After graduating High School, I wanted to spend a summer backpacking around Europe. I had already been to Europe when I was 16 with a group from my school. This time, I wanted to explore all on my own. I was quite the Anglophile at the time, The Spice Girls were a major part of that, as were most of the British comedy television series, so I couldn’t wait to discover more about the lovely land of England. I wasn’t sure exactly how long I wanted to stay, so I only purchased a one-way ticket. That way I wasn’t bound to any specific date, I would be able to purchase my return ticket, when I was ready to return back to the states.
The flight to London Heathrow (LHR) went rather smoothly, although the plane was delayed leaving from Newark because one of the phones on the plane was not working properly. Once I landed, I was overcome with joy and excitement. Although I had been to London before, we only stayed for 3 days and I didn’t get a chance to see everything I wanted to. This time, I was going to not only see everything, but experience it all at my leisure.
The passengers slowly unloaded and made their ways to the customs agents. Finally out of the plane I made my way to the shortest possible line, which was only about 50 people deep. I eagerly awaited, looking all around and taking in every bit of it. The fluorescent lights, the off-white tile floors, the stale air…although nothing was too fantastic about this, I was 18 and enjoying it all. With a spice girl song playing in my head, I was only 2 people away from the actual agent.
I approached the gentleman saying good morning. He was not a happy person, and he did not try to hide this. He gave me a scowl and asked what I was doing in the UK. I told him that I wanted to backpack around Europe for the summer. He asked me how much money I had on me, I told him that I had $200 in travelers checks (those were common then), and my debit and credit cards. His soul-less dead brown eyes glared down at me and he told me that I cannot survive for three months off of $200. Surprised that I was still here standing and talking to this creature, I simply said “That is why I have my debit and credit cards, who would carry around three months of cash in their pockets? That would be stupid, I could get robbed, pick-pocketed or mugged before I even get my bags and then I would have nothing.” This is when he removed the giant stick from his ass, and went on to insert an even bigger stick up his ass. He asked if I had a job in the states, I told him no, but that I will begin work at a non-profit when I return. He asked when I was planning on returning to the states, I told him that I was not sure, and that it all depended on when I was ready to go back. He told me then that he was denying me entrance in to the country because he didn’t believe I was ever going to leave. He then grabbed his walkie-talkie and called over 2 armed guards to walk me to a holding cell.
Airport Jail…it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
I was escorted to a small room in a large office with security guards, policemen and a woman wearing a plaid skirt and an over sized gray cardigan. She walked me to the holding cell and sat down at the minuscule table and first asked me if I could understand her alright, or if I would need an interpreter. I understood her well enough, although I could not place where exactly her accent originated. She sat and asked me a few dozen questions over the course of 30 minutes, she also had my luggage brought to the outside of the holding cell. I informed her that I needed my insulin and to eat something. She was very cautious about my being a type 1 diabetic, and made sure that the guards all knew that if I needed a snack that they were to get me something.
Her questioning was not tough at all, she just asked about my hotel arrangements, my flight, my family back int he states. She was worried though, that my father couldn’t be contacted as he was vacationing with my sister in Canada at the time. She then excused herself to go back to her office and grab a few things. She pointed to the phone on the wall inside the cell and told me that I can use that to call someone if I wanted. I knew nobody in the UK. Although I did have a 2nd cousin-in-law who lived there, I had never met him and he didn’t even know i was coming. So I called my younger brother back home. I told him that I was fine and that I’m not sure what was going to happen. I told him not to worry, but if he could contact dad in any way to let him know what had happened. My brother, being the wonderful little brother he is, contacted my other sister who lived in South Carolina at the time. He also contacted my grandmother, a very dramatic woman who contacted the rest of the family and I’m sure made the story a lot more interesting.
My dad finally called my brother later that day to check in with him, and that’s when my brother told him what had happened. My father, always a sensible thinker, told my brother to call our cousin Laura and have her contact her brother-in-law in London to see if anything can be done. Almost 5,000 miles away, I knew nothing of what was going on back home, or even right outside of my small cell. My case manager had come back and told me that, she had never heard of this happening to an American before, but that I will be deported back to the United States. I was in shock, I had done nothing wrong, but I was being refused entry into the UK. She informed me that I would be staying in that cell until 10PM that night when I would be transported to a holding facility. Tea time came and I had a lovely cup of earl grey with some delicious biscuits (Cookies). Although I was very confused, a little scared and all I could think about was that movie about the stupid tourist who get locked up abroad because they accidentally smuggled drugs into a foreign country. I was very at peace though, perhaps it was the hours of loneliness in a room that felt more like a fish bowl, or knowing that I was in an English-speaking country and I should understand anything they tell me….Whatever it was, I was doing ok.
Around 6pm the guards brought in a young latino man, probably 26 or 27 years old. He looked more scared and upset about being there than I was, I tried to talk to him, but soon discovered he was from Portugal, and he didn’t speak English. I don’t speak Portuguese, however we both speak Spanish, so we had a good/broken conversation in Spanish with one another. He has a wife and child back in Portugal, and he wanted to come to the UK to find a job and to move his family there. I could well understand his position, in Texas you see this all of the time, with so many Mexicans wanting to come to “the land of opportunity.”
Finally 10PM came and he and I were put in the back of a giant van and driven to the holding facility. The radio playing in the van was fun to listen to for me, because they played a single by Geri Halliwell (My favorite Spice Girl). Once we arrived at the facility which was only about 1 mile away, but the drive felt like it last an hour we were taken out of the van in separate locations. I discovered that they needed to get a Portuguese translator for my friend, so I was put through the system first. I was finger printed, photographed, measured, itemized….and along the entire process, each person that I came in contact with said “You are the first American I have ever seen this happen to.” Each member of the staff were flabbergasted by the fact an American was entering their holding facility and being deported. I asked them why was this happening to me, and they said that if the customs agent doesn’t like you, they can turn you away like that. They informed me that the facility is actually American owned…that would explain the poor workmanship and quality, but I digress.
As I was escorted by one of the guards to my room, I was trying to process everything around me. The woman told me that the room I was in has 3 bunk beds and that there are 5 guys all from Afghanistan already in there and asleep. I snuck in to bed quietly, hoping I would survive the night. At 4am, a new male guard awoke me and told me to follow him. I wasn’t sure if this was the part in Shawshank where I’m offered a smoke and then killed or what would happen. As we walked down the corridor, I could see the sun was beginning to rise and there was a faint blue light in the air. I looked out a window and saw a small playground in the courtyard. The guard noticed me looking, and explained to me that families are often held here when entering illegally, and they try to keep the kids comfortable throughout the trying experience. He walked me to the bathroom, handed me a small plastic zip-top bag with toiletries in it, and said I was to shower. My flight was leaving the airport in 2 hours.
I couldn’t believe that I was in the country less than 24 hours, I never actually stepped on British soil, and here I was with a large 10 by 12 envelope with a mess of paperwork exclaiming I have been denied entry into the United Kingdom. The large folder along with my passport were to be held by the flight attendant until we landed in the US. I was to be the last person taken off the flight once it landed, that is when I would receive my belongings. Although I felt depressed, upset and cheated by what had happened over the last day, I knew that it was an experience that few get to actually go through.
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