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On American soil

August 1997
The Iranian

Letter from an Iranian woman recently arrested at an U.S. airport, accused of trying to stay in the States illegally. Her name and the identity of others have been withheld, and geographical locations changed to protect their privacy.

Going through customs at the airport, I was told to go into the room where they question you further. Two hours or more later, after everyone had left, I was called up and told: "We know that you live in the U.S." I controlled myself, and just denied this accusation. Two officers surrounded me and began accusing me over and over again, in other words shoolooghesh kardan [created a lot of dust], but I kept on denying.

At this point, a few more officers were called; my bags were sent for and opened and they took out my wallet, found my gym card [which I had gotten during my recent stay in the U.S.], Social Security card and drivers license information from the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles]. They were on a role, and all this was happening too quickly for me to even react. I just denied it all and explained that the gym membership was temporary; the Social Security was because I couldn't have a drivers license without it, and without a car one is helpless.

Then they opened my other bag and among my papers discovered the H1B-2 visa application forms and some invoices on blank paper stating my hours of work and all the rest. I knew I was fucked at this point, and they told me I was committing a huge crime and will be charged and arrested.

For the first time in my life I fainted. No one helped me up, brought me water or anything. After I recovered, I sat down for a bit, reviewed the situation and decided the only thing I can do is talk my way out of this. So I was called up, again surrounded by around five or six officers. I guess it's an intimidation technique. It works. Alongside me was another girl from Germany in a similar situation, although she actually had a business in Atlanta, with a house, car, etc. And all the evidence to prove so.

So the main officer sits next to me and tells me that I am in real shit; that he cannot believe that I would have all this evidence on me; that I have no rights to a phone call, a lawyer or anything for that matter; that what I have done is a criminal offense and I will have to pay for this. I was still too much in shock to react. In the meantime the girl from Air France booked me a ticket for two hours later, but they told her that my work "might take longer so book her in for tomorrow night!"

What followed was hours upon hours of paper work. By this time I got myself together, and put a calm face on, and tried to explain things as truthfully as I could. In fact, all I said was true, and I went into the smallest detail to make sure they too would believe my story. I also looked as innocent as I could. My story was as follows:

I came to the U.S. to visit friends and family. The two-month contract at the architectural firm came up to do some designs for a small project. I wanted to gain experience, and as a design engineer, I wanted my name to be on the project. So, essentially it was the experience that attracted me. I was fully financed by my own funds, and help from my parents. The firm was not going to hire me until the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] approved of my work permit visa (H1B). In the meantime I heard little from the INS people regarding my visa application so I came by the office to help out, research and do some designs, but all as an experience, like an informal intern. In the meantime my tourist visa ran out. I left the country, and my "work" at the company was over. My return to the U.S. was purely for pleasure. I never got paid by the architectural firm.

The INS officer wrote all this down on the forms, and basically said that even as an intern, the firm should have asked for permission. I pleaded ignorance, and the main supervisor for some reason said he believed me, that he will not charge me with criminal offence, but deport me and ban me from returning to the U.S. for five years.

Unfortunately at this point the office was closing down and their shifts had ended. It was midnight. Me and the German girl were taken by two officers to another section of the airport. And before we were taken I asked the supervisor to make sure I got my phone call, and maybe some tea, coffee, or water. He told the officers to do so, and promised me that I will be kept in the security room till my departure.

The second I walked into the cold, tight, room with wooden benches, chains at the bottom of them and the two men with chained feet to the benches, I knew we were simply fucked. Me, the German girl, and two Spaniards were chained to the cold thin wooden bench. By the way, the room was guarded by around 15 officers, all armed! Two other young girls were shortly brought in and chained to another bench. It was 1 a.m.

I asked for my phone call. All I could think about was Azar and Bill who had been waiting for me for the past four hours at the arrival hall, thinking I had gotten a taxi and was lying dead somewhere. What if they called my parents? They would just die. In fact, this was the case. Azar had called the police and filled a missing person report. She had called my mother. My father had suggested immigration problems, and so they had been calling the airport immigration, but the answering machine came on saying call in the morning. So I pleaded with the nasty guards, over and over again, for that crucial phone call. But they snickered and ignored us.

More form filling followed. We were finger printed a dozen times, photographed, etc. Hours and hours weer spent on us four, going through the same information over and over again. If we wanted to go to the bathroom they would chain our feet together, even though the toilet was next to all the armed guards in the same room. Where would we escape to?

The whole night we were kept sitting up right on the wooden bench, and people would come and go during the night, for routine immigration questioning. But they all left and us six remained. In the meantime two Maltese girls joined us and they too were chained to the men's bench. In the meantime, we were not given the phone call. I was dehydrated after the trauma, but they refused to give us water, and they addressed us and talked to us in the most vile manner. (Too much of a reminder of the Iranian pasdars [revolutionary guards]).

By 5 a.m. I was ready to die, but get that phone call. So I pleaded so much that finally a female officer who liked me -- as I reminded her of her daughter (!) -- let me make a call. I rang Azar, who had been sitting by the phone with all our friends, and as soon as she said "Hi", I began crying hysterically down the phone, telling her where I am and what they're doing to me, in Farsi. I didn't want to upset her, but I was under no condition to control myself. The guard hung up the phone after a few minutes, and I was returned to the bench.

The two Spaniards were teachers of handicapped children, working in the summer in the U.S., and teaching a special method to the Americans. My dad said it's a world-famous method of teaching handicapped children. They too were so innocent, yet chained like criminals to the bench. The two other girls from Malta had forged passports and were taken to prison; 90 days probation before court hearing -- crying and screaming along the way. They were 17!

At 7 a.m. we were told that we would be taken to a more comfortable place to spend the day before we are flown back at 7 p.m. that evening. The next few hours they called the four of us, one by one for a search. They thoroughly searched our luggage, took away all alcoholic beverages, cigarettes, lighters, which are all against INS regulations, I was told. This was followed by a strip search and I mentally got through that by talking to the two tough-mamma female officers about something totally different, the whole way through this. But the Spaniards didn't cope very well, and the girl was a little shaken and didn't talk much.

Anyway, by 9 p.m. we were handcuffed together, and at the same time made to carry our own luggage (believe me this is a very difficult process), and put in a prison van and driven off. Here the Spaniard boy started panicking, and he was convinced that they lied to us and that we were being taken to jail, and that he will be raped, and the whole "Midnight Express" scenario flashed before our eyes.

He was right. Before we could say "What the hell is going on?" we were separated into male and females and dumped in a cell just like in the movies, with a toilet on the side, soosks [cockroaches], cold as a fridge, no blankets, and we had on only a T-shirt and pants. We were kept there for an hour before a female guard (with massive chip on shoulder) said that we have to take a shower and change into uniform. I was in the cell with the Spaniard girl, who looked numb and so scared. I don't know what happened to the boy, but the German girl stayed at the airport and was criminally charged.

Next thing I knew, the Spaniard girl was taken to the shower, and I dozed off. When I woke up she was brought back in with an orange prison uniform on, and a look that resembled a girl that had just been raped or something. It was horrible. (They had taken away our watches and jewelry so I had no notion of time). I was next, and I just thought, if I went through all that shit in Iran, and survived it, I can do this. I was taken to a small room, with no lock, and two shower heads, made to strip in front of the prison guard and she watched me shower. Again I talked all the way through this!

I was returned to the cell and told to rest till they return. Next thing I knew I was woken and we were taken to the female dorm, given a bed and bye bye. I hadn't slept fro 24 hours so I hit that bed and woke up at 11.30 for the lunch call.

What followed is routine prison stuff, with the exception that this is the INS prison, and has only immigrants, no criminals. The stories the girls told me just made me cry. But the frightening thing was that some had been there for years and no one was telling me when I would leave. And I had no right to a phone call. However, I managed to sweet talk my way into a collect call to Azar, and I let her know of where I was and that in case I am not on that 7 o'clock flight, get legal help.

Time went by so slowly. The Spaniards were taken away, and I was loosing my mind. They finally came for me at 5.30 p.m. I changed back into my own cloths -- got my identity back -- was driven handcuffed, in a security van, by two armed guards to the airport, and put on the flight back to Amsterdam. The airline had my passport until I landed, as if I could jump off the plane with my passport! My poor family were at the airport, and they looked like they hadn't had a moments sleep, and had cried their eyes out for the past 30 hours. But it was so good to feel the warmth of relatives, freedom, and the rest.


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