American Excess

I posted an item last week about my encounter with the Kansas Police Force, primarily because looking back it is pretty funny. A few people contacted me to apologize for what had happened, perhaps surprised about how over-zealous law enforcement officers can be. I guess it’s pretty boring being a cop in Kansas, so if something unusual happens they tend to get a bit excited.

But if anyone in the States is in a mood for apologizing about something, they should read this item. Three years on  it still makes me seethe whenever I think about it, unlike the Kansas City tale which I look back on with amusement rather than animus.

When I was working at the University of Nottingham, I was given a sabbatical for one semester for the Autumn of 2005. I had already received an informal invitation from George Smoot at the University of California at Berkeley to visit, specifically from 1st August to 10th December that year. I had visited him the previous year while I was on holiday in California and enjoyed it very much, especially the good food and stupid jokes.

All I had to do was to get my visa and travel arrangements sorted out. The period of the visit was longer than the 90 days for which visa-free travel was allowed, and also the restrictions brought in after 9/11 involved stricter monitoring of scientific visitors. It was therefore necessary to apply for a J-1 visa.

For a J-1 visa for the USA you need first of all a form called a DS-2109 which, in the case of visiting scholars like me, is a kind of formal invitation issued by the host institution. I applied for this using a special form on March 10th 2005. My first problem was that Berkeley did not send the papers back to me until 12th July 2005. However, once I had it I was in a position to get the visa.

Nowadays nobody is issued a US visa without an “interview” at a US Embassy consular division. You are not allowed to book an interview until you have your DS-2109. I called the Embassy visa line (cost £1.30 per minute) and made an appointment. Unbelievably, the first available appointment was a month later, on 11th August 2005, 10 days after my sabbatical visit was supposed to start. Worse still, the instructions I received indicated a minimum of a further 5 working days should be allowed after the interview for the return of the passport with the visa.

You also have to surrender your passport at the interview with no promise of when it will be returned. They don’t even guarantee 5 days. As a matter of fact they don’t guarantee anything at all, as we shall see.

The next thing you have to do is to pay a fee called a SEVIS fee. In my case that was $100. You can do this online, so it was no problem. I paid the fee by credit card and printed out the receipt as instructed. There are then several forms to be filled in. DS-156 is the basic application form. I also needed to fill in a DS-157 and DS-158, which contain detailed information about my work history, qualifications and family circumstances. I was also told I would need to take with me to the interview evidence of my employment, bank statements, mortgage statements, and so on, presumably to prove I was not planning to gain entry to the US to work there; obviously everyone in Britain, even a University professor, really wants to leave their home and work as a waiter in America.

Finally you have to go to a bank and pay the visa application fee (£60) and get a formal receipt. Oh, and you need a photograph. Armed with all this paperwork, and my passport, I went to the Embassy in London on the morning of 11th August 2005. My appointment was scheduled at 12.45, but it’s a two-hour train journey from Nottingham to London. Incidentally, that cost me £94. I got there in good time, and actually entered the Embassy through its extensive security checks around 12.15.

The Embassy operates a take-a-ticket-and-wait system like the deli counter at a supermarket. I took a number and waited. After about an hour, my number was called. I went to a window and a lady who could hardly speak English asked for my documents. I passed them through the window. I then had my fingerprints scanned. And that was that. Except it turns out that is only Stage 1. I returned to my seat and waited for Stage 2, the interview

Three hours later I was finally called for my interview. The consular official was quite polite. He asked me some questions about my job, and work. I thought it was all going fine. It took about 15 minutes. Then he picked up my passport. It was a perfectly valid passport that I had used for a trip to Belgium a few weeks previously without any problems and it still had about two years left to run before a new one was required. He turned to the back page where the photograph was. He picked up a paper knife and stuffed it into the edge of back cover of the passport, between the plastic covering the photograph and the actual back cover, and started to waggle the knife about. He did this so violently that the photograph came loose, which it was not when I entered the Embassy.

Oh dear”, he said. “Looks like someone has tampered with your passport.” He showed me the damaged page through the glass.

I couldn’t believe my eyes. “ just did.”

Oh, anyone could have done that”, was the response. “Someone could replace your photograph with theirs, so I can’t accept this.”

I was actually shaking with anger and confusion at this point. He continued to the effect that he couldn’t issue a visa until I got a new passport. He gave me a form for the re-application and instructions on how to send everything back to the Embassy by courier. He told me if I did re-apply it would take at least 5 working days to process, but I wouldn’t need to pay another fee or have another interview. Finally, as an added bonus he stamped my ruined passport to indicate a visa had been refused.

Have a nice day”. He actually said that as I left.

Walking back from the Embassy to St Pancras station to get the train back to Nottingham my head was spinning. Had this really happened? Does the US Embassy actually think it has the right to destroy someone’s passport?

I came back to Nottingham that evening half-convinced I had dreamt the whole thing. Why would anyone do that? The passport was fairly old, but had another year or two to run. It was also a machine-readable passport, as is now required. It did not have a digital photograph printed directly on the information page, but the regulations did not actually require that to be the case. My passport was perfectly valid when I entered the Embassy, but it was now useless.

I can only guess that Consular staff had been issued with instructions not to accept passports with old-fashioned photographs in them, even if they were otherwise acceptable. However, rather than print updated guidelines the individual in charge of my application chose to mutilate my passport in order to give him an “official” reason for rejecting it.

Whatever the reason, my passport was ruined and if I was to go anywhere at all I would need a new one. I went to the Post Office the very next day, on Friday 12th August, and applied for a replacement passport. I received a shiny new one (with a digital photograph in it) the following week. As a bonus, the Passports office had noted the fact that my previous one had two years left to run so had given me a passport that wouldn’t expire until 2017.

Now I had to decide what to do. Partly because I had invested so much time and money already, and partly because I was worried about the fact that the immigration records for the US would contain information that I had been refused a visa, I decided to continue with the re-application. After all, if my record showed a refused visa it would be very unlikely I could travel to the USA without extreme difficulty at any time in the future. So I filled in all the forms again, got another photograph, got some more copies of bank statements and all the rest. I rang the Courier (SMS) and arranged for them to pick up the re-application (together with new passport) on 25th August. I paid for the return trip of my documents too. Total cost £19. The courier came and picked up the package to take to the Embassy as arranged.

Fine, I thought. Only 5 days and it will all be sorted. What a fool I was. By September 9th I still hadn’t received anything back. Without my passport I wasn’t able to travel abroad at all. I called the embassy to demand the immediate return of my passport whether it had a visa or not. I no longer cared about visiting the USA. I just wanted my papers back. The Embassy staff said that I would have to wait until it had been processed and, if I read the conditions of application, the five day processing time was never guaranteed.

I contacted the Member of Parliament for my constituency, Nick Palmer, who informed me that I should lodge a formal complaint to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office about the damage to my passport. Since UK passports remain Crown Property at all times, this is the appropriate channel for such matters. I even asked the Foreign Office to attempt the retrieval of my passport from the Embassy.

I was in such a rage I sent a few emails out to friends and colleagues who I thought might be interested in the story, some of whom forward them on. I got a number of nice replies from people all around the world with their own stories. I realized that although I was angry and frustrated, at least I wasn’t having my life torn apart, which is exactly what this kind of petty officialdom can do in different circumstances.

I don’t know which, if any, of these routes actually achieved anything but a few days later my passport arrived back by Courier. It even had a J-1 Visa in it.

Finally! Success!

But wait, there was a covering letter included with my documents. It said that although I had been given a J-1 visa , it wouldn’t be sufficient to achieve entry to the United States. I would have to take with me to the airport all the documents I had taken to the Embassy for my interview. Helpfully, they also pointed out that my DS-2109 had now expired because I should have entered the states on August 1st 2005 and it was now the middle of September. before I travelled I would therefore need to acquire a new DS-2109. Effectively I was back at square one.

Given how long it had taken to get this in the first place, I gave up. I abandoned all hope of ever taking my sabbatical in Berkeley or indeed anywhere in the USA. I had lost six weeks of my allotted time in any case.

I had to find a plan B. I contacted Dick Bond at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics in Toronto and asked if I could go there instead. I didn’t expect him to agree because it was very short notice, but he said yes. Next day I received a formal letter of invitation by FedEx and I booked my ticket to Canada. No visa needed.

I arrived in Toronto at the end of September and spent about three months there. It was an extremely enjoyable time, during which I managed to finish my book From Cosmos to Chaos, as well as a few other things. Of course the climate was a bit different from what I would have experience at Berkeley. It got quite cold in Toronto towards Christmas, but I didn’t mind at all. My only regret is that I wasted so much time and money before deciding to go there when I could have had another six weeks in Toronto without the hassle.

Nothing ever came of any of the formal protests. I’m not surprised about that. The chap who wrecked my passport has diplomatic immunity so can’t be prosecuted. I doubt that the British Government ever even approached the US Ambassador with this matter. Given the collusion of the British in the illegal rendition and torture of prisoners by US agents, it seems unlikely that they give a toss about international law anyway.

I passed the details onto Berkeley who contacted the US Visa Department in Washington, but I never heard anything back from them either. Even less surprising.

So I now have a passport with a J-1 visa in it, but no US entry stamp. I sometimes wonder what would happen if I turned up in the States and showed it to an immigration officer, but then I doubt if I’ll be going to the USA in the foreseeable future. I’ve also been asked about this unusual state of affairs a few times on entering other countries, which gives me the chance to tell the story I’ve just posted or at leas the gyst of it. The best response was from a Canadian Immigration Officer, when I arrived in Toronto in Autumn 2005.

That’s America for you. But you’re in a civilized country now.”

I am sorry I didn’t get the chance to visit George Smoot, though I did manage to meet up with him a year later in Sweden. But that’s another story…

7 Responses to “American Excess”

  1. That is outrageous. I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been. To me, it’s a little sickening.

    I actually had a run-in with Her Majesty’s Immigration Service. I had been living there for quite some time, and working, illegally. I would leave England every few months for a weekend in Amsterdam, just to get a new stamp on my passport.

    After living there for so long, I grew careless, brining my journal with me back from Amsterdam one time. The immigration officer was suspicious about all my stamps in the passport.

    The shuffled me off to a stark room with just a large table and two chairs, with a sign on the door that read “Ashtrays can be used as weapons”. They took my journal, and read it. It was fairly graphic about a Kiwi sailor I had been seeing.

    The officer offered me a cigarette, complete with an ashtray. We chatted for a while. I gave him the names of friends in England as references, who he phoned. He said that policy was, I should be shipped back to Amsterdam immediately. But he would let me back into England if I promised to leave within two weeks. I promised.

    It was late by then, and no trains were leaving for London. He suggested I walk toward the local town and stay the night at this inn, since I’d be cleared out of the train station. He was off work by then, and offered me a ride, and we had dinner.

    The next day I caught the train for London and went straight to Canadian Airlines. Though I’m American, heading up to Vancouver to fly a Canadian airline saves a lot of money. I had purchased a round trip ticket whose return leg of the journey had long expired. The Canadian airline agent told me that she was homesick, and that I shouldn’t worry about the return fare — my expired ticket would do fine once she re-issued a new one.

    Now maybe you know why what happened to you just sickens me.

  2. This is fascist America at it’s core. The country is being ruled by a myriad of petty “bureaucrats” wielding powers granted by no laws answerable to to no authority, and unchallengeable by all citizens. This, I believe, is a direct consequence of “leaders” from Bush on down who stand in front of the the microphones after each disaster and proclaim “I accept full responsibility for …”, and the ‘consequences’ are nothing at all. “Oops! Sorry!” is sufficient it would seem.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    If you think Canada is more civilised than USA, have a look at Ezra Levant’s blog

    At least in USA (if you can get there) you have practical freedom of speech.

    The truth is that the whole of Western civilisation is in serious decline, and it shows in different ways in different countries.

    Cheers Peter!

  4. […] dinner my health was drunk – so was I – and I had to reply, which I did by telling the story of my encounter with the Kansas police. It seemed to go down quite well. After other speeches the dinner was declared […]

  5. […] One is that this is the first time I’ve set foot on American soil for many years. My lamentable experience with the US Embassy in London in 2005 succeeding in putting me off visiting the States almost entirely. However, I’m told that […]

  6. Mark McCaughrean Says:

    A pretty outrageous story, Peter. As a former US green card holder, I have my fair share of US immigration horror stories to share, but perhaps the following anecdote will provide some additional insight into the way that individual officers are permitted to rule arbitrarily.

    I obtained my green card through marriage while living in the US, but moved back to Europe in 1992. After having maintained the fiction that I was still living in the US, but only on extended trips in Europe, one particular immigration official at Washington Dulles decided that enough was enough, and that I needed to give it up. I was shuffled off to a moribund office full of similar unfortunates from around the world, barely noticed by the officials who were doing a very good job of persuading us that they were living in a time stream moving at half the speed of anyone else’s.

    After an hour or so, they got to me and confirmed that “You’ll need to give this green card up, sir, if you’re not living here”. Frankly, I didn’t much care to keep it after many years back in Europe and long-since divorced, so had no problem with that. What I did have a problem with was their next instruction: “Now you’re in the US, sir, you’ll need to visit an immigration lawyer in Washington to deal with the corresponding paperwork: it’ll take about a week.”

    All very well, apart from the fact that I was due to return home just two days later. Trapped in this Kafkaesque situation, I tried to reason with them, but they weren’t having any of it. Finally, one officer on loan from Florida said “Well, what we do where I come from is cut up the green card page in the passport and let them deal with the rest when they’re back home”.

    So, we all agreed on that approach. They mutilated “their page” in my passport, let me in, and when done two days later, I went home. A few weeks after my return, I then initiated the next stage by sending in a bunch of paperwork to the US consulate in Frankfurt, albeit not including my passport, as that had already been dealt with.

    Knowing that I had another trip to the US coming up fairly soon, I called the consulate after a week or so to ask for a status report. Rather revealingly, they said “Oh, we won’t even have your letter yet: all our post goes to a concrete shelter outside Frankfurt for two weeks in case there’s an explosive device inside it”. Umm, are you sure you should be telling me that, I thought? And they also said that it might take weeks after that to officially rescind my green card.

    So, I needed to know whether I could travel the following week to my next meeting in the US as a tourist while my green card was effectively with the cat in Schrödinger’s box. The consulate wouldn’t tell me, so flailing around a bit, I decided to talk to my colleague at NASA Headquarters, where the meeting was to take place.

    Of course, he had no idea, but put me through to NASA’s chief lawyer, who was perhaps unsurprisingly also unable to give me a definitive answer. After a couple more telephonic bounces up the ladder of US officialdom, I found myself (virtually) at the desk of one of the most senior officials at the then Immigration and Naturalisation Service in Washington. A very nice, friendly lady, probably because she was so far from the front line that she only rarely had to deal with actual real live cases.

    I explained my situation and, after humming and hawing for a while, she said she needed to consult some documentation. Then, as she put the phone on the desk, I was audibly witness to the most wonderful vignette. I heard her push back her chair, then the clip-clop of high heels on a marble floor receding into the distance for a good 15 seconds: she must have had the most enormous office. The clip-clopping grew louder again as she returned, followed by an almighty thud as she dropped a tome on her desk.

    After riffling through the pages and mumbling to herself for a while, she finally returned to me and gave her definitive answer. Namely, that there wasn’t one. “It appears to be completely at the discretion of the immigration officer on duty when you arrive in the US”, she said, albeit rather sheepishly, implicitly admitting that this was an idiotic state of affairs.

    So, I suggested that it might be best if I cancelled my trip, rather than take the risk of meeting an immigration officer who was having a bad day. She ruefully and apologetically agreed.

    The moral of this story is that US immigration officials (and perhaps those of many countries, lest anyone think that I’m singling them out) appear to have almost unlimited and arbitrary powers, and are not afraid of using them. While I now hold a diplomatic visa for entering the US which at least relieves me of the fingerprints-and-photograph routine, I nevertheless approach every dealing with an immigration official soberly and seriously. Doesn’t excuse the situation at all, mind you.

  7. […] With the news going around about Donald Trump’s decision extend restrictions on travel to the USA, including banning the J-1 visa, I thought you might be interested to hear what happened to me when I tried to apply for a J-1 visa about 15 years ago. The following account is taken from an old post published in 2008. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: