I couldn’t have picked a worse time to arrive into the USA, as the terrorist attack in New York City earlier that day had put everyone on high alert, especially the Federal agents at airports right across the country. But even as I made my way through Los Angeles airport, I had no idea what was about to happen…
My brother was waiting for me on the other side, and I breezed swiftly into the customs and border control area, armed with my ESTA visa waiver that UK residents use to enter the States. Fingerprints done, passport scanned and all that remained was to hand my documents over to the official for an entry stamp.
As he leafed through my battered passport full of visas and stamps from the many countries across the globe I’ve passed through this year, his eyes fixed on the Iranian entry and exit stamps and his face stiffened. Eyeing me with suspicion now he said: “Why did you go to Iran?” and when I explained that it was on my overland route to Asia his eyes narrowed, he folded up my passport and said: “come with me sir”.
He took me out of the public area, down a corridor and handed me over to another agent who took my passport and beckoned me to follow him. I was led into a room and told to sit down and wait. When I took out my phone to try and let my brother know what was happening I was told to switch it off immediately and put it in my bag, as this was a high security area and no cell phones were allowed.
Over an hour later my name was called and I had to approach a desk. Behind a thick glass barrier a customs and immigration agent sat down and came straight to the point. My ESTA was no longer valid because I’d been in Iran and as such I couldn’t come into the USA. I tried to explain that when I applied for my visa waiver back in February, I hadn’t been to Iran so had actually answered the question correctly (“have you ever been to Iran, Iraq, Syria etc…”) on the form at the time of applying. But this answer only seemed to agitate him and he told me that not only could I not enter, but that I could never enter again in the future on an ESTA because of my visit to Iran.
Then I was asked to supply details of the border crossing point and date, as well as list every place I had been to while there, and the dates I had visited each town or city. At this point my mind went completely blank — no doubt due to the stress of the situation and the fact that I’d been awake for 23 hours — and I just couldn’t remember the names of any of the towns I’d passed through, apart from the port of Bandar Abbas, where I’d been stuck for five days trying to get out of the country. It made me feel guilty somehow, even though I had nothing to be guilty of.
I thought of my brother waiting for me in arrivals and wondering what the hell was going on. I also thought of my motorcycle luggage going around and around on its own on the carousel, with no one there to pick it up. As if by magic, someone came into the room and called out my name. I raised my hand and she told me that my luggage had been put in a secure area.
I pleaded with the guard and explained about my round-the-world ride, how I’d set out hoping to discover the goodness in people and to dispel some of the myths surrounding certain countries and cultures, but I could see it was falling on deaf ears. I asked him if I could use my phone and just get a message to my brother that I was being detained and he told me I had one minute to do this. I banged out a quick text telling him ‘go home, I’m being held because of Iran visit, no idea of outcome’, and then I decided to try a change of tack.
I said to the guard that there had clearly been a misunderstanding on my part and that it was a real shock to me, that I’d never have intentionally done this and was there anything that could be done to resolve the situation. He looked me in the eyes and seemed to soften just a little. Then he said that he’d have a word with his boss, that there might be a chance I could reapply for a different visa and if it was accepted, then I would have a chance of being allowed in. He told me to sit back down in the holding room and wait.
And wait and wait. Another hour passed before he returned and he beckoned me over. This time he called me by my first name, so I knew things were looking up. I was taken to a separate room, photographed, fingerprinted and asked to sign a declaration that included saying why I had been in Iran. His boss then came out and asked if I’d tried to get into Pakistan too. When I told him that my visa application had been rejected he smiled and said “good job we’re letting you in then”. He then told me that I would be granted a visa for this time I was in the USA, but that I’d never be able to apply for an ESTA visa again. And then I was relieved of $585 for my trouble.
After I’d paid up, he looked me in the eyes and said: “Welcome to the United States, good luck man”. I kid you not.
I left quickly before he changed his mind, cursing under my breath. As I exited the secure area and entered the huge arrivals hall and started to look for a taxi I heard a familiar voice. It was my brother, still waiting for me after four hours. “I could do with a drink Johnny,” I said. That cold beer never even touched the sides…