Two days ago I was denied entry to the United States. This is my account of what happened:
I have lived predominantly in America for over six and a half years now. I moved to New York City aged fifteen, and then to Amherst, Massachusetts for my first three years of University. On Tuesday, I was flying to Boston, via Dublin, to commence my fourth and final year of college.
Dublin Airport is readily equipped with U.S.A pre-clearance, meaning you undergo full immigration control on the eastern side of the Atlantic, and disembark Stateside with the statuesque eagles, starred and striped flags, and stern-faced border control agents already behind you. I had found it to be, until two days ago, an efficient way of crossing the pond.
When I reached the normal immigration desk on Tuesday, the officer inspected my paperwork, asked me some questions, and completed the customary fingerprint and photo procedure. He then explained that while all of my paperwork was good, they were double checking everybody given the circumstances. Considering I had ninety minutes until my flight, he said I should still have plenty of time and led me into what was a tightly-packed, boiling-hot waiting room.
I sat there, unsocially distanced, for over an hour. It was not until my flight to Boston was twenty minutes away, listed as ‘Final Call’ on the departures board, that my name was announced. I approached the desk and was asked why I was choosing to return to the U.S to complete my studies, when courses were offered online. I explained that it was my final year, I was paying rent for an off-campus house regardless, and that differing time zones made it more difficult to attend all my classes when in the United Kingdom. The border agent (who, from this point on, I will refer to as McKaren) queried this, and questioned if my classes were at fixed times. I explained, though McKaren remained doubtful, that this is the way classes work, online or otherwise. She asked to see each of the classes I was enrolled in, all of which I provided, yet still she seemed doubtful.
Then the questions turned to my funding. All my financial information is listed on my I20 (a necessary document when travelling on a student VISA), and I also explained that I work preparing sandwiches on the University campus (when on a student VISA, the only legal employment is on-campus, up to twenty hours a week.) McKaren asked if this was my only source of income in the United States. I said yes. She said she did not believe I was telling her the truth.
I insisted I had no reason to find another job. I asked why she thought I would break one of the clearest stipulations of my VISA, and why she thought I was lying? Instead of answering, she began to ask me more questions: Did I have a significant other? Did I have an illegal source of income? What was my real motive for coming back to the United States? I reiterated the reasons I have mentioned above, all of which seemed logical, but was told this was not good enough. I told her I had lived there for seven years, made a life for myself there, and since this was to be my final year, I wanted to spend it in the U.S. I was swiftly informed the U.S is not my home. It never has been. I have never lived there. I was a visitor. I have no right to enter just because I want to, and she does not have to let me in. I said I knew this, but I also had the paperwork to legally be allowed in as a student.
McKaren then said she would have to search my phone for evidence of an alternative source of income. I argued this profusely: I did not see why it was necessary, why she did not believe me, and what made her think I had another source of American income. All she said in response, while I had never raised my voice, was that I needed to calm down, and so immediately. I explained I was calm, but by this time my flight’s departure had arrived and I was frustrated at the prospect of missing a trans-Atlantic flight – the last of the day – when I had all the relevant paperwork in order. McKaren stopped me and said I had two options: allow for my phone to be searched for evidence of other employment, and then make my flight; or, deny her request to search my device and allow the saga to be drawn out over the forthcoming days. It was a no-brainer. I had nothing hide: I have never worked off campus; I have done no under the table work; I have never worked over the maximum of 20 hours a week.
Roughly five minutes after I handed over my phone, another officer handed me a form explaining the process for searching electronic devices (McKaren later claimed that she had not been searching my phone until I was given this form, yet she had spent a considerable time staring at it and swiping the screen if that was the case.) I looked at the departures screen and saw that my flight had been delayed by twenty-five minutes, presumably being held for me. At no point could I see what McKaren was doing on my phone. Without ever providing context, she asked about a series of people I had texted in the past. None had anything to do with employment, and these names varied from close friends to obscure people I must have spoken to once or twice, years prior. The only person she asked about repeatedly was a boy I play Rugby with. He and I had been texting earlier in the summer after he expressed disappointment at the U.S’s initial student travel ban, before it was overturned.
She then asked if I ever smoked marijuana. This had not even crossed my mind until that moment. Confused, spooked, but suddenly realising the severity of the situation I was in, I admitted to having smoked weed in the past. As the minutes until my flight’s updated departure time ticked slowly by, McKaren fell back into silence, all the while searching my phone out of sight. Soon before the twenty-five minutes were up, a flight hostess appeared in the waiting room to escort me to the plane. I overhead her being told (though I cannot be fully certain this was said, for she was on the other side of the room) that I should just be a little bit longer. My hopes lifted. A couple of minutes later, McKaren left her desk and disappeared through a door.
When she returned, she approached the air hostess and spoke to her out of earshot. The hostess gave me a smile, before turning and leaving without me. My heart sank. McKaren went back to her desk, filled in a form, before explaining she had looked through all my photos and text messages, and there was photo and video evidence of me “smoking and drinking at parties in the U.S” and “smoking marijuana.” She said this evidence spanned from my last stay in the U.S, back to when I was in High School in 2015. I explained I was far from perfect, had made some mistakes, but I was a college student; most importantly, this was not what she said she was looking for. This was not what I agreed to. McKaren replied, “If it was child pornography, would you expect me to have overlooked it?” Scarcely believing my ears, I said of course not. McKaren then equated the two as both break U.S law. She also explained, whether I had consented to it or not, if I am trying to enter the United States they have the right to seize and search any of my property.
I asked for water repeatedly throughout this process. The only water fountain was broken, I was wearing a facemask, the room was roasting, and by this point, I was in a state of sheer panic. Still, nearly half an hour must have elapsed after I first asked, by the time a bottle was handed to me. Since my flight (hence my denied case) was the last of their day, there were at least a dozen other border agents, looking and listening to me throughout.
I kept asking McKaren what was happening, and she kept telling me to wait – all would soon be explained but never was. A separate agent then asked me to follow her, and led me into an interrogation room where she said I would have to go under oath. I did not know if I had already been denied entry, whether my VISA was already cancelled, or what the purpose of having me questioned under oath was. Nonetheless, I was told to sit down and they took each of my finger prints twice, as well as two photos of me against the wall. After the second round of photos and fingerprints, I was led back into the waiting room, which I paced up and down, mind spinning, until McKaren asked me to follow her back into the interrogation room.
She sat me down again, and explained that lying under oath was a felony. Those found guilty of doing so faced up to five years imprisonment. I tried to compose myself, knowing this was far and away the most serious situation I had ever found myself in. I asked her if the ramifications of my telling the truth could lead to me being charged criminally in the U.S, and was told the only criminal charges would be the result of dishonesty; otherwise this was purely an immigrational matter.
McKaren asked about my past and the extent of my time in the U.S before University. Then the questions turned to my time at University, and my use of “illegal narcotics”: where, when, what, how; at what price, at what frequency, etc. I was well aware that by this point I was thoroughly – at least from an immigrational point of view, and for lack of a better word – fucked; I was also terrified as to what McKaren was trying to accomplish. Not wanting to give her any grounds to accuse me of perjury and make an awful situation any worse than it already was, I answered all of her questions fully.
McKaren typed and typed and typed. Oh, how she typed. I answered most questions with one word answers, and McKaren typed and typed as if I were delivering one Shakespearean soliloquy after another. Long after she stopped asking me questions altogether, her blue latex covered hands pounded on the keyboard beneath her. Throughout the duration of our interview, the interrogation room was guarded, and since I was the only person left, there were countless other border agents sitting by the door, looking and listening in as my life unravelled.
I cannot explain what it is like: watching your life, or at least the way you envisioned it, implode in front of your very eyes. I found myself alternating between moments of brutal clarity, sheer disbelief, and borderline amnesia as I waited for the nightmare to end; all the while, my stomach churned endlessly and I grew desperate to rid my body of whatever poison was now inside it.
Eventually, long after the questions were over, McKaren stopped typing and explained that I had knowingly broke U.S. federal and Massachusetts state laws. Since some of the events dated back to High School, I had therefore lied when filling out my application for University. As a result, I was inadmissible for entry to the United States of America. My F-1 VISA was cancelled. I would never be able to get an ESTA again. Any attempt I ever made to enter the United States, from this point on, would be dependent on meeting a series of criteria at the embassy in London.
I could not believe it. As I expressed this sentiment, her colleague, McChad, light-heartedly informed me, “It’s not the end of the world.” I told him it seemed pretty close. You must understand, I lived in that country since I was barely fifteen years of age. Whatever adulthood; whatever world I have created for myself, outside the bountiful hand I was dealt, was almost entirely forged in the United States of America. That was mine. You can tell me I was never a citizen or a green card holder or a permanent resident; that I was always a visitor or whatever the fuck else, but that was where I lived, and I firmly believe that my relationship with the U.S was a mutually beneficial one. All of this, all that I did over the previous seven years, exploded right before me, and all McChad could fucking muster was, “It’s not the end of the world.”
“Do you have any questions?” McKaren asked.
“I’ve got a lot,” I replied, “but I guess none for right now.” She said okay, and then the typing continued. The congregation at the door disbanded as the other agents prepared to go home, and finally it was just me, her and McChad.
“I guess I do have a question,” I said, interrupting the sound of the keyboard. McKaren stopped typing and their eyes turned to me. “Do you think you’ve been fair?”
“Yes,” McKaren said confidently, almost laughing. “I pride myself on my fairness and staying within the law.”
“What about good? Do you think you’ve been good?”
“That’s a moral question,” she replied. “That’s not my job.”
The job of immigration officers is certainly a difficult one. It cannot be dictated my emotion or opinion, and I do not doubt that those who do it, do so for what they perceive to be the good of their given country; even McKaren may truly believe the United States is a better, safer place without me in it. Fine. I am unable to objectively assess that point. That being said, I fail to see how eliminating morality from a profession which so directly dictates people’s lives can benefit anybody, least of all the country involved.
There is a fundamental difference between discovering a mistake and searching relentlessly for one; let alone coaxing a lifetime’s worth out of someone with no other realistic options. Naively, I did not see why anybody would go searching for an issue that was not there.
This is a product of my privilege. I have made my fair share of mistakes. I am not perfect. I never have been. I never will be. I will admit this to anyone who asks. Until two days ago however, the best had always been assumed about me. This is thanks to my blonde hair, blue eyes, and well-educated British tongue. It tends to mean, when you look and sound like me, people do not go searching for an issue that is not there.
I am sure what happened to me two days ago has happened to countless others. Even while questioned in my first language, while well rested, when entering a country I have entered far more than most Americans ever will, I found myself pressured into something I did not fully comprehend. It scares me to think how many others, far less lucky than I, suffer the same fate every day. It scares me to think how many others endure days like I did two days ago, and it is not just the worst day of their life, but a day in their lives like so many others.
Eventually, I was told to collect my stuff. It was not McKaren, but McChad who led me back through Dublin Airport, before leaving me with Irish immigration. “We’ve denied him entry,” he told the Irish officer. “He’s all yours now.” Once McChad was out of sight, the Irish officer asked me if I was alright. I stood in shock, clueless as to what to do with myself for the next ten minutes, let alone the next ten months. “They’ve been denying entry to lots of people lately. You’ll be alright…Welcome to Trump’s America.”
From me, for now, it’s Goodbye. And I’ll throw in an overdue Fuck You whilst I’m at it.