Welcome Home

by Shaker bekitty, a New Zealand citizen who, until recently, was living with her partner in Knoxville, Tennessee. And she's found that she's not all that fond of riding around LA at night while handcuffed.

[Trigger warning – possible sexual assault and inmate abuse]

I, like Catiecat, have recently had a brush with the US Customs and Border Patrol, and been shown the benefits of privilege. Only my experience was a bit more, well, intense.

A bit of background: In August of 2007, I moved with my partner David to Knoxville in Tennessee. He'd been headhunted by the folks at Oak Ridge National Laborotory, and he'd refused to go unless I went with him. We weren't (and still aren't) married - mostly for political reasons; why should we get married when not everyone else could? - but that wouldn't pose a problem, right? Right?


I applied for a US visa in early July of 2007, and was told that I had to submit myself for an interview with an officer of the American Consulate in Auckland, since they didn't have an office in Wellington, my home town. No problem - I flew up to Auckland, stayed the night in a youth hostel a block away from the consulate, and turned up for my interview the following morning.

I went in to the consulate and waited my turn to see an official. Ten minutes later, my name was called.

"How long are you planning to stay in the United States?"

"Two years."

"You won't be able to do that. The best we can give you is a B1/B2 visa, that will allow you to stay for six months at a time, but you will have to leave United States soil in between those times. And it will get progressively harder for you to gain re-entry into the US each time you re-apply. Who would you be staying with?"

"My partner. He's a dual citizen."

"Your husband?"

"No, we're domestic partners."

"Domestic partnerships aren't recognised in the US. You would be classified as 'single' and you won't have access to any of his benefits. You also won't be allowed to work."

"I am aware of that, yes."

"Where would you be staying?"

"Knoxville, Tennessee. He's got a job there, and is perfectly willing to support me fully."

"Hmm. Alright. You can go home now. Leave your passport. It will be posted back to you in a few days with our decision."

"Thank you."

So I flew back down to Wellington, got my passport (and visa!) a few days later as promised, and less than a month later, we flew to Knoxville.

We were interviewd and searched on our first visit. And over the next two-and-a-half years, I was called into more interviews each time I re-entered the US. In fact, there was only one time that I remember not being interviewed, which was a pleasant surprise.

Anyway, all went reasonably well, and I was allowed back in, a little more grudgingly each time. Until last week.

My plan was to fly from Wellington to Knoxville, with connections in Brisbane (Australia), LAX, and Dallas-Fort Worth. I got as far as LAX.

I got sent for an interview. I'd expected it. No big problem. I'd put aside five hours in LA just in case.

The interview did not go well. I was interviewed by an officer who was grumpy and just wanted her lunch. She accused me straightaway of living in the US, and didn't believe me when I said that (a) I was a New Zealand citizen, and had absolutely no plans to become a US citizen, (b) that I wasn't working, but was being fully supported by my partner, who was also my sponsor, and (c) that we were both planning to return to NZ for good in September when his work contract expired.

"Are you living in the United States?"

"I suppose so. But - "

And before I could explain about the New Zealand tradition of the OE (overseas experience), where young NZers went overseas to live and learn about different countries and cultures for a short time, then returned home to share and apply what they'd learned, she said, "This interview is over. Go and sit over there."

My heart sank. Ohshitohshitohshit.

I sat down, and pulled out my cellphone. David would be waiting for me in Knoxville. I had to let him know what had happened.

"David? I've just had my interview. I don't think they're going to let me back in."


Then one of the Customs officials saw me and yelled "Put down the phone!"

"I've got to go." And I hung up.

A few minutes later, I was told to go inside a small room. Two customs officials, both women, went with me. One of them told me to stand facing the wall, with my hands at head level, palms flat on the wall. Then she patted me down. She paid particular emphasis to my genital area, going over it twice. I remember thinking that if I had been a trans* woman and/or a rape survivor, I'd have been terrified. As it was, I gritted my teeth and simply endured.

Then they took me to a table and searched my bag. They kept holding up various items and asking me what they were. For example, one of them held up some Panadeine tablets, still in their blisterpack. "What are these?"

"Painkillers. Paracetamol - you call it acetominaphen - and codeine. I use them for chronic back pain."

"Do you hold a prescription for them?"

"No. They're an over-the-counter drug in New Zealand."

After my bag was searched, they told me to put it over next to the Customs counter. Then they took me to another room, where I was photographed, fingerprinted, and asked some more questions. Then they took me to another cubicle, where I was interrogated as to my intentions in the US and why I should be permitted to stay. In fact, it was more the case that they were looking for reasons to kick me out.

At the end of the interrogation, I was told that from my answers and my previous behaviour (coming in and out of the US legally? WTF?) had rendered me inadmissible to the United States, but that his boss would make the final decision. I was then taken to yet another room - this one with a TV, a few rows of seats, and two camp stretcher beds - and locked in.

An hour later, I was called back out by the officer who had interrogated me. He asked me a few more questions, then told me that I had been deemed inadmissible to the United States, because I was a prospective immigrant coming in on a non-immigrant visa. He gave me two options: first, I could formally withdraw my application to apply for re-entry, in which case my visa would be revoked and I would be sent home; or second, that I could contest the charge, my case would be heard before a judge, and the possible outcome for me would be forcible deportation, cancellation of my visa, and no chance of being allowed back into the US for at least five years.

I chose the first option.

Then he said "You have the right to have us call your country's consulate if you wish."

Thinking that the consulate couldn't really do anything much in my case, I said no. In hindsight, though, that was a stupid thing to do, and I should have taken that offer. Because at least then the consulate would have been aware of what had happened to me, and would be in a position to make others aware of my situation should the need arise.

I was told that I would be taken to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement holding facility in downtown LA in a few hours. Then they locked me back in the lounge again.

I took the opportunity to get some sleep.

Two hours later, some more officers came to take me to the ICE facility. They gave me the option of being handcuffed or not. "Are you going to come quietly?"

"Of course I'll come quietly."

I found out later that if I had been Latina, I would not have been given that option. But because I didn't speak Spanish and didn't have brown skin, I didn't have to have the handcuffs. Privilege, right? Because I was an "alien", but not an "illegal".

"Can I take my medication with me? I have chronic pain issues that might flare up if I'm not careful."

"No, the nurse has meds at the facility. You'll be fine."

While we were waiting outside the ICE facility, one of the officers let me use his phone to call David, who was frantic with worry. I told him the bare bones of the situation: how I was refused entry, I'd be spending the night in a holding facility in Los Angeles, they'd be putting me on a plane tomorrow night, and how (up til then) I'd been treated fairly.

Then we entered the facility, and the dehumanizing process began.

(I would like to emphasise at this point that apart from the pat-down search, the US Customs and Border Patrol staff at LAX had been courteous, professional, and sympathetic. And in some cases, almost friendly. This was not the case with the officers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, however.)

The moment I walked in the door, I was no longer considered a woman. I was a "female". I was not human; I was a detainee.

I was taken to another room and given another search. This one (thankfully) did not put her hands anywhere near my groin, just my legs, arms and torso. And my shoes.

I was then taken back out to the main reception area, given a paper bag, and told to put all my valuables into it. Including my $2 mood ring, my $3 watch, and... my bootlaces. And anything else I was carrying of value - my wallet, my MP3 player, and the water and food that I had been given by the officers at LAX.

I didn't know why I had to put the bootlaces in the bag. I think that if I had asked, I would have been told that it was "for my safety". However, since I was only able to shuffle slowly around, I believe that it was a ploy to dehumanise the detainees further.

Then I got taken along with two other women to get food, and then we were all taken to Tank 6, where we would be staying for the next 24 hours.

During this time, my partner David was getting more and more frantic. After I'd hung up on him so abruptly, he'd immediately posted to his Facebook account about my plight. My second phone call - the one I'd made outside the facility - only alleviated some of his worries. He'd tried calling the USCBP people at the airport, and they hadn't told him anything. Even though they knew he was my partner, and I'd asked them especially to call him and let him know what was happening to me.

As far as anyone who knew me was concerned, I was missing in custody.

In Tank 6 with me were 16 other women, 15 of whom were Latina. The remaining woman was Russian, and was going to be deported after she'd been caught while driving under the influence of alcohol for the third time. She'd just spent six months in Santa Ana Prison, and was still wearing her bright orange uniform.

I was the only woman who didn't speak Spanish.

One of the women came over and talked to me for a bit. She told me that she'd been living (legally - she'd had a green card) in the US for 31 years. Her children were American, her grandchildren were American. She was a mechanic. She'd been fixing her car, and needed water for her radiator. So she walked across somebody's front lawn to get to a tap. And the people who owned the lawn had charged her with trespassing. So the authorities had canceled her green card and were deporting her back to Mexico City.

Another woman had recently arrived from Guatemala, and had applied for refugee status because she feared for her own and her family's safety. Where she had lived was overrun with gang violence - they had tortured her brother, who was a police officer, and had threatened that they would do the same to her if she stayed in Guatemala. The US judge threw her case out - in his opinion, gangs weren't a valid reason for claiming refugee status; only governmental violence was covered. Never mind that in Guatemala, the gangs were tied up with the government and operated with their authority. So they were sending her back.

Most of the women in the prison appeared to have been reported and arrested for the terrible crime of "Existing While Latina". They hadn't really done much, apart from have brown skin and Latina features, and the ability to speak Spanish a little too fluently.

The guards at the detention centre weren't very friendly towards any of us. For example, at one point a guard came to the door and called out "Diaz! You here, Diaz?"

There was a brief pause, then one woman stepped forward.

"Do you mean me? My surname is Paiz."

"Yeah, whatever. Diaz, Paiz, same thing."

(Cos, like, she's an illegal! Illegals don't have their own names, they're just supposed to answer when you call. Like animals, amirite?)

After a few hours of waiting, we were divided into groups of four, handcuffed to each other, and taken off to find beds for the night in local jails. The problem was, none of the jails would take anybody with health problems, since they didn't have medical staff on site. So they refused me because I'd had an asthma attack five years ago. Never mind that I hadn't had one since; the mere fact that I had had one at all was enough for them to refuse me.

So I went back to Tank 6.

There were five other women there. We talked for a bit, then we were called out again. By this time, it was one o'clock in the morning. We were taken to another jail, where we were all refused entry on medical grounds. All of us. I was refused because of my cataract. I'd had it for 36 years; it didn't cause me any pain; it affected my sight but that was it; it WASN'T A PROBLEM FOR ME. But that was it - no dice.

Another woman was refused because she'd had broken ribs, which had healed two months ago. Another had asthma - she had her inhaler with her, and would have been fine, but "we don't like it when people self-medicate".

So we all went back to Tank 6, where we had to stay for the night. We asked for blankets. We asked for anything to keep us warm. We were refused.

I asked for pain meds, as my back was extremely painful by that time. They said that all they could give me was Tylenol; they weren't able to give me anything stronger.

"Tylenol is an analgesic. What I need is an anti-inflammatory."

"Well, you can't have one. All we have is Tylenol."

So I took Tylenol. It was better than nothing, but not by much.

Now, let me tell you a little bit about Tank 6. It was a largeish room, designed to hold up to 47 inmates at a time. It had off-white concrete walls, metal seating three quarters of the way around it, lights that stayed on at all times, and two toilet cubicles with no doors. It was airconditioned and temperature-controlled... to ~15ºC (59ºF). In other words, it was freezing.

So there we were. Six women, all with various health problems, most of whom had no jerseys or anything with long sleeves, no blankets, no pillows, no pain meds.

Two of us had jackets. All six of us ended up huddled together under them for warmth. Otherwise, it was far too cold to sleep.

The next morning, I decided to call the New Zealand Consulate. I talked to a woman there who said that since it was a matter of US immigration law, there was nothing they could really do. I asked her to ring David and let him know what was going on. I also let her know about how we had been treated the previous night.

We were given breakfast, and then I was called to be taken back to LAX. My plane was to leave that evening.

Again, I was informed that I wasn't going to be handcuffed as long as I promised to behave. While the officer was telling me this, another officer was handcuffing an older Mexican woman to her son. She wasn't given the same choice I was.

Privilege, again.

I went back to LAX, where I took my meds, and then was put back into the same TV lounge. I made a beeline for the bed, took my boots off, and was soon asleep.

A few hours later, I was informed that my plane ticket was only going to take me as far as Auckland, and I would have to arrange transport myself from Auckland to Wellington.

I said "Fine. When does my plane leave tonight?"

"It leaves at 8.50. Someone will be here to take you up at around six o'clock."

"Thank you."

At 6.15, I got my luggage and was taken up to Terminal 3 to check my luggage in and receive my boarding pass. There, I was told that in fact, my plane would leave at 10.20pm instead of 8.50. The officers radioed back to the CBP office, and then said that it was okay, they'd stay with me until it was time for me to get on the plane.

So they queue-jumped me through security, and we sat in the lounge for a while. I took the opportunity to charge my cellphone and PDA - I had a feeling that it would be a while before I could do that again.

The officers escorted me onto the plane when it was time to board, and gave the head stewardess an envelope with my travel documents in it. I was to get them back shortly before we landed in Sydney.

On arrival in Sydney, I was met off the plane by two securty guards. They checked my travel documents, then one of them walked me to the international transit lounge.

He said "I'll walk you to your gate."

"It's five hours until my plane leaves. The gate won't be assigned for another three hours."

"Oh. Really? Okay then, I'll leave you here."

So I sat in the transit lounge and went onto the internet for the first time in three days. I knew I had to let people know I was okay, and on my way home.

My first stop was Twitter. "Am sitting in Sydney Airport after a three-day ordeal. Details to come. On my way to WLG via AKL."

Then I found out what gate I had to go to, and went and sat there for a bit. After a while, there was an announcement that there would be a slight delay, as there was an engineering fault that needed to be rectified.

Half an hour later, it was announced that the flight had been cancelled, and another flight would be leaving at 7pm. This would get into Auckland at shortly before midnight. The domestic terminal at Auckland Airport closed at 11pm.

Two hours before, I had booked a non-transferable ticket from Auckland to Wellington, which was to get me to Wellington at 10pm. Friends of mine had organised a welcoming committee. I had to tell them that it wasn't going to happen.

I flew to Auckland at the appointed time, slept in the international terminal for the night (they have comfy couches), and then made my way over to the domestic terminal to buy another ticket.

Ticket bought, friends alerted to my arrival time, I went to get something to eat and then went to check in my luggage. All done, boarding pass printed, and up to the gate.

Security was easy compared to the US. Although the walk-through metal detector was calibrated way too high, in my opinion - it beeped loudly at my boots, because they had buckles. No other walk-through metal detector had ever done that.

I sat down in the lounge. There was a door to one side of the seats that had a big sign on it: THIS DOOR IS ALARMED.

I looked down at my jeans, which had a small hole in the knee, and thought "My jeans are distressed. Maybe the door and the jeans could comfort each other..."

There was an announcement. The flight was delayed for half an hour. I thought "Oh no, not again..."

Then we were able to board. The flight was uneventful.

As we touched down in Wellington, I had Dave Dobbyn's song "Welcome Home" going through my head.

tonight I am feeling for you
under the state of a strange land
you have sacrificed much to be here
'there but for grace…' as I offer my hand
welcome home, I bid you welcome, I bid you welcome
welcome home from the bottom of my heart

I was met by a group of my friends. "Welcome home."

I'm home, and safe. Thank you to everyone who helped, and who offered support. I'm staying with David's parents. My tasks over the next few days include sorting out travel insurance claims and writing a polite letter to the United States Ambassador to New Zealand, just to let him know of the situation at the ICE facility in Los Angeles.

Nobody should be dehumanised that way, no matter what they've done or who they are. No people with disabilities should be neglected in the way that we were. Nobody should disappear in custody the way I did. But these things happened.

And it's our job to make sure they never happen again.

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