British Immigration, Eurostar Paris, Hour One
The stocky British immigration officer next to me was chewing out a tiny, timid Asian girl.
“Why did you lie to us?” the stern-faced officer shouted, leaning over the frightened girl.
The petite girl, who was clearly not a native English speaker stammered something about not lying or not knowing what she meant.
The angry British immigration officer continued: “When we first asked you why you were visiting, you said you were just visiting for no particular reason. Then we asked where you were staying and you said you were staying with a friend. When we asked you why you were here, why didn’t you say ‘to visit a friend’?”
I couldn’t hear the soft-spoken Asian girl’s reply, but I could feel her anxiety. The poor thing clearly hadn’t lied to anyone: she’d said her purpose in the country was tourism and then told them she was staying with a friend. Since when are tourism and seeing a friend mutually exclusive reasons for travel?
And yet there she was…stuck in customs and being treated like Al Qaeda.
Eventually, after a few more long minutes of lecturing, they let her through.
I watched her walk through, glad they’d stopped berating her publicly and jealous that I wasn’t allowed to leave myself. I’d been sitting on the same freezing cold bench for almost an hour waiting for the immigration officer (and my passport) to return. I was anxious, but even moreso I was cold and so was the poor, sweet dog, who was curled up quietly in her carrier shaking.
British Immigration, Eurostar Paris, Hour Two
“When did you arrive in Europe?” a pudgy agent with slicked-back hair was taking notes across the cold metal table.
“The day after Christmas.” I said.
“And when was your last trip to Europe before that?”
“So, in the past nine months, based on your passport, you’ve spent six in Europe.”
“That sounds about right.”
“Sounds like you’re trying to establish a base in Europe.”
“Actually, I’m just traveling.”
“No you’re not. You’re trying to establish a base.”
“Excuse me, ma’am, but I don’t understand the problem,” I said, apologetically and confusedly. “I’ve left every country or zone before the time on my tourist visa was up. I’ve never overstayed. I’ve never tried to move anywhere in Europe…I don’t understand the problem.”
“The problem is that you’re gaming the system.”
It was pointless to reason with her, so I eventually stopped. But the irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me. Because I’d been meticulous about entering and exiting on time, I was now “gaming the system.” If I’d not been meticulous, I would have been flagged for breaking the law.
There was absolutely no way to win.
British Immigration, Eurostar Paris, Hour Three
I guess I didn’t really believe I was being detained until hour three. I just thought that, like with the little Asian girl who eventually made it through, they were being nit-pickingly thorough.
Because I wasn’t planning anything nefarious, I’d just assumed they’d let me through in the end. I assumed we’d clear up any concerns. I assumed “travels too much” wasn’t a good enough reason to deny someone entrance to your country.
But I assumed wrong.
I was back in the chairs-bolted-to-the-floor back room again and this time I wanted to vomit or cry (or possibly both at the same time). The glinty-eyed British immigration officer was asking deeply personal, prying questions about my health and my need for an ESA. Despite my utter politeness and cooperation, she’d stopped using reasonable language and started implying that I was a liar:
“You allege that you have $X dollars in the bank.”
“You allege that you have family in the states.”
“You allege that you have a permanent address in North Carolina.”
I’d answered every question politely and directly. I’d not complained once about the freezing cold bench or the three-hour delay. I have no criminal record or history of overstaying my visas. And yet I was assumed to be a liar.
And I was totally helpless to do anything about it.
I couldn’t help but wonder about this process. Does it really take hours to decide whether I can enter your country? Is it really okay for agents to assume we’re all lying without any shred of evidence? And if there’s no real evidence against me, can’t they at least let me sit in a warm room and have a glass of water while I wait?
British Immigration, Eurostar Paris, Hour Four
I was ushered in the scary little back room one last time. This time, I was told that I am not allowed into the UK. The thin evidence supporting this choice was that: A) I’d been traveling too long/don’t have a permanent address in the states, B) I had mentioned I was going to watch a friend’s dog and that is “work,” and C) she believed I was lying about the money I had in the bank.
A smile—no, a smirk—played on her face as she told me I was not coming through.
And that was, honestly, the worst part of the whole day. Even after three and a half hours of patience and politeness, of answering every question, of freezing half to death and never complaining…that horrible, power-drunk British immigration officer was smirking at me. She was happy—thrilled even—to be ruining my trip.
So, there I was. Shocked. Overwhelmed. Crying. Fighting off a panic attack. Being smirked at. And then they stood me up, marched me to a low table and fingerprinted me like a criminal.
When I finally composed myself, I asked when I could try to re-enter. Was this trip totally out-of-the-question, I asked, or if I came back tomorrow with proof of funds, a cancellation email to my friend whose dog I was watching, etc., would I be able to come in?
The smirking officer was, as you may have guessed, completely unhelpful.
“I can’t tell you what will happen tomorrow,” she said.
I tried to ask the question a different way: “I’m asking you if, based on your knowledge of UK immigration and customs procedures, it’s going to make any difference if I fix the reasons you’ve outlined for not letting me in?”
“Can’t you just go home?” she asked sharply.
Dear British Immigration Office: this is a ridiculous question.
Of course I can go home. I can go home and forfeit two weeks worth of rent. I can go home and forfeit the opportunity to go to a really important business conference. I can go home and forfeit the costs of train tickets, change fees, and re-made plans.
Is it so hard to understand that people who have spent hard-earned money on a trip to your country would want to use the hotels or tours or trains they’ve paid for?
The Moral of the Horror Story
I eventually did make it into the UK…after printing out confirmations of my “alleged” funds, changing my plane ticket to leave just after my conference, and taking an early morning train to Calais to catch the ferry instead of chancing another run-in with the smirking Eurostar immigration officer.
Instead of the normal stamp, which allows American passport holders to stay in the UK up to six months, I was stamped in for two weeks—just long enough to attend my business conference.
The smirky agent told me that my passport is now in the system for 5 – 10 years and I’m going to get flagged every time I try to enter. She also said I could try again another time.
To her I pose this question now:
Why the [insert chosen expletive here] would I?
Why would any person spend hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours on accommodations, transportation, planning, and other advance payments knowing that it’s possible—and not just possible, but likely—that they’ll be detained for hours, treated like a criminal, called a liar, and possibly ultimately forced to lose all of those deposits and get right back on that plane?
No thank you.
So, congratulations, immigration office. You’ve just put off this terribly dangerous criminal mastermind with her tiny dog, growing travel blog following, and ethical business.
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