New York Diary: Visa Wars

WRITING - John Bloom

In 1950s thrillers, there's always a terrifying moment when the "chief inspector" boards the night train to Munich, scans the faces of the huddled passengers, and picks one out with the words, "May I see your documents please?" (Try it with a thick Teutonic accent and arched eyebrows.)

Even if your documents are "in order," it's a moment pregnant with menace--because you know that, if the chief inspector wants to find your documents out of order, he will.

Hence, in the spirit of the times, a few instructive tales-- these are all true stories--from the "Improper Documents" archives:

Case number one: A foreign national in his twenties enters Denmark on a student visa and settles in a nondescript suburb of Copenhagen called Albertslund. He makes frequent trips to other European countries, attends classes sporadically at the University of Copenhagen, and then takes employment with a car rental company even though he has no work permit. Discovered by a university official, he is given a warning, but soon resumes his criminal activity at another car rental agency. He overstays his one-year visa and is questioned by immigration authorities at Copenhagen airport while attempting to board a flight to JFK. Referred to a senior Danish official, his case is deemed no threat to Denmark and he is released for the flight without any penalty being assessed.

Case number two: The same foreign national checks into a hotel in the small town of Antakya, in southern Turkey. His passport is taken by the hotel manager and given to local police. Two plains-clothes officers come to his room and tell him that his papers are improper. He is travelling on a transit visa and doesn't have authorization for an overnight stay. After being closely questioned about his possible connection to the drug trade, he is dismissed with a warning and deemed no threat to Turkey.

Case number three: The same foreign national arrives at the airport in Kishinev, the capital of Moldova, on a flight from Vienna with no visa. He explains that he was told short-term tourist visas were available at the airport. A stern female immigration officer tells him he was misinformed and holds him for 45 minutes. After questioning, he is asked to pay $80 and given a short-term entry visa, having been deemed no threat to Moldova.

Case number four: The same foreign national arrives by car at a Lebanese border crossing near Tartus, Syria. Armed border guards review his papers, determine that he has no legitimate reason to be in Syria, and question him closely about his ultimate destination. He says he was just passing through Syria on his way to Lebanon and was told that the road was open for transit. After consultation among themselves, the border guards turn him over to Lebanese officials at the Kebir River crossing. There he is kept under house arrest for three days after his tourism visa is deemed invalid for northern Lebanon. He is allowed to send a messenger to Tripoli to secure better documents, and during the three days he sleeps on an iron cot in the guardhouse and makes himself amusing to the Kalashnikov- bearing Lebanese police. A senior official in Tripoli eventually signs an obscure document allowing him to continue to Beirut, deeming him no threat to Syria or Lebanon.

Case number five: The same foreign national arrives by car at the Siberian military city of Novokuznetsk, which can't be entered without special documents. The guard on duty notes that his documents are good for the regional capital of Novosibirsk, but that doesn't technically mean he can travel to other cities within the same Russian region. He is questioned about his reasons for visiting Novokuznetsk, and his senior supervisor eventually stamps his visa with an approval to enter.

In all five cases, the foreign national could have technically been sent to prison, held in an executive detention center, or deported. In each case he was released, not because his papers were in order, and not because he proved his legal rights, but because someone in the government--usually a gray- haired veteran--listened to his story, looked into his eyes, and decided he was harmless.

In all five cases, the foreign national was me.

But I have one more case for the archives. It involves two German nationals in their twenties who arrived in Las Vegas earlier this fall with three-month tourist visas. Aware that flight training was cheaper in the United States than in their native country, they enrolled in classes at West Air Aviation School in North Las Vegas.

Someone reported them to INS. They were not simply questioned. They were handcuffed, arrested and taken to a detention center where they were held for seven days. I assume they were questioned there as well. I assume they were asked what they were doing in the U.S. At the end of their week in jail, they were sent back to Germany, having wasted thousands of dollars on their trip.

A Las Vegas INS official refused to comment on the specifics of the case, but said that their visas were only good for tourism and that rules are rules. "You can't go to school and you can't go to work," he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "If you violate those conditions, you are subject to removal."

The FBI is currently doing a sweeping visa investigation among foreign students at the University of Michigan, and on all the talk shows the question is, "Why should anyone be afraid of that? If they're not doing anything wrong, why would they object?"

These are people, of course, who have never been at a border crossing where a single line of their visa was out of order, or they lacked the proper stamp, or they failed to fill out the proper form at a consulate in their home country. In almost every country in the world, these are matters decided by common sense. There's always a grey-haired official in the back room who is summoned and asked if an exception is possible.

In all countries except one. There was no grey-haired official in Las Vegas. There was no one who intervened during the seven days and said, "Just a couple of foolhardy German boys a little out of line. No threat to America." They obviously knew they weren't terrorists or they never would have released them at all.

And the foreign students at the University of Michigan know this. They know that, if they were travelling anywhere else in the world, there would be some paternal good-hearted soul in a back office somewhere who would forgive them their violations. They have those, you see, in Denmark, Turkey, Moldova, Syria, Lebanon and Russia. They just don't have them in the United States.

When the U.S. chief inspector says "May I see your documents please?," he will find something wrong with your documents.