The opinions expressed in this article are that of the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of The Saint.
The author is a former student at the University of St Andrews.
Standing in the line waiting to fly to Seattle, I chatted to an English boy travelling to the US for the first time. We joked about how rigorous border control might be. “You’re a straight,white, English-speaking man, you’ll waltz through,” I said. We both laughed. 10 hours later when we landed in the US, we queued for border control together – he was waved through with no problem, but I was not.
Writing this now in a London Pret, it’s almost as though I’ve never travelled to the US. The truth is that 36 hours in detention probably isn’t considered “travelling.” I had been planning my trip for six months, using Workaway to explore the North west whilst getting work experience. When the man at the border asked me the question, “What are you doing in the US?”, I answered honestly and was unconcerned. Even when handed a red card and directed to a separate room, my arrogance was such that I wondered if everyone was directed through to this room. It didn’t actually occur to me that there was something wrong.The room was very cold. It featured breezeblocks with a flickering strobe light and two men at a desk in the corner. There were signs on the wall prohibiting the use of phones,so I pulled out a book and started reading furiously, showing I was unfazed. I was supposed to be seeing As You Like it performed by the Seattle Shakespeare company and was prepared to be indignant if I missed it.
Most people who came in sat down and went on their phone.Some guards warned them against it, and some seemed to take pleasure in confiscating their devices with a disapproving finger waggle. It felt like I was back at school. My name was called, and I went upto the desk. He asked me how I was,and then dove into a torrent of questions. I answered as calmly as I could and looked him in the eye through-out. He wrote everything down, then asked me to go and retrieve my bag and await further instructions.Now I was worried. How long would I be here for? Picking up my bag from the carousel, I was jealous of the people leaving scot-free. “Nevermind!”, I thought. “You’ll only miss the play!”
After several hours, the officer I had been dealing with called my name and we went into a back room.I had to raise my hand and swear an oath that I would not lie.My anxiety levels skyrocketed as realised the possibility of having bro-ken the law. He asked me about my family, my work, my relationships. He was kind, but official, and I was nervous, but I wasn’t scared. I feel it’s important to make that clear. So, there I was, alone in a country where rights that I had once taken for granted meant little. I heard nothing from the British Embassy, unlike what happens on TV. I might be sent home,or even worse, detained. After about two hours, a woman pops her head around. She seems kind and I spring up; I’m nearly crying now, probably as much out of exhaustion than any-thing else. She says they’re still deliberating about sending me home. She brings me some grim food that I eat out of necessity. She checks in every 15 minutes with a kind word.That night, about 12 hours since I landed, the lady comes in and tells me that she has news: I’m not entering the country. Great, home it is.Knowledge is wonderful and at least I know I’m not going to be tak-en out and shot, although I didn’t want to spend a night detained. The lady leaves to check available flights.I hear the conversation she has on the phone. “No flights out this evening.”Great, detention it is.
I feel at this stage of the story it is necessary to check my privilege. The situation I was in was unpleasant, but I was treated with respect (far more than non- English-speaking detainees). And yes, I was heading home,but home for me is a loving family in a country I’m not afraid to return to. In many ways I was lottery-winning-level fortunate compared to some of the poor souls with me.I was taken to the Northwest detention centre in Tacoma. The totally unexpected was happening: I, of all people, was in the back of a squad car. The guard and I tried to chat, but we couldn’t hear each other through the glass. Looks like I wasn’t going to be able to talk myself out of this one.
The detention centre was surrounded by barbed wire. I was frisked and, to my surprise, “dressed” in a uniform (like Orange is the New Black, except yellow).The guards who dealt with me were a delight. I bantered with the female guard, asking them about their life and jobs. I made a joke about how one of them was a rookie when she cocked up my form, “Shut up you or you’ll be in with the murderers!” We laughed. Who doesn’t love a bit of gal-lows humour?I smiled at a group of Hispanic women that were huddled in a cluster. As we passed them, some of them yelled after us: “Why is she so happy?” “She’s only here for one night.”
The unit was a bit like a hostel,with an armed guard. A woman approached to ask me if I spoke Spanish and I shook my head. She smiled and helped me make my bed. Another woman, tiny but with a big smile, introduced herself: “If you ever need anything, let me know,” she said. A lot of women were chatting in big groups. The few that could speak English gathered around me. They asked why I was here. “I’m only here for one night.” I said, and I felt guilty. Some of the women had been there for several months: arrested at work or separated from their children at the border. I spoke with a Mexican woman who handed herself over to the authorities a few months back. She loved the US and had turned herself in with the hope that she would be processed quickly. She didn’t see anything unfair about this. I asked her what she thought it meant to be American, and she replied, “It’s the ‘land of the free,home of the brave.’” I didn’t mention the irony of her saying that when she’d been incarcerated for several months.
I slept what little I could before waking and trying to process what had happened. I thought about how this time yesterday I’d been a person assuming that I would never spend a night behind bars. In the morning,I was taken back to intake and put in a cell.That cell was horrible. I counted the breezeblocks on the wall and sang songs to myself like I was Cool-hand Luke. A different female guard took me to sign some paperwork. We walked past the men’s units and they gathered around the windows staring at us. Their looks were predatory. I stared back defiantly but couldn’t help feeling shaken.I asked the female guard if it bothered her when they ogled her. “You get used to it, though a few of them make my skin crawl.”
I was picked up and taken back to the airport by two guards. It was interesting watching people now that I wasn’t worrying about myself.I thought a lot about how I felt the guards treated people. I think the majority of them were kind, but there was no doubt that they succeeded in making the detainees fear their power. About 36 hours since I first touched down, the officer who had detained me the day before took me down to check-in and escorted me onto the plane. I shook his hand and apologised for the trouble. He smiled, “Don’t worry about it, come back soon.” The cheek of him! ‘Come back soon?’ Really? Flying home, I sat next to an Alaskan fisherman and told him what happened. He was staggered. “You know that never would have happened four years ago.” I thought about that for a while. I don’t know if it’s right – obviously I can’t comment having not travelled to the States previously – but it made me think about the expectations that us Brits have when we travel.For the past few years I’ve travelled and worked across Europe, and it never occurred to me that it is possible to be unwelcome somewhere, but that is exactly what you assume. This experience has been the antithesis of everything I thought that travelling should be.
Of course, the elephant in the room here is Brexit. I, nor anyone else, can claim to know how it might affect European travel, only that it will affect it. One thing we may have to get used to is the idea that “being British” isn’t a skeleton key anymore. Doors we are accustomed to finding open may soon see themselves locked. And, although my particular experience wasn’t Brexit-caused, it is an experience many might soon find themselves experiencing.
If you are affected by issues surrounding immigration or civil rights.You can contact the American Civil Liberties Union at aclu.org or StudentServices on 01334 462 720.