, so much easier. 

The privilege of the Western passport lies in its ease of movement and priority of passage and security for its holders. If you have a Western passport you will be able to:

  1. Visit and travel to most countries without a visa or gain a visa on arrival at little to no extra cost.
  2. You will have priority of travel and passage.
  3. In the event of an emergency you will be placed on priority for evacuation or emergency services.

What does that mean for non-Western passport holders?

  1. You will be subjected to a visa application process that is never guaranteed to get you a visa. This process will include paperwork, bank statements, and a personal interview. The entire process can take up to three months to complete.
  2. You will not have priority of travel and passage. Your movements will be scrutinized and your motives for travel will be questioned. You will not be moved to the front of the line or awarded an airline upgrade.
  3. In the event of an emergency your safety will be the responsibility of your embassy.

Number 1 for Western and non-Western passport holders is easy enough to understand. While my American passport gains me visa-free entry to 154 countries, my boyfriend’s Egyptian passport can only enter 52 countries without a visa.

But even if you do get the visa, travel is not guaranteed. Despite how hard it is to get an United States visa, we are still kicking people off planes for speaking Arabic. We have gone past scrutiny and upgraded to Arabophobia, where just speaking a different language gets you bumped off your flight and into a holding cell.

The divide only seems to grow the more dire the situation.

During the 2006 Lebanon War when several countries performed mass evacuations of their citizens, Britain withheld releasing  details of departure points to the media out of fear that “large numbers of people ineligible for the evacuation might start gathering there.”

While Britain urged that its operation wasn’t restricted to British nationals, they limited their efforts to assisting European and Commonwealth citizens.

The United States has an even tighter policy. While one non-American parent can accompany their American children, assistance is not extended to non-American siblings.

What does that mean? Your non-American children are not eligible for evacuation by the United States government. This happens in cases of adoption overseas when you also live abroad. So your adoptive child can have US Citizenship if you live in the United States, but they can’t if you live abroad.

In contrast to American and British evacuation policies, India helped evacuate foreign nationals from 32 countries last year in Yemen. A few weeks later India assisted another 15 countries evacuate their citizens from Nepal during the earthquake that devastated the country.

The privilege and problem of the Western passport, it seems, is it acts as only another line to divide us. Like race, class, and opportunity; we are not one.



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