Under the current administration it’s no secret that immigration is a hot topic. Particularly airport immigration. At every turn it seems everything in their power is being used to stop people from coming to this country because of the fear that they may end up on public support or they may be taking jobs away from Americans. But it’s not being discussed, that maybe, just maybe, these travelers are coming just to visit, to see family, or be a tourist?
The definition of the word tourism literally means “the business of attracting, accommodating and entertaining tourists” and the “booming” economy that certain folks are touting relies quite a bit on the business of tourism.
According to the US Travel Association in 2018 domestic and international travelers spent nearly $1.1 trillion in the United States. That spending directly supported 8.9 million jobs, generated $268 billion in payroll income and $171 billion in tax revenues for federal, state and local governments.
This Gets Personal
On November 6, 2019 my sister-in-law and her aunt, both Venezuelan, traveled from Bogota, Colombia to Washington Dulles International to visit with me and my husband.
But on arrival at Dulles Airport they both were the only passengers from their flight selected for secondary screening at the Customs and Border Protection checkpoint. Although they complied with the process, in fact they expected it based on the current administration’s policies, they were given no pathway to clear the detainment and join us as planned. We can only assume that they were selected purely because they hold Venezuelan passports because there was no other reason, although it was clear Customs & Border Protection was in search of one.
Both my sister-in-law and her aunt had a valid passport and U.S. Visa prior to travel. They were actually in the United States for a few months last year using the same documents. While I understand why “secondary” is in place and I further understand the need to interview and know who is entering the country for our “homeland security,” what happened next is sad, hurtful, infuriating and down right wrong.
After being brought to secondary screening my sister-in-law was interrogated for the better part of 4.5 hours and was accused of everything from prostitution to human trafficking, and even drug trafficking. They also questioned her nationality. A CBP officer told them their accent sounded more Colombian rather than Venezuelan, and inquired as to how they obtained Venezuelan passports.
In the secondary screening search of their personal belongings, CBP located a check from a family friend for $1,500 in my sister-in-law’s luggage. The money was to be used for her two week trip to visit with us. The accusation was made that the check was for “services” rendered as a prostitute. Further, they looked through my sister-in-law’s phone and asked her if she was straight or lesbian based on photos with her hugging her girl friends before she left for this trip.
Later in her interrogation they offered my sister-in-law parole into the United States if she confessed to the “real reason” why her aunt wanted to visit the United States, and suggested that reason was to traffic my sister-in-law into prostitution.
The questioning then moved on to my husband. Why is he here? How long has he been here? What’s his current status? What does he do for work?
My sister-in-law admitted that originally he had claimed asylum but she believes he was a current legal permanent resident (we are in the process, having been married over a year ago). They then lied to her and said: “Your brother lied when he entered the United States to claim asylum, so if you don’t tell us the truth we’re going to have him and you arrested.”
They continued to reveal that they “looked up” his income and stated he “doesn’t make enough” money to support them on their visit this time, nor did he have the funds during their last visit, therefore, they must have broken the regulations barring employment while in the United States. Take note that I was never mentioned, our joint tax returns or my income supporting the household they were to visit also wasn’t mentioned. Threatened with action against her brother and criminal charges against her, my sister-in-law confessed to working in the United States, although she never did. Her aunt did as well.
Admission or Not?
Both of them have stories about working that don’t align, because it’s simply not true. After 4.5 hours, they were deemed inadmissible because they “worked” on their visa. Their official documents show 4–5 pages of “conversation” between each one of them and the CBP officers, obviously omitting every false claim and charge CBP made against them individually and our family. For perspective, can you fit 4.5 hours of conversation into 4–5 one-sided pages of double spaced lines? Exactly.
While their interrogation was underway, we were in search of answers of our own in the terminal. We had been waiting 5 hours for their arrival and we received no information as to their status, detainment, questioning, or whereabouts. My husband had asked Avianca for information and they had none. He also tried using the telephone located outside the CBP office next to international arrivals at IAD, but the voice on the other line simply told him: “If there’s something wrong someone will come out and talk to you.” However, they never asked his family’s name, or his name, so there was no way someone would come out and speak to us as no one knew who we or they were.
“Burn After Reading”
Finally I picked up the phone and was told by the voice on the other end that they weren’t allowed to reveal any information but could tell me they were still there and “you should try to contact them.” I informed the voice that their cell phones only operated on WiFi in the United States, so unless they had access to the internet, I wouldn’t be able to communicate with them. He told me to “try Whatsapp.” Was it luck that the voice decided to give me information or was it because I sounded American? Regardless, my family never responded. Their phones were confiscated.
Finally I located a CBP Officer in the terminal. “I’ve been waiting here for 5 hours for my family to clear Immigration — and I’m not getting any answers. Where can I get information on what’s going on?”
The officer responded by asking their names and, after hearing their names, asked to confirm that they were in fact my family. She then ended the conversation she was having with another traveler and said “Let’s see what we can do.”
She gave me answers. She told me they were in their custody, she told me they “weren’t going to visit you” today and “I cannot tell you why” due to a privacy act of the 1970s. “When they land in the country they’re going to they are allowed to tell you what happened. If you want to do something nice for them, make sure they have a ride home from the airport.” She did manage to slip into the conversation that officers cancelled their visas.
The Answer Is “No”
I asked if I could see or speak to my family, I was told no. I asked where they were and was swiftly told “in our custody.” I asked if they had eaten, had access to water and facilities and was told “of course.” Lastly, I asked if they were together and I was told “yes.” Another Officer appeared and asked her “are you alright?” and she responded with a quick “yes,” then said to us “my guys worry about me.” Yeah, well, we’re worried about our family.
It was also explained that we shouldn’t have been at the airport all of this time and “someone should have” told you that they weren’t visiting us on this day. However, that never happened. It took us doing the legwork to figure it out.
Upset with the situation, my husband and I flew to Bogota, Colombia the next morning to meet his family upon arrival. We have copies of the documents they were handed and the transcript “of record,” which conveniently leaves out many of the questions and lies told trying to coerce information out of my family members. Further, we were told a female officer did the interrogation but yet, there’s a male’s name on all of the documents. My family also informed me that two male officers tried to end the interrogation after 3–4 hours or so, but a female officer pressed on until an admission was made to deny them entry.
During their last visit, I was always around my sister-in-law and her aunt. We traveled to a few sights around the US together and they never held employment. My husband or I paid for everything. Prior to their visit, we tried to keep them updated on the rules and regulations pertaining to the entry process as they changed. But I never thought or could even imagine that I’d need to warn them that they were about to endure a process which accuses them of being criminals and forces them to admit to something they didn’t do. I also never thought I’d need to warn them that they would be fed ultimatums and repercussions which are falsified, not based on fact and were empty threats just to get information out of them, whether true or not.
So, for those of you planning to visit the United States from another country, you could be asked leading questions and the information you give up will be used against you. You are guilty until proven innocent, so long as they even give you the chance to prove yourself innocent. CBP operates on the basis that your entry is not a right but a privilege that is not guaranteed.
You could be told many lies, and you will be issued many threats against you and your family in hopes it squeezes an admission of wrongdoing out of you. You will probably feel a great deal of pressure, but don’t admit to something you didn’t do.
What You Should Do If You Fear ‘Profiling’
Before take off, do a hard reset your phone, or travel with a prepaid phone that is not linked to social media. CBP will search your phone for information they can use to deny your entry. Oh, and to those American’s out there, your phones can be searched too — and yes, without a warrant.
Remember if you are detained, you will not be able to contact anyone, including your friends and relatives in the United States. When booking your tickets ensure the email address listed on the reservation is that of someone you’re visiting. When you’re deported/removed CBP makes a change to your return flight reservation, and any email address on file is notified. That’s how I was made aware that something had gone awry before CBP had told me anything.
Lastly, please remember most Americans are descents of immigrants whether they want to say it out loud or not. The majority of Americans welcome you here to visit your family, see our cities, relax on vacation or enjoy our traditions such as an American Thanksgiving dinner with family like mine planned to do, and the majority of us are disgusted at what you have to go through in order to make your trip here a reality. It needs to change.