by Joe Davison
(Swans - May 23, 2005) I began to feel nervous as soon as the aircraft began its descent and came in to land. I looked once again at the green visa waiver form I'd been given to complete by the flight attendant somewhere over the Rocky Mountains. As required, I'd written in the designated boxes the address where I would be staying for the duration of my visit, my passport number, and the date that I intended to depart.
The address I'd written down was bogus, the address of some fictitious hotel in Santa Monica. My real address was an apartment on Culver Boulevard which I shared with my girlfriend, Gina. Though the ticket I was travelling on was a two-week return from London, Heathrow, I did not anticipate returning anywhere in the foreseeable future. I was an illegal immigrant, one of the many living on the margins, between the cracks, in the land of opportunity. There were times it could be a precarious existence. This was one of those times.
My mother had fallen seriously ill back home. I hadn't seen her, or any of my family for that matter, since coming to the United States four years earlier. Without legal papers there was just no way I would have taken the chance of leaving and not being allowed back in again. I knew of people this had happened to; people who'd returned home to see family and loved ones and who'd been turned back at the port of entry on their way back in. To me and others like me, this was just one of the sacrifices you had to make when choosing to leave home to start afresh in a country with no legal status, and as such something you learn to push to the back of your mind. But, then, when your mother takes seriously ill -- unless you're a callous, selfish bastard, or your relationship with your family is irretrievably damaged for some reason -- you really don't have a choice, do you?
My fake documents and papers -- green card, Social Security card, California driver's license, etc. -- I'd left with my girlfriend before flying out, along with any and all evidence that might point to the fact I was living in the States, rather than visiting. This consisted of everything from my ATM card, receipts, checkbook, and such like. On the way out two weeks earlier, at the check-in desk, they'd looked through my passport and inquired about my visa waiver form, noticing that it wasn't stapled inside as it should have been. I'd told them I'd lost it, that it must've slipped out or something. No problem, they'd told me, we'll fill you out another.
Now, two weeks on, I was back, filing off the aircraft with other weary, transatlantic passengers. I kept on reminding myself to stay calm, no matter what, to remember to try and look relaxed and confident at all times I'd made an effort to look smart and presentable. I wanted to look like the type of young man they'd only be too glad to have in their fine country, even one as bogus as myself. Regardless of my appearance or anything else, however, my fate would still hinge on the whim of an immigration officer -- typically some undereducated, overzealous individual drunk with way too much power and the ability to ruin people's lives with that power.
We filed into the arrivals lounge, the arriving passengers forming long lines in front of a dozen or so kiosks behind which stern-faced men and women were already processing passports, visas and tickets. I stood behind a young couple, on vacation judging by the relaxed clothes and their carefree attitude, and waited my turn.
Relax, stay calm, I kept telling myself, as the line edged forward.
I studied the immigration officer standing behind the counter of the kiosk that I would be passing through. The first thing I noticed about him was that he never made eye contact, any contact whatsoever, as he went about his business; there was no smile, no greeting, no nothing except a cold wall of silence as he stood there like an automated machine on some production line, running passports through his computer, asking a few perfunctory questions, before stamping said passport, handing it back to the by now nervous wreck standing before him, then waving forward the next victim in line. Throughout, anyone who smiled or attempted to engage him in some friendly banter had their efforts brutally and abrasively ignored.
Then it was my turn.
I walked forward, mindful of my body language, with a quick, silent prayer that I get through this.
"Passport and ticket, please."
I passed them over. He flipped through the passport, searching the pages with the kind of speed and efficiency that comes with years of experience.
"I see you were here two weeks ago?"
"That's right," I said. "I, eh, I was on an extended trip when I got news of a family illness back home. Everything's fine and now I'm back to continue my trip."
He grabbed the ticket, inserted it inside the passport, then placed the passport behind him. "Collect your luggage and step over to the side, please."
I froze. Step to the side meant interrogation. They were sending me back!
"The side?," I said. I was thinking furiously of something, anything, I could say that might change his mind, but with this the best I could come up with, I wasn't having much success.
"Collect your luggage and step over to the side," he repeated, impatient by now. Then: "Next!"
Standing by a huge baggage trolley, waiting for my luggage to arrive, I was in despair. My life is here! This is my home! I felt like screaming to anyone who'd listen. What about Gina, my girlfriend? What'll she do when she finds out I've been deported? What about my things, my car, all my belongings? Shit!
I kept looking over to the little enclosed area where those suspected of entering the country to work and stay illegally were held, questioned, then sent back on the first available flight to wherever it was they'd come from. It appeared empty, eerily deserted, from where I was standing, and grabbing my luggage, I placed it on a cart and tentatively made my way over. They already had my passport and ticket in their possession, and I was convinced at that moment that the necessary preparations for my deportation were being made.
When I reached the waiting area I saw that I'd been wrong about it being empty. There was one other person there, a guy seated in the far corner. I sat down in the other corner and we proceeded to eye one another up and down. He looked roughly the same age as me, but that's where the similarity ended. His features and skin color indicated he was from somewhere in South America. He was rough and unkempt, and his face held an expression of utter desperation and fear in equal measure. We exchanged smiles, a weak gesture of solidarity in the face of the odds stacked against us, and it was a comfort to know that I wasn't alone.
At one end of the waiting room a long counter separated us from a large office. Inside the office, immigration officers were doing whatever it is that they do.
Two officials emerged from the office at the same time, a man and woman. The woman called me over, while the man called over my South American counterpart in Spanish. I walked over with a multitude of thoughts flashing through my brain, trying but failing to come up with a strategy that might see me through the encounter to come.
The woman, abruptly and assertively, pushed across the counter a piece of blank paper and a pen. "Write down all the dates of your entry and departure to the United States in the last five years."
She gave me one of those don't bullshit me looks and said: "Because we think you're living here illegally. Write down the dates, please."
I took the pen and she disappeared back through to the office. Out the corner of my eye, I saw that my South American friend was pleading with the other official. I couldn't understand what they were saying -- they were speaking in Spanish -- but there could be no mistaking the intensity.
Concentrating hard on coming up with dates, I ran my mind back to the two or three occasions I'd been to the Untied States before deciding to stay. I had no way of knowing the information about me that was on their computer, no way of knowing what my chances were of convincing them I was only visiting for a short while, and in the end, trusting my fate to sheer luck, I wrote down four dates -- two of which were genuine and two I'd just made up.
She re-emerged from the office with smug superiority written all over her face. "All done?"
I gave her the piece of paper. She took it through to the office, leaving me standing at the counter once again, though by now conscious of the fact that the mirrored panel on the wall no doubt doubled as a window through which they could observe their suspects undetected for any telltale signs of guilt revealed by less than convincing body language. My South American friend was still pleading his case with the other officer, and it struck me that at this particular moment in time I had more in common with him than with any other human being on the planet. We'd each come from a different country, culture, background, etc., and were bonded by a common goal of getting into the United States of America. I wondered where and what he'd come from. Maybe his life was in danger back home. Judging by his rough appearance, the determined fashion in which he was arguing with the official, there was a lot at stake in him getting through.
She came back, this time accompanied by a male officer, a big, tall figure who looked every inch a fascist. "We need proof that you intend to return to the UK," she said.
"How can I do that?" I said.
"D'you have a job back there? A house?"
I had to think of something fast. "I have a business," I said. "I can show you a card."
One of my friends back home had his own construction business and he'd given me a business card while I was there. The card didn't have his name on it, just the name of the company.
The man and the woman scrutinised the card. He was in charge -- you could tell by the way she deferred to him, and finally, looking at her, he shrugged then walked away.
"Okay," she said, turning to me, then stamping my passport. "You can be on your way."
With relief coming in waves, I took my passport and ticket back and turned to leave.
"One more thing," she said.
I turned back and looked at her.
"Do you have a girlfriend here?"
"No," I said. "No, I don't have a girlfriend."
"All right. Have a nice trip."
"I will. Thank you."
Sure that she was about to call me back on some technicality any second, something she'd overlooked which proved, beyond doubt, that I was living here illegally, I grabbed the cart and made my way out as quickly as I could without being obvious.
In the process I glanced across at my South American friend. I did so just in time to see him being handcuffed and led away
Our eyes locked for a second.
Then I was gone.