Two months ago, I traveled from London to Los Angeles on assignment for a British paper, The Guardian, believing that as a British citizen I did not require a visa. I was wrong: as a journalist, even from a country that has a visa waiver agreement with the United States, I should have applied for a so-called I (for information) visa. Because I had not, I was interrogated for four hours, body searched, fingerprinted, photographed, handcuffed and forced to spend the night in a cell in a detention facility in central Los Angeles, and another day as a detainee at the airport before flying back to London. My humiliating and physically very uncomfortable detention lasted 26 hours.
I’ve since learned that mine was not an isolated case: since March 2003, when the Department of Homeland Security became responsible for immigration and border patrol, 13 foreign journalists were detained and deported in a similar manner in that year, all but one at the Los Angeles airport.
LETTER FROM A DEPORTEE: Your Country Is Safe From Me, by Elena Lappin, for The New York Times
As destiny would have it, I was one of the 13 foreign journalists that got deported from US in that summer of 2004. I was supposed to go for the E3 games convention and well, I should have just told the Customs guy (who’s Vietnamese-origin by the way) that I was on holiday.
None of us on the trip had any idea that Homeland Security had suddenly become ultra-strict with accredited journos. The other magazine writers on the trip got past Customs without issue, simply because they weren’t seen as “journalists”.
In any case, as I didn’t have a media visa, I was locked up with a few criminals at the airport office for eight hours, deprived of food, questioned (but not handcuffed) and sent packing on the next 21-hour SQ flight home (thank God it was SQ, for the movies and meals at least).
I was also told, for the rest of my life, I’d have to have a visa to enter USA, visa waiver or not, journalist or not.
Well, in 2006, I obediently applied for a journalist visa last year for MacWorld in SF, and to my annoyance, still got carted to the Homeland Security office where they questioned me again to make sure I repented of my past sin. But that was just a slight blip.
Yesterday, I had to fly into Washington DC for the World Young Reader Conference and at New York’s JFK airport, Homeland filtered me to their customs office again.
For 45min, I had to wait for these guys to debate over whether I should be let into the country. All because there was no additional notes in my visa status that I was granted a visa after denial of entry in 2004. I did tell this to the US embassy guys back home but it wasn’t in my online records.
I nervously told the Homeland guys: “Erm, I’ve got a connecting flight in an hour’s time.”
The reply? “Wait please. You’d be lucky if we let you into the States.”
Lucky? I’m only here on business, nothing more or less.
Anyway, to their credit, the Homeland lady officer tried her best to keep calling her superior to make sure I was clear to come in. They kept making sure that I didn’t commit any other crimes (drugs, no passport etc) and finally let me through and thankfully, there was still sufficient time to get to the next flight without sweating.
(God answers prayers, folks)
The Homeland Security officers I’ve met to date have always been very professional and kind, but the processes they have to administer can drive blacklisted journos like me nuts. I know it’s necessary on their end, given the number of anti-US guys around the planet, but please know that the only time when I’m a terrorist is when I’m smacking the kids.