Doing volunteer work while on vacation in the U.S. is now a jailable offense
From an artist friend:
I am posting this story written by a wonderful German Illustrator and human who tried to come to the U.S. to volunteer and vacation – and was JAILED.
She preferred to be anonymous to this and has turned off sharing to only her friends. Although, she gave me permission to copy her story below. Her anonymity is due to the fact that speaking out may make international travel back to the States if she is ever able to come back more difficult as border agents are allowed to check cell phones and laptops without warrants. If they find her criticisms, with our ever expanding Trumpian police state, she may be denied because of a Facebook post.
I am horrified that someone was treated so poorly because of the absolute bigotry and racism of President Trump with a clearly failing system of managing actual humans that may face a benign immigration issue.
We simply have to do away with Republicans and the Trump Administration. This has all got to stop.
“Okay friends, after a whole month of consideration and of recovering from the experience, I now decided to share what happened at the beginning of December to me and another girl upon our arrival in the United States. I thought I could just let it go and I don’t feel comfortable at all with sharing very personal experiences online, but 4 weeks later I’m still upset and cannot believe all of this happened. Mainly I’m publishing it as a warning for travelers who are trying to enter the country longer than for a short vacation and who maybe have the plan to volunteer in exchange for a place to stay. People who are traveling for business reasons are concerned, too. I’m also posting it to raise awareness for how immigrants are being treated in this country.
I’m not sure if talking about it online will make it even harder or impossible for me to ever enter the U.S. again. But not sharing it feels even worse, than worrying about not being able to return to Sitka. So far I only know, that I will never be able to travel there on an ESTA visa again. I’m going to make it as honest and neutral as possible:
On December 7th I left Germany on a flight to Seattle, where I wanted to catch a connecting flight to Honolulu, Hawaii. My plan was to recover from months of work and to explore the different islands and for some time volunteer at a spiritual retreat center and for an older couple in exchange for a place to stay, while working freelance as an illustrator as usual. I wanted to get more into my yoga practice and be around people who live a conscious and spiritual life and care for their environment. Since the main purpose of this trip was to travel and explore, I assumed I could enter the U.S. on an ESTA visa, like I had done so many times before, when I traveled to Alaska and NYC. I was a little worried because I hadn’t booked a round trip ticket as usual, but I had a flight out of Honolulu to Auckland, New Zealand in February.
After arriving in Seattle I went to the passport and border control. Unlike the last few times the officer started asking several questions about my stay and finally told me I should follow him to the offices of the border control. While waiting for the procedure to continue I met Olivia, who had been on the same flight and surprisingly had almost the exact same plans of traveling and volunteering in Hawaii.
We were waiting in front of the offices for almost an hour and then both got called in by different officers, who started interviewing us. The whole procedure took way longer than I would have expected and 5 hours after our plane had arrived, they finally made the decision, that they wouldn’t let us enter and that we were gonna be put on the next flight back home. The reason being that this kind of volunteer work is not allowed and that we would take away jobs from actual citizens of the country. I tried to explain that workaway is an organization which connects travelers, who want to have a more holistic experience, with hosts, so that cultural exchange can happen. I also told them, that they could just call the host I wanted to stay with in Kona, so that he can tell them, that I won’t be making money and that we’re not talking about actual jobs being taken away from anyone, but they didn’t want to investigate further.
I also made the suggestion that I could drop the volunteering ideas and instead stay on campsites and in hostels, but none of that helped. All of this was quite frustrating but I was ready to accept, that I had misunderstood the visa requirements and had to go back home.
When they finally would let us talk to each other, we both assumed that we could just wait at the airport and catch the next flight to Germany. Instead they told us, that we would have to wait at least until the next morning and that they would bring us somewhere else to spend the night. They made it sound like we would be brought to ‚something like a hotel‘.
After waiting again for more than two hours, during which they told us that we can’t bring anything besides the cash we both carried and the clothes we were wearing, they locked away all of our stuff, including our phones and passports. When we wanted to inform family at home, we had to do that in front of the officers. At some point a female officer came to body search us and then we had to follow them to an actual prisoner transport vehicle. They told us they would make an exception and not make us wear handcuffs. We were still naive enough to think that everything would be fine, and we would be brought to an ok place to spend the night, until after around an hour or so of driving we arrived at what turned out to be the Northwest Detention Center, which is a prison where they keep ‚illegal‘ immigrants.
After passing two huge gates they guarded us to the entrance and we went through two metal doors. At this point the whole reality of the situation finally sunk in and I started realizing that nothing was ok. They told us that they don’t know exactly, when they would be able to get us on a plane back to Germany, and that we might have to stay till Monday, which would have been 4 days. We were standing in front of a row of windows behind which a group of male prisoners stood and stared at us. The female officer told us that they have to body search us again and only brought us around the corner, out of sight of the men, who gave us looks that made me feel more than uncomfortable, after I asked her to. After this procedure, they put us into a small, cold cell, slammed the door closed without telling us what would happen next. In the cell was a metal toilet and a little wall in front of it, not high enough to protect you from being watched, while you’re on the toilet. The officers who had brought us there left. We sat on stone benches and ate dry white bread and an orange, which they had given us. We were waiting again for more than an hour until a woman came and told us that we would have to go through a medical examination later. We asked for some blankets to sleep on, since it was already the middle of the night. She said she’s new to this place and that she doesn’t know if we can have blankets. Around an hour later they made us follow them to the ‚medical center‘ where we had to pee in a cup for a pregnancy test, have taken our weight and height and x-rayed our chest to see if we have tuberculosis. Additionally we had to sign some paperwork which said, that they could give us any kind of medication they consider to be necessary. After that they gave us some blankets, brought us to a different cell with two more women, who both were trying to sleep on the stone benches. By that time I was so desperate and fearful, that the gesture of being handed blankets and a little toothbrush and someone telling us that we will be okay, almost made me cry from an overwhelming feeling of gratitude.
After some time we were brought to a different room, had to take off all of our clothes and put on prisoner uniforms. Then they made us sign some paper work, without really explaining what we were signing. They gave us some brochures that were all supposed to inform about sexual assault at the detention center. We had to sign a paper that said, that we have received this information. After more hours in the cell they brought us to a different room with rows of narrow bunk beds with sleeping women, who were all considered illegal immigrants.
It was already 4 in the morning and we hadn’t slept for more than 35 hours, so we tried to get some sleep. The officers who surveilled us were talking all the time and only an hour later all the lights went on and the metal doors of the cells, which were placed in rows around the room with the bunk beds, opened automatically. Slowly most of the women woke up. During the morning we got into some conversations with women and girls who originally came from for example Mexico, Puerto Rico, Ukraine and Poland. Some of them had spent decades living and working in the US, and now were going to be deported because they for example had lost their jobs. They will have to leave behind their children, husbands, basically their whole lives. Some of them had spent many months at the detention center.
Olivia and I both went through different stages of emotions. Being together really helped us to stay fairly calm. I’m certain that without her I would’ve had a nervous breakdown. We tried to approach the situation sometimes with humor (making silly jokes really helped to stay sane), sometimes with serious calmness (constantly talking about our feelings also really helped) and when one of us was falling apart from fear and the horror brought by uncertainty and by the terrible feeling of helplessness, because our freedom had been taken away, the other one was strong enough to comfort. All the women and girls around us were so compassionate and helpful, though obviously their situation was unspeakably worse than ours. I’m full of admiration for how strong and graceful these women were. None of them had done anything wrong besides trying to live their lives and still they were being treated as criminals. Seeing how strong they were gave me so much comfort and made this totally unexpected and strange situation ok. I can’t stop thinking about what they have to go through and it’s breaking my heart. They truly tried to make the best of their situation. Somewhere in the prison there apparently is some kind of store also called Commissary where a woman had bought some colorful paper from which she made bracelets and paper cups for her fellow inmates. Two Spanish speaking women had bought some yarn and used their toothbrushes to knit.
At some point Olivia and I tried to call the German Consulates in Alaska and Los Angeles but the phones didn’t work most of the time, the calls were somehow interrupted. When we finally reached someone, they told us, that they won’t be able to help at this point. The consulate could be called for free and we had 5 free minutes for a phone call, but not for international calls, which seems ridiculous considering that you’re in a prison for immigrants. Another way to contact someone was through something like a computer with very limited options, with which you could create a ‚JailMail‘ account, but as far as I understood you can only send messages through that, if the person you want to contact also has a JailMail Account. We talked to the two officers on duty who were being really friendly, but told us, that two Spanish women who had been in a similar situation as us, had to stay there for two weeks and that they aren’t able to tell us, when we would be allowed to leave and go back home.
We surrendered more and more to the situation and also tried to make the best of it. At some point the door opened and one of the girls, who had been there for a longer time, was told that she could leave because someone had paid some money to bail her out. Seeing how incredibly happy for her and supportive the other women were made me cry. I started to feel okay with being there as long as we had to, because I felt that I’m not alone and that all these women are good company, but I was still scared of what would happen next. Around noon one of the officers of the border control, the one who had interviewed Olivia the day before, showed up at the detention center and we were told that he had found us a flight back home. It turned out that he had felt sorry for us and had done everything to get us a flight to Germany as soon as possible. We were brought back to the airport in the same prisoner transport car as before, by him and another officer. They brought us to the cell where our stuff was locked away, we could get all of our things back and then they guarded us to the gate and all the way onto the plane. They gave our passports to one of the stewards in charge and he gave them back to us after the landing in Frankfurt.
The whole situation from our arrival in Seattle to the departure of the plane had only taken 24 hours but it felt much longer. I’m still confused and shocked to have seen and experienced how people are being treated in this ‚first world country‘. I’m not sure if I will again take the risk to travel there, but it’s breaking my heart to think that I might not be able to return to Sitka. At the same time I’m incredibly grateful for the freedom and peace I usually live in and in a strange way I’m thankful for having been taught about that by a situation I would never have expected. Well, if anyone has made a similar experience or knows someone who has I’d be interested to talk about it… let me know. I couldn’t find much information about travelers being locked away there or in other prisons, which is really strange to me.
If you want to read more details about the Northwest Detention Center you can find several articles online.
I want to make clear that I’m aware that I had a lack of knowledge concerning visa requirements, but I don’t see how this could ever justify the way we were treated. The whole volunteer thing is kind of a grey zone and I could not really find any helpful information about it. It seems like it is just impossible to volunteer legally in the US if you’re from abroad, unless it is for registered non-profit (most of the time church related) organizations. That’s the information the officers gave us. This makes me wonder why there is this huge amount of wwoofing and workaway options online. I’m not trying to blame these organizations, I’m just wondering why it still seems to be so common that hosts are offering volunteering opportunities there.”eridani, ThomPaine, Xyzse and 38 othersPastiche, twenty, Rocco, JEB, 7wo7rees, vattel, bbgrunt, JimLane, shanti, Betty Karlson, Cleita, glinda, Land of Enchantment, Peace Patriot, ElfinWilde, talkstoclouds, Blackspade, LiberalElite, davidthegnome, Stockholmer, Enthusiast, HomerRamone, madfloridian, Baba OhReally, FourScore, DesertRat2015, HubHeaver, nevereVereven, Lynetta, Two way street, snot, Flying Squirrel, Punxsutawney, SurrealAmerican, A little weird, PADemD, jwirr, Marym625 like this
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