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What It’s Like To Be Detained In The US

Ever seen a big red line through your customs form? It is not pleasant.

And as everyone walked left, the stern lady with her button top and glasses barely glanced at me before pointing out, “you go that way,” with a nod to the right.

And just like that, I was cast from the population that walked into the US as a free man and placed in one of the most horrible airport situations I have ever faced.

Thank you, USA. Thank you for your extremely unwelcome welcome.

 

Recently I took a 4-night trip to Cabo with my favourite travel aggregator, Travelocity. The excitement built up for days. I was to attend a Summit with some of my favourite travel bloggers known as the Gnomads. No kids, no worries. Just a single mum making her way to Mexico, with a short 2-hour layover in the US.

The first flight was rough. Over 13 hours from Melbourne to Los Angeles and I didn’t sleep. Unlike most cities I have travelled to, the US requires you to collect your luggage and check it back in when transiting within its borders. Even if you only have 2 hours.

I was exhausted, but I lined up with the throngs of people that I knew would be in LAX. Possibly one of the worst airports in terms of chaos and crowds I’ve ever been to. I usually avoid it like the plague, but Melbourne to LAX, LAX to Cabo was the most direct route and that’s all I wanted – to be in Mexico.

Once through the line, you go to a computer and enter your passport details. It prints out a small receipt. I barely noticed the line through my face and stumbled to the exit.

It was here I was glanced over and told to move to the right to join an even longer queue. My mood changed from exhausted to pissed. But I joined the queue. We all know you don’t have a choice in an airport.

As the line moved I started to release the peevdom I inherited and got excited to be once again at the front of the queue. The American customs agent was friendly enough asking me why I was here, what was I doing.

“Just transiting,” I said.

He nodded and said, “you’ll have to follow me.”

That sounded ominous.

1 hour till boarding

Like a criminal, I followed the uniform officer into a CAUTION NO ENTRY room. Sterile. Uncomfortable airport chairs. An obnoxious TV showing local news. A ridiculously expensive vending machine. And signs everywhere saying no electronics. No phone, no computer, no kindle. Just sit and you will be called. No indication of time. No, we understand your flight takes off in a mere two hours – actually one by the time this all happened.

And so, I wait, wondering WTF is going on. After half an hour I am dreading making my flight and finally, a stern-looking man calls my name. He proceeds to ask my whole life story.

  • Where are you going?
  • Why?
  • Where are your kids?
  • How do you earn money?
  • Why are you here again?
  • How many times have you been here?
  • You’ve been twice in 2 years? Hmmmmm.
  • Where’s your ex-husband?
  • How does he earn money?
  • What’s your current partner do?
  • Why isn’t he here?

And on and on and on. I ask the question, “Why am I here?” And get told by the officer that he is the one asking the questions. Oh, boy did that get on my nerves.

1/2 hour till boarding

I feel my word vomit starting and decide at the risk of ending up in a US prison I was going to give it to him. I asked him again why I was being detained against my will. That I didn’t even have any interest in being in the US, all I wanted to do was get on my plane to Mexico. Another officer came over to take part in the confrontation, I was told by the most obnoxious male officer “too bad, you’re here, aren’t you. You are here in the US. It is a privilege to be here, not a right.”

I almost screamed, “I don’t want to be.” Instead, I say it with patronising patience and tell him my flight is leaving in ½ an hour and will they be paying for my rebooked flight because of all this.

Both officers ask me to wait and leave the room. Another 10 minutes go past as I sit there fuming.

An English lady next to me screams at her questioning officer that she won’t answer one question and they can put her back on the plane to England, she has no interest in visiting the US. I almost wish I had demanded the same. I mean either way if they don’t let me in I have to get on a plane so let me take my freakin plane to Mexico that is now boarding in 15 minutes.

15 minutes till boarding

Finally, the officer returns with my passport. And reveals the big truth I’ve been waiting for. I have a B1/B2 Visa which allows me 6 months entry into the US. As a single mum (WOMAN) without her “husband” to support her they did not think I was a viable person to enter the country and be trusted to support myself.

Um, what?

  1. I have supported my family for the last 5 years through my line of work. Not a man.
  2. I do not want to enter the US, I want to get on a plane to paradise.

I explain number 2 to him since #1 is none of his sexist business.

He again tells me he can’t let me into the US for 6 months, but he is happy to let me in for one month. For goodness sake, “I don’t care,” I yell, “I’m getting on a plane in 5 minutes!”

5 minutes till boarding

He stamps my passport, passes it back to me with a flippant, “Good luck”.

I ask, “Will this be a problem when I’m going home?”

“It should not be a problem,” he promises.

The admin staff issues me a note that says if I don’t make my flight they will bear the consequences and cost.

Then I run. Like I’ve never run before.

Boarding

I am the last to board. They hold the flight having been told what the delay was by airport security. But I make my flight and continue to let all the frustrated and angry feelings melt away as my plane leaves the US and flies to paradise. I refuse to let the issue spoil the only 4 days I have in paradise.

Until.

I fly back home.

Returning back through the US

Oh, yes, that so-called promise was a lie. As I fly from Cabo to LAX ready to rest for 2 hours before my giant flight I get the exact same treatment at LAX. Except this time, an airline staff comes looking for me, telling me and the officers that I am going to miss my flight and that I need to leave. The bored and irritating custom officer releases me to her. And she races me through the airport to collect my luggage, check my luggage and run to the gate.

It’s been several months since the event and my feelings of interrogation and irritation at being treated like a criminal, because I was a single mum, travelling without a husband and kids to Mexico, is still making me fume. For all my wonderful experiences in the US during 2007, 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2016 I can’t bring myself to go back any time soon.

And I’ll miss you my friends, but for now, if there is any other way to get to Mexico that never again involves a trip through the USA, I’ll take it. I really hope things change. And I feel massive amounts of sympathy for all the people in that room who were there to visit relatives or headed for work. For a great country, the unwelcoming committee sure left a bitter first impression and a horrible taste for any future travel.

Quick Pointers

  • Answer the questions as short and as quickly as possible.
  • Remind them you have a flight to get to that you cannot miss.
  • Also, pack a book, the no electronics rule was torturous.
  • Avoid layovers in the US. Not only is transit a pain in the ass where you have to collect your luggage and recheck it. The customs process is a nightmare.
  • Travel with someone to or through the US where possible. The majority of people in that room were solo travellers. My trip earlier in the year to Texas raised no eyebrows.
  • Avoid LAX as much as you can. Several of my US friends received the same treatment for the same trip.
  • Avoid going to Mexico as a single mum, you’re probably considered a high-risk drug dealer.

I can’t be too hard on LAX, seems Australia also had issues with it (NEW POST COMING SOON).

 

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Showing 25 comments
  • Maraya B
    Reply

    Oh we just went to New York for a girls trip last year and while we didn’t get taken from the customs gates we certainly got a lot of questions about why we were here without our husbands. My sister took her 7 month old baby with us and she was really questioned about why she was travelling without her husband and why she brought the baby to the US with her. It was quite full on.

    • Erin
      Reply

      Australia was similar I remember saying I didn’t know it was a crime for women to travel alone. Let alone unusual in this day and age! Ridiculous.

  • Amanda Kendle
    Reply

    Ugh. Awful. I had a nowhere near as bad but similar experience transmitting LAX en route to Canada once, they could see my ticket, etc etc but they insisted I had to give an LA address before they’d let me in so eventually I just said Hilton Los Angeles and they finally let me go catch my flight outta there.

    • Erin
      Reply

      I know it’s so silly. You could make anything up lol. Like the whole you have to have a return flight. I’ve booked fully refundable tickets which I cancelled as soon as I walk away.

  • James H
    Reply

    It’s not an excuse but was this during the time when border patrol / customs was working with no paycheck. I know I’d be extra grumpy if I hadn’t been paid for weeks 🙂

    Still though, sorry to hear you had this experience 🙁

  • Stacey-jean Inion
    Reply

    What an awful experience. It reminds me of a terrible incident we had a few years ago and JFK and we’re all AMERICANS. I will not answer any questions with a supervisor present first telling me why I’m being questioned and then requesting a lawyer. That’s my right as a US citizen on American soil.

    This upsets me so much that you experienced this. So sorry. I’m glad you were able to let it go and enjoy your paradise in Cabo.

    I’m also glad you wrote about this. Maybe next time travel with a print out of this. If you’re ever stopped again show them this. I think you should have named the TSA officers who questioned you.

  • Amber
    Reply

    I have a single mom friend who had a similar problem arriving in the US facing all sorts of questions about her kids, her ex, her new boyfriend, how her parents feel about her divorce….

  • Mike Howard
    Reply

    Great article. Their line of question was absolutely ridiculous. When we will get past this male-superiority complex and start treating everyone equally? Thanks for your voice!

  • Danial
    Reply

    They don’t even care if you had been to the US multiple times – if you fit the “profile” then they will yank you from the line and start causing all this mess. It’s not just you, many of my friends and family encountered the same problem in this reign of Trump’s America.

  • Danielle
    Reply

    What a miserable experience!! So sorry you had to go through that. I’ve been detained in the US for my Iranian name and the Turkish student visa on my passport (and Russian tourist visa) and I’m an American! Sometimes these people are such jerks

  • Lesley
    Reply

    OMG what a terrible experience! Amazing that you were able to keep your cool as much as you did. I live near the US border and cross it frequently by car – every time I do, I’m acutely aware of how much power and discretion the US border patrol has. There’s bullies everywhere – especially in jobs that wield power. Good for you for making it through relative unscathed.

  • Scott
    Reply

    I don’t understand why they do this, especially to people just passing through on a layover. It is maddening to read this!

  • Veronika
    Reply

    Oh my goodness! I haven’t been to the US for a few years now, but I guess I won’t be travelling there anytime soon.. This is ridiculous. Also, I went to Iran a few years ago, so… No interest in checking out the detention rooms.

  • Alyson Long
    Reply

    And hell yeah I pinned, to my USA board. People need to wake up.

  • Sharon
    Reply

    Oh no that’s terrible! When I went through lax in september (for tbex), I also failed the electronic part and had to go line up to see someone but thankfully they just asked a couple of questions and I was on my way. How frustratingly stupid 🙁

  • Eunice T
    Reply

    This sucks! I’m going to US for the first time in a couple of months and am getting kinda worried

    • Erin
      Reply

      I’ve been to the US many times and this only happened twice (on the same trip) so the likelihood is minimal. But I do feel it has gotten worse more recently.

  • Penny F
    Reply

    What a terrible experience! I have to admit travelling through LAX is not something I ever look forward to. I have been travelling through LAX for the past 7 years and while I have never had a problem, I always think it must be a horrible place to work as everyone always seems so angry and unfriendly. Thanks for the tips – I hope I never need to use them.

    • Erin
      Reply

      you’re right. Even during my time in the US I always avoided lax. Soulless. 😔

  • DeAnna Bastin
    Reply

    I feel your pain. I’m a duel citizen (US/Canada) One time when I was 19 the US denied me access because they thought I was going to Chicago to be homeless (?) – I was on a greyhound bus to visit friends. When I pointed out that I an a US citizen the border agent told me “entering the USA is a privledge, not a right”

    Now I’m 36 and living in the US. I travel solo a lot and going through US security coming home is something I always dread. They inherently think that solo women are doing something wrong. One agent was firing questions at me so quickly to try to catch me in a lie and asked if I had a 1/2 eaten subway sandwich to declare.

    I love traveling and I prefer to travel solo but if I had an option to not go back to the US right now, I would take it. Sadly my boyfriend, dogs and job are there so I’m tied down. :/

    • Erin
      Reply

      yes exactly the same Line! It’s a privilege to be here 😂😂😂 I’m transiting. I don’t want to be here. Lol. That sux about Chicago. Ur going to be homeless, oh my.

  • Elisha
    Reply

    Oh Erin, everything about this is terrible! What a ridiculous reason to question a person, so sexist! I enjoyed reading it though, very well written, you had me angry with you!

    • Erin
      Reply

      Thanks, Elisha. Sometimes those stories just bust out of us. I’m glad it’s entertaining and a good story now that it’s over.

  • Elaine Masters
    Reply

    I’m so angry about this. US Customs & ICE Officers have been given carte blanche to just “go do their jobs” without proper training, vetting or transparency. I have a US passport as a citizen but if it weren’t for family situations I’d move to Mexico! I’m glad you’re writing about this.

    • Erin
      Reply

      I was angry too Elaine. Am still angry. Do you find treatment is better with a US passport?

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