We were detained in LAX for 2 hours, and this is what happened

One of the most asked question we got from well-meaning friends and family when we made known we were going for our recent US trip (which happened a few weeks after America elected their new controversial president) was:

"Tak takut kena tahan ke?" ("You not scared kena detained ah?")

To which I replied: "Tak buat salah nak takut apa eh hahaha" ("I didn't do anything wrong, scared for what hahaha")

Please don't get me wrong; I'm not trying to be conceited and dismissing the possibility! But seriously guys - WHY should I be scared and what should I be scared of??? I KNOW I have done nothing wrong! And while I KNOW that the travel ban was not right and should not have happened in the first place, at the end of the day, it didn't include the country from where I'd be flying in from. So the best we could do was to prepare for the worst but hope for the best. After all, our Singapore passport is the second most powerful passport in the world, amirite???


Well, this was what we soon found out - so what if we hold the second most powerful passport in the world? 

As long as our names sounds (and are predominantly used by) Muslim, there was no way the TSA was letting us off without additional screening. Lol. And by screening, I mean making us wait 2 whole hours, not allowing us to use our phones and then waving us off with our passports after asking us a few questions about our travel into the US.

Before We Were Detained

We were a liiiiittle bit anxious while waiting to be cleared by LAX's customs clearance because we had a flight to San Francisco, and it was due to fly in 2 hours (our flight arrived at LAX at 11.50am, our next flight to San Francisco was due to depart at 2.10pm but was delayed till 2.40pm). We didn't want to worry about something that still hadn't happened so we patiently waited for our turn.

When it was our turn, nothing seemed out of place - the customs officer was friendly, we made small talk while he typed away at his keyboard, and we were still under the impression that we'd still be able to make it for our next flight. And then he tried to scan Saliheen's passport. There was a beep, and a frown, and then he tried again. Same thing - a beep, then a frown. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my heart, I knew.

 I knew we were going to miss that next flight.


But I'm an optimistic half glass full kind of person! I look for the silver lining of every dark cloud, and I believe in the power of positive thinking in everything I do/experience in life. So I thought, ah no big deal, he'll be questioned for 10 minutes, they'll know he's not a threat (unless he is at a buffet, dude will kill that shit in seconds) and we'll be on our way. Sure, we'll have to run like we've never ran before, but at least we'll be on our way, you know.

Then the kind customs officer said ok let me clear yours first (speaking to me) and he swiped my passport onto his system. Beep. Frown. Beep. Frown. Oh thanks dad, I said silently in my head, because I instantly knew his name which was attached to mine was causing those (totally unfair) little beeps. But I'm optimistic, remember??? I thought to myself "Oh well, at least I'll have to go in with Saliheen and won't have to wait and worry for him all by myself" Lolol.

The customs officer who served us was super nice about it though, and I knew he was really sorry when he told us he couldn't override the system even though he knew we weren't the "bad guys" blacklisted in his system. So he had to pack both of us off to the "reviews room". Which is just a nice politically correct way to say detention room ah.

The Reviews Room

Wish I could show you guys how the review room looks like but we weren't even allowed to hold our phones, let alone use it. The room itself wasn't as scary as I thought but you could tell the mood of the room was very subdued and miserable - not surprising, since most of the people had been waiting for hours for nothing that they had done.

It's just a small room with a couple of counters, and a waiting area. Kind of like a polyclinic? Or like the waiting area in ICA building, only five times smaller. We saw 2 different people being led to the back and assumed that was where the interrogation rooms were, for those that needed further (more intense/intimidating) questioning.

I have to say that even in the reviews room, I remained hopeful. I was hopeful we could still make it on our next flight and I kept telling myself "it'll take 10 minutes, we can still make it, no big deal". 10 minutes stretched to 20, 20 stretched to 30, 30 stretched to 60, 60 stretched into "thank God we paid Virgin America extra during booking, guess we'll have to hop onto the next available flight since we'll miss ours" (See, positive thinking. Lolol)

Inside the Reviews Room

Unfortunately, I can't sing praises for the officers in the reviews room - they were bitter and hostile and mean, especially an Indian female officer who kept circling around the room like an aggressive vulture, shrieking at tired/scared people waiting in the room and pouncing on anyone who made the tiniest move, making sure they weren't holding their phones (Big no-no in the room, maybe she knew people would record her being a total witch).

Another officer confiscated a device from a woman and started berating her in front of everyone, rudely interrupting and talking over her, giving her absolutely NO chance to explain that the device was a music player (iPod). He looked slightly embarrassed when she finally got a word in, and tossed the device back to her, still trying to sound high and mighty when it was him who created a completely avoidable scene.


I'm not expecting friendly smiles, comforting words or free coffee coming from a reviews room, of course, but the people who were waiting for your inefficient asses to get your shit together were human beings with feelings and should be treated with a basic level of decency, especially if they're not even guilty of anything! Is that so difficult???

Anyway. I personally don't think the TSA specifically targets Muslims only, and they probably have different reasons for different people - the people we saw in the reviews room were of varying ethnicity, gender and age, and there was no way we could tell if all of them were Muslims anyway (except for 1, all of the females in the room, including me, were not wearing headscarves and not visibly Muslim)

During our 2-hour wait, there was a Caucasian backpacker couple, an Indian family with 4 young children, Middle Eastern elderly couple in wheelchairs (the wife was the only female wearing a headscarf), an Asian young male who looked like he could fit in with a K-pop band, a couple of Chinese tourists, a few Mexicans, an Indian dude with a turban, and a sprinkling number of guys whose nationality/ethnicity we couldn't determine (they looked like they could go whichever way; Caucasian, Italian, Arab, etc)

The Wait

To be honest, the wait wouldn't have been so bad if we didn't have a flight to catch and if we didn't just get off 17 hours of flight. But we did, and the unnecessary waiting added to our exhaustion and frustration (although the minute we knew we'd miss our flight, we resigned ourselves to fate and let it take its course). Kita dah penat sangat and terus lepas tangan to the point that we barely spoke during that 2 hours of waiting haha.


One of the things that made it frustrating was the fact that we didn't know how long we had to wait; we weren't given a queue number and had no information at all - we were told to just wait. So you could be held for 20 minutes (which happened to someone we know, also in LAX), 1 hour (this happened to our friend in Las Vegas airport, 2 hours (like us), 5 hours or even longer! There was even a possibility of being denied entry after hours of waiting and put into a flight back home, although we were convinced that wouldn't happen to us la.

Oh, an SQ representative came in about 30 minutes into our wait to let us know she'd already taken our luggage off the belt and left them right outside the reviews room, by the way. Silver lining! Someone already collected our luggage for us so no need to wait to collect them anymore..... (Hahaha look at me, grasping at straws..........)

The Questions They Asked

After two hours of waiting, we sighed with relief when Saliheen's name was called to one of the counters. We saw a Mexican woman being grilled relentlessly (and in a very loud accusatory tone) before that (she was one of the persons moved into the interrogation room at the back) so we made sure we were as docile and non-combative as possible - we just wanted to have a holiday, goddamnit!

I couldn't hear the conversation between Saliheen and the officer because he kept his voice low but it was over in 2 minutes, and Saliheen was made to immediately walk out of the reviews room, dude didn't even dare to make eye contact with me haha. My name was called next! Well, technically it was my father's name la haha since that's considered my surname in the US. I could sense confusion in some of the minds in the room, wondering why this female non-Arab person's name is the very masculine "Abdul Malek" hahahahaha

The officer just asked me 2 questions: What are you doing in the USA? "I'm here on vacation" Are you with your husband... the guy just now? "Yes, that's my husband" before he stamped on my passport and waved me away. Bolted out of there immediately! Tak tengok kiri kanan, told myself jangan pandang belakang.


Saliheen was waiting outside with our luggage, and he told me the questions he was asked:

(1) What are you doing in the USA? (2) How long will you be in USA? (3) Who are you with? 

He also told me the officer asked whether he supports PAP or WP HAHAHAHAHA SIAK (This was just my husband cracking a joke, guys, the TSA officer didn't really ask him that la hahaha). Orang dah penat lagi nak bergurau! But that's one of the reasons why I dig him and want him around as much as possible - he makes me laugh even in the face of adversity and extreme post-17 hours flight exhaustion hahaha

By the way, kenapa they couldn't just ask those questions when we were at the passport clearance counter itself eh? We were asked those questions when we were at London's Heathrow Airport too, but it happened while our passports were being checked and stamped at the clearance counter, not after 2 hours of unnecessary waiting in a depressing reviews room with nasty officers. But whatever, goodbye to those suckers and their mean little spirits.

Will This Stop Us From Travelling to US?

N-O. No. Definitely not! We're even toying around with the idea of returning to the US next year, possibly to revisit NYC and LA, quick visit to Las Vegas if we have the time, insya Allah, but only if kita belum ada rezeki anak of course. We also tell ourselves that if we get detained again the next time we travel to the US, at least we'd already know the process and would be mentally prepared for it. Also, lesson learned - next time, we'll fly straight into the state we want to visit first or if need be, make sure our connecting flight is more than 2 hours after we land.

I strongly believe that we shouldn't let prejudices stop us from travelling to see the world, at least not something as unfair as being detained at an airport because you have a name or a physical aspect that reflects your religion. You know you've done nothing wrong, you know your religion is loving and peaceful, so what is there to be afraid of?

It just sucks knowing that all of the excessive security measures we see in US airports are, at the end of the day, just for show. You can Google about security theater or watch this for a quick overview. While I understand that it can help to make it more difficult for terrorists to smuggle in explosives, etc, they're also spending a more-than-necessary amount of budget for minimal results. Menambahkan confusion and leceh and unnecessary delays lagi ada. But what can I do - I'm not an important influential policymaker in the States, just a regular citizen from the small sunny island of Singapore who wants to go to 'Murica for a holiday. Nak tak nak, layankan je la.

3 comments

  1. Omg I had a similar experience from a recent NYC trip!! Except he cleared me but not my husband even though both our passports beeped. Funny. I entered the secondary checks room w him though. Waited 20min for the officer to call out my husband, only to ask the SAME questions we were asked at the primary checks counter!! Nasib 20min je tunggu, kalau takkk confirm kita fed up. We believe these are just threats and scare tactics je.

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    Replies
    1. Ahhhhh seriously tak tau apa the TSA nak tau! Nasib baik the rest of our holidays went smoothly!

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  2. I very recently flew to Houston. Was on a Middle Eastern flight and am most visibly Muslim. I had a smooth entry without further questions or "detentions", Alhamdulillah. There were also other women in Khimars and Niqabs on the same flight as I was and they too, entered with no problem.

    I suppose it depends on the State really. Although, one would think that Texas is a little tad more backward innit? The ease of entry caught me by surprise.

    Then again, who's to know!

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