July 18, 2008

Nightmare Experience at Airport for Fiance of U.S. Citizen

Warning: Always talk to an immigration attorney experienced in fiance(e) visas and marriage to U.S. Citizen immigration cases before traveling to or outside the U.S. or getting married! (Randall Caudle gives free phone consultations on these issues)

Stopped at U.S. Border and Banished for Betrothal: Ann Woolner

Commentary by Ann Woolner

July 18 (Bloomberg) -- Naomi Malca Walls doesn't fit the profile of someone U.S. agents would stop at the border, interrogate for hours, deport and forbid to ever set foot on U.S. soil again.

No hint of terrorist ties lurks in her background, not even a traffic ticket. A 32-year-old photographer and Israeli citizen, she carries no plague.

She expected no complications at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport in March, when she arrived with her soon-to-be-husband, an American, who had proposed marriage three days earlier while visiting her in Tokyo.

Instead, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents detained her for 30 hours, questioned her, screamed at her, laughed at her, accused her of lying, ignored her questions and her pleas, photographed her, fingerprinted her, searched her and put her in a cold holding cell where she spent seven hours shivering and weeping and wondering what was happening, she recounted four months later.

``They made me feel like I did a crime,'' she says. ``I don't even know what the crime is.''

Then the agents escorted her to a plane bound for Tel Aviv.

``I still don't know what's the reason,'' she said in an international phone call this week.

What happened to her is called expedited removal, by which tens of thousands of foreign nationals attempting to enter the U.S. are sent back to their homelands each year.

Finding WMD

``Expedited removal is the WMD of immigration law,'' says Kathleen Campbell Walker, immediate past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. She practices immigration law in El Paso, Texas.

Under a 1996 law, you can be expeditiously removed if a border officer decides either that you lack proper papers or that you are lying about something that matters.

If you know to ask, a supervisor can review the decision. And if you fear persecution at home, you can get a hearing on that.

But in all other cases, there is no appeal, no judge, no lawyer. And sometimes there is no explanation.

Almost 40,000 foreign travelers were speedily booted out from U.S. air, sea and land ports of entry during the last fiscal year, according to the Customs and Border Protection bureau. The number doesn't include others intercepted elsewhere.

Five to Life

Expedited removal brings an automatic five-year ban on returning to the U.S. If agents think the traveler was attempting fraud, the ban lasts forever.

So it was for Naomi, who insists she told the truth and was willing to prove it, to no avail.

Extreme treatment based solely on the discretion of one or two border officials is legal for foreign nationals not yet admitted into the U.S. They have no constitutional right to a fair hearing, according to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Just because they can be treated shabbily doesn't mean they should be. Often, the travelers' only crime is that they don't know the arcana of U.S. immigration law.

``People just kind of stumble into these terrible situations,'' says Walker, who has no connection to Naomi's case but quickly surmised the problem when told what occurred. Naomi's mistake was in not knowing that you can't use a tourist visa to gain entry to the U.S. when betrothed to an American.

No Congratulations?

``I just got engaged,'' Naomi says she told the first agent she saw. ``This is my fiancé.''

``Soon as I said that,'' she recalls, ``someone took me to the room'' where her ordeal began.

Agents assume if you are about to marry a U.S. citizen, you plan to live in the U.S., not merely tour it. You need a fiancé visa, which puts you in the intended immigrant category.

Foreign nationals often assume entry will be easier, not harder, when betrothed to an American. Walker remembers a Mexican who cheerfully drove to the U.S. border in her wedding dress. Big mistake.

If the agent thinks it an innocent error, the traveler can withdraw the entry application, go back home and apply for the proper visa, as many do.

But if the agent thinks the traveler is committing fraud, that's another matter.

``They told me I'd been lying to them,'' Naomi said. About what, they wouldn't say.

But she acknowledges her tourist visa had the wrong date for her divorce, an honest mistake.

And her previous travels to the U.S. may have worked against her, leading the officers to wonder whether she was actually living in the U.S.

Life, not Five

No one told her during those 30 hours that she would be banished for life. To date, the only document they gave her says it's a five-year ban.

Not being schooled in immigration law, she didn't know that the ``6C1'' an officer wrote on her visa means fraud.

As for the other side of the story, a Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman says privacy concerns prevent the agency from discussing individual cases.

Yes, the U.S. must protect its borders, which are so porous that more than 12 million illegal aliens now live in this country. And no, Naomi's experience isn't the most horrific immigration story around.

But it is plenty bad for her and her now-husband, Scott Walls, a business consultant in Tampa, Florida.

Across the Border

Yesterday, the couple met up in Toronto. What comes next, they don't know. She may apply for a waiver, but those are hard to come by and expensive to get, given legal fees.

Walls, 40, says he has always defended the extra security measures imposed after the Sept. 11 attacks.

But these days, he says he is disappointed in what the country has become.

``They take very sound, appealing arguments to the American people,'' such as the need to keep out illegal aliens, he says. ``Then they use that to do whatever they want to.''

Walls says he isn't so sure he wants to live in a country that treats an innocent woman, his wife, the way his did.

That's what happens when power goes unchecked.

(Ann Woolner is a Bloomberg news columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

-Editors: James Greiff, Jim Rubin.

To contact the writer of this column: Ann Woolner in Atlanta at awoolner@bloomberg.net.

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