My name is Deepa Lakshmi Mohan, an Indian. I have been visiting the US regularly since 1989. My daughter lives in St.Louis, and I come to visit her often.
I have a valid 10-year visa,granted in Chennai in December 2012.
Last year, I came at the end of January (January 28th) to be with my daughter and her family when my grandson was born. Because of health issues for the child, I applied for an extension of visa well within the time stipulated, through the official channel, UCIS-ELIS. I was granted an extension of visa and I left for home at the end of October. This was the only time in 25 years of visiting the US, that I have taken a visa extension.
This year, because of scheduled surgery for my grandson, on August 19th, I decided to visit her again. I came from Paris through Minneapolis-St.Paul airport.
Because I am a frequent flyer wtih Delta, I am entitled to two pieces of checked-in luggage, which I was to clear through Customs at Minneapolis. I will return to this later.
Here's what happened to me.
My flight (Air France, Flight 1463 from Paris to Minneapolis-St.Paul) landed at noon I'd already spent 9 hours on the flight. There was a one-hour wait in the queue at Immigration. I was asked to go to the counter where Mr Brooks, an Immigration Officer, questioned me about why I had taken a visa extension last year, and why I was returning to the US now. I answered him to the best of my ability. I felt that he was being hostile, but I did not want to make assumptions. He agreed that my visa extension was legal, but told me that UCIS-ELIS granted visa extensions, and that the Department of Homeland Security "didn't like them". (I am quoting him, he repeated this several times.) He told me that my extending my visa, and wanting to return to the US now, raised "several red flags." He would have to question me further, and in front of all the other incoming visitors, a police officer led me to another room, where several other visitors were also taken, and being questioned by Immigration Officers.
After about an hour's wait, he came back and called me, and took me back to the same Immigration counter. The place was deserted by now. He told me that several visitors "lie" about their visas and stay and work in the US, abusing their visa status. He told me that the 10-year multiple US entry visa on my passport meant nothing, and it was he who would decide whether people could visit, or whether he would send them home. He repeated that my staying on for a long time in the US and then wanting to visit again in 9 months' time was raising "several red flags". I answered all his questions to the best of my ability. He said he was worried that I would ask for another extension again. I told him that I had no intention of staying longer, and that I wanted to get back home.
I also suggested that he call my daughter in St.Louis and he said that he could be doing so. He called her, and in the course of the conversation, he asked her if I was indeed her mother, and whether she had paid me for any work.
I asked him, since I had not been able to get to Baggage Claim and get my luggage, whether it would be safe. He told me it would be.
After about two hours, he finally stamped the entry visa on my passport.
I went to the Baggage Claim area and found that one of my suitcases was missing. I was told to file a complaint with Delta at my final destination (St.Louis) if my luggage had not arrived there. One of my suitcases is indeed missing, and I had to spend time in St.Louis airport, filing a claim for lost baggage.
Luckily, I had enough time to catch my flight to St.Louis.
Now, here are my observations and comments.
1. I agree that probably the Immigration officers find people abusing the visa regulations all the time. However, Mr Brooks repeatedly agreed that my visa extension was legal and valid. He repeated several times that "CIS grants extensions, but we don't like them." If one Government agency grants a valid US visa extension, how is it possible that the Department of Homeland Security is not able to accept that? And why should I, as a visitor be interrogated at such length, when I have done nothing illegal?
2. Does the manner of interrogation have to be so unpleasant?The hostile and intimidating attitude of Mr Brooks never wavered throughout the interrogation. He asked me whether my daughter was a US citizen, and why she was not. I found these questions intrusive and irrelevant to my case, but since, perhaps, he was probably doing his duty in asking these questions, I did not react. But the intimidating manner throughout was very distressing to me.
3. If visitors must be interrogated, could it not be organized so that they first secure their luggage, keep it aside on a trolley and then go for the interrogation process? This way, I could have made sure that my luggage was safe, instead of going through the additional trauma of losing one piece.
I repeat...I have nothing against the questions that were asked, in an effort to prove my bonafides. But I object very deeply to the tone of the interview, where it was made amply clear that I was not being believed. When I tried telling Mr Brooks, "Look at it from my point of view," he responded, "I never look at any point of view but my own." In that case, why bother to ask me anything at all?
I knew that he had the power to refuse me entry into the US, (a fact that he reminded me of, repeatedly) after a long and expensive trip, so I did not allow his intimidating manner to affect me. But when, after finally stamping the entry on my visa, he told me, "You are always welcome to the US," I felt like telling him, "I'm sorry, it certainly did not feel that way."
I have no doubt that several people are extremely keen to get into the US any way they can. But believe me, there are plenty of people like me who come on expensive visits only because of their family, and would like nothing better than to live peacefully at home.
I feel that some Immigration officers have met so many wrongdoers that they assume malafide intent on the part of anyone who raises their "red flags". But politeness and a helpful manner, in my opinion, would go a long way in preventing bonafide travellers from feeling harassed and troubled.
Even US citizens accused of a crime seem to have some rights. But visitors to your country seem to have none. For the two hours that the interrogation went, I had to ask to get the officers to open up a toilet in the waiting area for me. I had nothing to eat or drink.
I underwent an extremely unpleasant experience and am not in the least interested in visiting your country again unless there is a great necessity. Unfortunately, with my only child living here with her family, that may arise once in a while. I still think that my 10-year visa means that I can visit when I want, without having to undergo such difficulties at the point of entry. In 25 years of visiting the US, I have asked for a visa extension only once, but that caused me such an unpleasant experience.
Also in nearly 25 years of visiting the US, this was the worst experience I have ever had at Immigration, and I would certainly like a response from you on this.
(Living in Bangalore, India)
After this, I also went through the experience of having a Customs man ask me to open up the single suitcase I had, throw out all my stuff to find out if (I quote) "you have been less than honest in your declaration" about not having food items, finally declare, "You are lucky that you don't have food and stuff that I could catch!" (he's obviously a rat-catcher) and leave me to pack my suitcase again and go to the connecting flight to St.Louis. But I want to fight the major battle, and let the minor skirmish go.
I still do not have my lost suitcase. DnA are painting the house, which is topsy-turvy; I have had no opportunity to buy new clothes. Hope to be able to do so with the weekend coming up ahead.
I really don't feel like ever visiting this country again, and definitely I will avoid Minneapolis-St.Paul airport like the plague.