US immigration ordeal

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 October, 2003, 12:00am

I wonder whether any of your readers have felt first-hand the impact of 'national security concerns' at US immigration checkpoints. My Japanese wife was refused entry after a 12-hour flight from Hong Kong with our daughter, an American citizen.

My wife lived in New York and filed for a green card in the mid-1990s. She had not previously been required to get a US visa but rather had been given a visa waiver for 90 days upon arrival. While she was awaiting her green card she technically overstayed her waiver by a couple of weeks because she was not supposed to leave the US while awaiting her residency status (a classic Catch-22). She moved to London from New York without getting her card and let the application lapse because she was no longer living in the US.

She came to visit me recently with our daughter. She was flagged when she told the immigration agent that she was visiting her husband and they asked her to go for a secondary interview, where they went through her record with a fine-tooth comb and disallowed her admission on her 'overstay' violation - even after they verified her story on her green card application. This is despite the fact that she has been to the US at least three times since her green card application and nothing happened: she wasn't even questioned.

They grilled her for four hours before I was able to find out what was going on and allowed to talk to them. My wife was distraught and exhausted. My daughter had been subjected to seeing her mother cry under interrogation and was very upset. The INS (Immigration and Naturalisation Service) 'supervisor' involved in her interrogation told me (in broken English) that there was nothing I could do: his decision was final and there was no appeal. I was able to get them to agree to give my wife a couple of hours of rest and let me see my daughter before they put them on a plane back to Hong Kong. I couldn't keep my daughter (as I don't have the ability to keep her myself in the US), so she had to go with her mother.

What made it worse was the way my wife was treated. She wasn't given food, she had to have an escort to go to the toilet, and she was kept in a holding room with others who were in the US illegally. Here is a woman who is highly trained and skilled, working for a top American company in Hong Kong, who at one time was thinking of emigrating to the US, but who will probably never come back to the US again. She is terrified, and rightly so. This 'national security' mantra is out of control. We have a system that is not paying attention to the signals it is sending. And worst, we have a system that is acting with impunity and believing that it is above reproach and not accountable to those it is supposed to be serving.