Sunday, January 29, 2017

Bordering insanity

Quizzically, these are not evaders of the system being detained in airports for "invalid visas"; these are not undocumented immigrants. These are people who went through the red tape: they filed paperwork, paid their fees, checked off every box. These are people whose visas are in their passports—signed, sealed, delivered. The system failed them. And it is an outrage.

Imagine you're a trailing spouse, riding on your husband's student visa, and you leave the country with a friend—so that she can renew her visa because she's required to leave the country before renewing her visa while you (as luck would have it) are not—accompanied by your small child. You spend a few days seeing some sights but mostly you're just leaving the country so you can go back in again, so your friend can purchase a new visa.

The border control officer takes your passport, flips through the pages, nods, stamps your passport and hands it back. Next he takes your child's passport, flips through the pages, then says, "She does not have a valid visa."

Your stomach drops to the floor.

"Excuse me?" you stammer.

"She has no valid visa."

"No," you insist. "She has a visa."

 "She has no visa. You may go through. She stays here."

"She is 18-months old!" you protest. "She is a baby! I can't just..."

"She has no valid visa," the officer repeats, waving another officer over (to take your baby into custody?!). "You are holding up the line."

"No," you say firmly, holding your hand out for her passport. "She has a visa. I will show you."

"I have looked," he says. "She has no valid visa."

"That passport," you say with what you hope is unwavering authority, "is property of the United States government and I am the rightful holder of it. Give it to me."

Not entirely convinced—but not unconvinced enough to stand his ground—the officer hands the passport over while giving you some serious stink eye. You flip through to the most current visa and easily find what you're looking for.

"Here," you say, handing him the passport open to the valid visa.

He hastily grabs the entry stamp and slams it on the page before waving you—and your baby—inside the country.


Some months later you are crossing another border—on foot this time—with your husband, baby, brother, and a friend. It's Ramadan and though you're not Muslim, your husband has brought a copy of the Quran with him because he decided he wanted to read the Quran over Ramadan. He studies Arabic and has added Arabic letters to his keyboard to help him learn the keyboard in Arabic.

You—33 weeks pregnant—and your nearly-two-year-old are at the back of your group. Your husband went in front, carrying all the luggage like a gentleman. You watch as your brother makes it through security, your friend makes it through security, and your pulled aside. You are instructed to stand aside with the baby as they go through your belongings. First his backpack is ripped open.

"What is this?!" the guard demands.

"It's a Quran," your husband says.

"Why are you carrying it?"

"I'm reading it."

"Are you Muslim?" the guard spits out.

"No, I'm just reading it."


"I study Arabic."


"Because I..."

"Does it hurt your feelings if I do this?" the guard asks, dropping the book on the floor.


"What about this?" the guard asks, stepping on it.


The guard pushes aside the Quran with his foot and continues rifling through your husband's backpack. He pulls out the laptop, opens it up.

"What is this?" he asks, waving his hand vaguely over the computer.

"My laptop," your husband answers.

"I mean these," the guard says, pointing out a few keys. "Why are these here?"

"I study Arabic. Sometimes I have to type in Arabic and..."

"X-ray this," the guard instructs an underling, turning the laptop over to their care.

The guard is flipping through your passports once again.

"I see you have been to Morocco," the guard remarks.

"Yes," your husband replies.

"I see you went to Morocco last year," the guard remarks.


"Why would you do that?"

"Why would I...go to Morocco?"

"Why would you go to Morocco first. Why not come here first? This is a beautiful country. Why not visit us first and Morocco second?"

"Uhhhh..." your husband stammers, caught off-guard by such a bizarre question.

"We need to question you in private," the guard says.

You watch, quite helplessly, as your husband is taken to a private booth for questioning. You and your daughter are told to stand as out of the way as possible. You have not yet been cleared to enter the country. Your brother and friend sit on the other side of the wall, freshly stamped passports in hand. There is a lot of waiting. Did I mention you're 33-weeks pregnant? You really have to pee. There is no bathroom located in the in-between zone. There's also no where to sit. Your toddler is restless. You have nothing to entertain her with; your belongings are being searched. It's hot. She's thirsty. You wait. And wait. And wait. And wait.

Finally your husband is returned to you, looking a little worse for the wear, along with your validated passports.

"What did they want to know?"

"Everything. Where I study, what I study, why I study. Where I'm from, where you're from, where we live, everywhere we've ever lived, who our parents are. How I feel about their president. How I feel about our president. How long we'll be staying. Where we'll be going. If I know how to make a bomb. Everything."

You collect your things and shuffle into The Country—him laden with an overstuffed, poorly re-packed duffle bag, a backpack, a diaper bag; you with a whale of a belly and a hangry toddler. First item of business is finding a bathroom. Then you break out the snacks.


Some months later—with a new baby and a new degree—your family makes the long journey "home," home to your passport-bearing country. Your little sister is with you; she's fifteen and came to help with the new baby, help you move home. There are drinking fountains everywhere and all the signs are in English. You have no trouble figuring out what line you need to get into to enter the country. You need no visa here. Here you belong. 

"Welcome back," says the guard, making no effort to hide their boredom, scanning the pile of passports you've handed her and inking in an entry stamp. She hands you back three passports: one for you and each of your children. You waddle forward, a thumb-sucking cherub strapped to your front, a tired preschooler clinging to your hand. 

"Welcome back," the guard grumbles to your sister, stamping her passport as well.

"Welcome...oh," the guard says, suddenly attentive. "Mr. Heiss. What were you doing in Egypt?"

"I was a student at the American University in Cairo."

"You travelled a bit while you were out there."


"Where did you go?"

"Morocco, Spain, Jordan, Israel, Italy..." your husband rattles off.

"Did you ever visit...Yemen?"


"You're going to have to come with me."

You stand, with your mouth falling open, as you watch your husband being escorted away from you. You have a connection to make! You have to get all your suitcases through customs! Your husband has everyone's boarding passes in his breast pocket! You don't even know where they're taking him! You have three children with you, you remind yourself. You've got to keep your cool. 

Your sister helps you haul all of your suitcases—eight for your family, two for her—off the conveyor belt and onto a luggage cart(s (because you need three of them)). You plop your carryons and your tired child on top. 

"Now what?" your sister asks.

"Now we...find out where he is..." you guess. "Wait here with the babies."

After asking several officials, you finally find where your husband is being detained, but you can't talk to him or see him. He needs to be questioned. You just have to wait. 

"Where?" you ask.

"Anywhere," the man says. "I don't care."

"But I need to be able to find my husband," you say. "We don't have cell phones. He has our plane tickets."

"So...?" the man asks. 

"So...I would like to know where I can wait so that I can find my husband when he is released."

"He should be coming through that door if he's allowed into the country."

"If?" you squeak.

"Not my problem," the man shrugs. 

You find your sister and tell her where to wait. You both take a long look at the door, which seems an impossible distance to wheel those three heavy luggage carts to, but somehow you make it over there. And then you wait. You wait for a long time. 

Finally you screw up enough courage to talk to a guard.

“Hi, ummm, my husband was detained for questioning and it’s been a while and so I was just wondering how much longer he’s going to be and how we’re going to find him because we need to catch a flight and…”

“Is your husband an American citizen?”


“He’s a citizen of the United States of America?”


“What’s his name?”

“Andrew Heiss.”

“I’ll go check on him.”

You wait for the guard to come back. He doesn't bring good news.

“They’re still working on him,” he says gruffly, “It’s gonna be a while.”

You resume waiting. You wait and you wait and finally your husband does walk out that door. And miraculously you make your connection and all's well in the world.


Those stories are not hypothetical, by the way. Those stories are mine (and there are a lot more where those came from). Fortunately, though troublesome (and sometimes downright scary) at the time, they ended well.

But what if everything was not all well?

What if your visa was cancelled while you were in the middle of a 20-hour journey through the sky and you suddenly found yourself cut off from your husband or child, not just for a few hours but for who knows how long? What if you have to turn around and go back to...somewhere...even if it's not your home? Even if you're in the middle of a graduate program? Or are legally employed in that country? Or whatever.

Do you leave your family half there, half here? Do you pay for another plane ticket?

Ninety days? That's three months! What about the classes you're enrolled in? What about that medical procedure you were due to have?

If you're a refugee, where do you go? Back to a freezing cold tent-city in Greece? Back to your own war-torn country?

So many questions—ridiculous questions that we shouldn't even be answering.

I have crossed enough borders, have waded through enough bureaucracy, to know that having all your paperwork filled out and properly filed can be a real pain (more pain in some countries than others). Unfortunately it seems we've joined the ranks of those corrupt "some countries" where having all your paperwork in order means nothing if the whims of a government official dictate otherwise. Our country is bordering on insanity.

I wish I could have gone to the airport to protest today, but I couldn't (Zoë's been running a fever this weekend). I am so proud of my friends who did go, though. 


  1. Crazy. You forgot to mention getting locked in a cage for 45 minutes while coming home with little children. From Canada.

  2. And frustrating for all those legal visitors and legal residents.

  3. Right. This was just a smattering of stories. Crossing the border can be such a headache. :/ THIS was/is a nightmare for so many. Undue hardship, really, for those already in the middle of their travels.

  4. The US is already the hardest country in the world to get into. Even for citizens.

  5. I also keep thinking of all the tenuous border crossings we have (luckily far) made over the years. The worst memory was getting denied boarding at SEA-TAC when I was so pregnant. To feel that again, or to feel that for 90's so sad.