Denied entry to the US because immigration officer didn't know the rules

New Zealand-based academic and Australian citizen Vicki Spencer on being refused entry to the US – despite complying with all visa regulations

October 24, 2017
American border control
Source: Alamy

Spending your sabbatical in the United States? Doing a seminar or lecture? Having your expenses paid? Receiving an honorarium? Then you’d better take a hard copy of the visa waiver regulations for business travellers.

On Tuesday 10 October, after a productive month of research in Canada, I was unfairly denied entry into the US.

My purpose? Originally, I had planned only to conduct independent research at the University of Oregon. But when a colleague at Northwestern University learned that I would be in the US, she invited me to do a talk. I agreed, since her department would cover the cost. 

I arrived early at Vancouver airport armed with letters from Oregon and Northwestern, as well as one from the University of Otago in New Zealand detailing my salary and research grant.

I was also fully acquainted with the regulations for an Australian citizen as a business traveller on the visa waiver programme. I was oblivious, however, to the possibility that officers of the US Department of Homeland Security would be poorly trained and unacquainted with their own law. 

The regulations stipulate that you may receive honorariums for normal academic activities from five institutions within a six-month period if you don’t spend more than nine days at any of them. 

Perhaps a lack of coffee and breakfast due to an early flight from Vancouver Island meant that I was particularly slow that day. But when the first officer snatched my letters, passport and boarding passes and angrily asked how many of these things I was being paid for, I remained confident. “Just one,” I calmly said. He insisted that I follow him.

I was spending a day at Northwestern. I had no idea what was wrong.

I waited patiently, foolishly trusting that everything would be fine. I just assumed that it was an annoying but routine check. Time passed. No one spoke to me. Many others were brought in and released. 

Only half an hour before my flight! I became anxious. 

Finally, the second officer was ready to interview me. He allowed me a bathroom break and provided me with water. He was, I have to say, very courteous. But I still had no idea of the problem. And my flight was departing. I never thought to inform him of the regulations. Wouldn’t that have been impertinent and disrespectful? Surely he knew the rules.

I answered the same questions again, briefly. I wanted to tell my Airbnb hosts that I would be late. They were kindly picking me up at Eugene airport.

When the interview concluded, he spoke to his supervisor and then informed me that I was refused entry due to engaging in “paid employment”.

Far worse, I could never again apply for the visa waiver programme. I would need to go to a US consulate to be interviewed. 

As I live and work in New Zealand’s South Island, I would need to travel to the North to do so. It was an expensive and significant punishment. Not only was any future US trip looking unlikely, many routes to Europe go via the US.

Stressed and in shock, I started to challenge him: “But I can receive five honorariums within a six-month period.” He flatly denied that that was true. I said I would do the lecture for free. Too late, they had the Northwestern documentation.

Far worse from an academic perspective, he claimed that I couldn’t even have my expenses paid! If I did a lecture, I would have to pay for the privilege.

Of course, he was wrong. But that was irrelevant at the time. Given how routinely academics have their expenses paid, I was aghast and speechless.

Back on Canadian soil, I contacted my travel agent. I could return home that night. I cancelled my Eugene accommodation.

Far calmer with the knowledge that I was safe and secure, I checked the US State Department website. There it was in black and white. I was entirely within the regulations.

Canadian immigration gave me a number to ring on the US side. The woman I spoke to tried to convince me that the officers knew the rules. “But I’m reading them directly from the State Department’s website, and I did nothing wrong,” I said. 

She spoke to her supervisor. Then she informed me that he had said to rebook my flights and come back through. Stunned at this immediate reversal, I asked to speak to him first. I read him the rules and indicated that I was only receiving one honorarium.

He agreed that an honorarium at a school was fine. I had been wrongly denied entry on a “technicality”.

But to change my flights back to my original plans would have cost NZ$800 (£420) – far more than I had in my research account. I had 10 minutes to decide. 

Time was ticking by. If I didn’t check in immediately, I was going to miss my flight home. Having had no food all day, my head was spinning. My Eugene accommodation had been rebooked. The costs for a mere “technicality” were becoming exorbitant. I couldn’t think. 

Despite the 18 months that I had spent planning and looking forward to this trip to discuss my work with colleagues, I was utterly defeated. I checked in to come home. 

Before going through customs, I rang the supervisor again to check that I would not have future problems. He assured me that he had fixed everything.

But will I venture to the US again? Never without a hard copy of the law. 

Vicki A. Spencer is associate professor of political theory in the department of politics at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Her latest book is an edited collection, Toleration in Comparative Perspective. You can visit her website here.

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Reader's comments (1)

After having been held in secondary detention three times - the last time after being marched through Logan Airport in Boston by a man wielding a gun and being detained for six hours (I was attending the Law and Society Conference) - I have vowed never to return to the US, and have refused all invitations to visit. I have to say, my life is better for it.

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