Monday, 13 February 2017

Public Enemy #2356

All the talk about the imposition of a blanket ban on some groups seeking entry into the USA brings to mind some experiences I had with the US Immigration Service a few years back.

I had been travelling to the US for the better part of a decade on a visa, which gave me multiple entries for business purposes for an indefinite period. My entry points varied and I became very familiar with airports at Boston, JFK, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Charlotte. I must have passed through US Immigration dozens of times without any problems. That is, until, beguiled by Richard Branson's Virgin's promises, I took a flight into Newark, New Jersey for an onward connection to Raleigh Durham in North Carolina. My entry went along these lines.

* I walk up to Immigration counter with the expectation of the usual off-hand stamping of my passport (what charm school did they use for the officials?) and then through to baggage reclaim.
* Immigration officer types my details into his computer, does a double take and then calls his supervisor over. They go into a huddle for a while and then I'm asked to step out of line and follow the supervisor.
* I'm taken to a windowless office/cubicle and, with no explanation given, told to wait.
* After what seemed ages, two men in suits came in and starting asking me questions about who I was, what my background was and where I was going. They could not or would not tell me why they were asking the questions, just that some 'irregularities' had been noticed.
* At this point I was quite sanguine and was confident that it would all be sorted out quickly. A minor bureaucratic glitch, that's all.
* They left the room and, again after a long wait, two different men in different suits came in and asked me exactly the same questions as the first two. Again no explanation was given and, when I raised the question of my fast approaching connecting flight, I was told that I would be with them until the 'irregularities' has been solved and, anyway, my suitcase had already been taken off the 'plane. They left the room.
* At this point I remember beginning to feel decidedly uneasy and the thought of being refused entry crossed my mind.
* After another long wait, yet another pair of besuited gentlemen came in and, guess what, asked me the same questions. Again no explanations but they did say that they needed to check a few details with 'someone' before they had finished with me. They left the room.
* At this point deportation seemed to be a real option facing me and I was wondering how I was going to explain that to the company I was working for.
* Then a single officer, with something approaching empathy, came in and took me through where things stood. They were not happy with some entries about me on their system, but couldn't tell me what the issues were. If I could get someone in authority in my company to vouch for me, they would let me enter 'this once' and I'd have to report to the US Embassy in London as soon as I got back to the UK after my visit. I only had one US contact number with me (this was before the days of mobile phones) and was allowed to give him a call. He took the message and said he'd speak with someone higher up in the organisation and get back as soon as he could. This happened pretty quickly and, after a conversation between Immigration and the company representative, I was allowed through.
* As luck would have it, getting another flight to Raleigh Durham was straightforward and I got there some ten hours after I should have, tired but relieved.
* My US hosts were gracious and apologetic for the 'Newark Incident' but, as I could tell them nothing of the reasons why I was questioned, we moved on with whatever I was over there for. I can't remember it ever being mentioned again.

Back in the UK I dutifully went to the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square to see if I could sort things out. Eventually I was granted an interview with a consulate official who was not that helpful and cancelled my visa with a hint of satisfaction. Same charm school as the immigration people? The 'without prejudice' reference on the stamp meant that whatever the issue underlying the problem, if it were resolved, I could still gain entry to the USA if I applied.
For the next few years, every time I needed to travel to the US I had to go to the Embassy to be interviewed personally and get formal permission. It was inconvenient but not a disaster. Eventually, after around 3 years, I found out, by sneaking a glance at a computer screen when I shouldn't have, that the root of my problems lay with some student political activities I engaged in during my undergraduate time (1966 to 1969) in Aberystwyth University. Yes, I was involved in a number of leftish groups but, good grief, this was Aberystwyth not Oxford or Cambridge. The downfall of the Western World was certainly not going to start in Aberystwyth but, having said that, I've always thought that our sit-in protest at the Post Office hastened the end of the Vietnam War. So, maybe, I shouldn't underestimate the threat we were perceived as posing. Notwithstanding this fantasy, no-one could or would explain to me why it took 20 years, from 1969 until 1987, for my murky past to catch up with me. And then, out of the blue, after almost three years, someone somewhere decided that I was not a potential enemy of the state and I got my multiple entry visa back. And after that, absolutely no problems with getting into the USA.

There are a few things about this whole affair that have always puzzled me: who collected and passed on the information about me from Aberystwyth? And how was the connection made between D Parsons Student in Aberystwyth and D Parsons Scientist in Kent? Was this information gathered by the US or passed to them by the UK? Maybe I ought to try a Freedom of Information request to find out. Maybe one day I will.

And does the above give me any special insight into the way that immigrants might be treated by the Trump regime? I'd be fooling myself if I thought that.

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