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Home Main Forums General Discussion Doing volunteer work while on vacation in the U.S. is now a jailable offense

  • Lorien (1837 posts)
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    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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    • Marym625 (29211 posts)
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      1. On The Daily Radical

      I hope Olivia is a fake name.

      Omfd. I’m embarrassed to be an American

      Take Action #StopFCC https://www.battleforthenet.com/breaktheinternet/ "Once the decision was made to go into Iraq as an invader and occupier,  it’s like our nation lost its conscience. And it has not yet gotten that conscience back." Madfloridian  
    • ThouArtThat (6651 posts)
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      2. What We Have Wrought – Is – What We Shall Reap – All In The Name Of Empire


      "In America Today, Power Corrupts and Money Corrupts Absolutely" - Anonymous  
    • Punxsutawney (2257 posts)
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      3. Unblelievable

      Except not.

      When will other countries retaliate for things like this.

      Also interesting, and I’m assuming here, but being from Germany, one would assume white European. And yet still screened out. The German Counsel should be informed, not sure what good if any it would do.


      To neoliberals, everyone and everything are disposable. -  Chris Hedges  “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness" - J.K. Galbraith
    • cui bono (1704 posts)
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      4. That is crazy. I would change the name of the other person in case it's real.

      Unless you already did that.

      And then ask anyone who mentioned in their post to edit it out.

      The DNC can try to squash us but we'll just come back stronger.   
    • Enthusiast (12104 posts)
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      5. Jesus Christ.

      "I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country." Thomas Jefferson
    • Stockholmer (3996 posts)
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      6. you are so rapidly becoming an enemy pariah state to millions in the EU

      • GZeusH (2719 posts)
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        7. The EU will soon catch up.

        With climate refugees streaming north from Africa, your own home-grown crop of right-wing loons will eagerly use this story as their template for how to deal with new arrivals.

        If you build a better mousetrap, the world will some conservative believer will condemn you for blaspheming his sacred mouse-god.
        • Peace Patriot (3342 posts)
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          14. Climate change, yes, but also refugees from Bush-Obama-Hillary's wars.

          Mustn’t leave them out.

          • Fawke Em (4358 posts)
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            22. I think I'll start calling them the BOTH Wars.


            • Peace Patriot (3342 posts)
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              24. Good one! But punctuate it: B.O.T.H. Wars

              I used to call it “the Forever War” but it’s better to name names!  “B.O.T.H. Wars” will need a footnote, though.  Ah, me!  What to call all the killing we are paying for and that is being done in our name?

              And then there are the wars we don’t talk much about:  The war on black Americans.  The corrupt, murderous, failed U.S. “war on drugs.”  The war on democracy.  That’s a long war, too – going back at least to the mid-1950s and the U.S. overthrow of democracy in Iran and in Guatemala (both leading to bloody hell for its citizens).  Right now, we have a treasonous war on the Federal government perpetrated by fascist billionaires.

              Lots of wars.

    • davidthegnome (2196 posts)
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      8. Wtf.

      I am not that well versed in immigration law, but shouldn’t they have been taken to the embassy?  Or, at the very least, provided with attorneys to help them?  Do all of our laws to protect the innocent not apply if you are from another Country?

      I have never read anything in this forum that filled me with such rage, shame and despair.  Is this who we are now?  This can’t have been legal… or was it?

      Can we perhaps look into this further?  Maybe get the name of the airline, the agents responsible for this?  I understand the writer’s desire for privacy, but damn, someone should be accountable for this.

      Unless, of course… this was actually due process… in which case I will be even more disgusted.

      Anyone here from a civilized Country have use for a man who can cook, clean, shovel and kill bugs?  I’m ready to gtfo if this is what our Nation has become.

      “There is no distinctly native American criminal class save Congress.” - Mark Twain
    • FourScore (446 posts)
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      9. There is a lot to say here with so little time.

      First I want to say that the woman has written a very eloquent and beautiful piece. My heart goes out to all of those other wonderful women she met in jail. Heartbreaking.

      However, in her case, visas matter. The issue is not that she wanted to do the volunteer work the issue is that she did not have the proper visa. She must understand this because she wrote about it at the end of her peice.

      Traveling to a foreign country is serious business, and we are not part of the EU.  I have heard over many many years similar stories that are horrific about visa issues either here in the United States or in their home countries trying to get a US visa. So I am not condoning the way this is being handled by our country. But the woman really should have researched what it means to do volunteer work in a foreign country and what kind of visa she would need to apply for.

      I think the headline is somewhat misleading. A foreigner can come and do volunteer work. I believe, but I am not certain, if they are under 30 then they can come on a regular tourist visa. Again I am not certain of the law but I believe if you are over 30 then you need a special visa to do volunteer work. The American consulate could have answered these questions for her.

      As for the volunteer organizations that she is referring to – just google them – they are also very problematic. They do not help foreigners to understand these laws at all, and often they exploit people who come over trying to stay at a cheaper cost.

      Please allow me to reiterate that I do not condone at all how our country handles these situations once foreigners are here. Nor do I approve of how our entire visa application works. That’s a whole new subject. I also want to say that her descriptions of staying in the jail are absolutely heartbreaking. That is the real story.

      • duckpin (6758 posts)
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        10. Thanks for writing this; I think you are correct about the law here.

        "The justness of individual land right is  not justifiable to those to whom the land by right of first claim collectively belonged "
      • FourScore (446 posts)
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        13. Also, if you research these “volunteer” organizations…

        Foreigners hook up with individuals or businesses in order to work an average of 20 hours a week for free room and board. Sometimes they work more. Again, volunteering isn’t the issue, its the jobs they are doing and the quid pro quo. They are getting paid in room and board. This requires a specific visa.

        If someone comes from another country to truly volunteer, like for habitat for humanity, that’s something different.

        Again, I’m not condoning the way these women were treated by customs officials. However, Germans travel quite a lot. They tend to be very savvy about international travel and understanding visa requirements. These women should have explored all of this more carefully. A simple Google search regarding the organizations she is talking about produced a number of very bad reviews. Please look at this more carefully. And the title of the thread is really misleading.   A person can do volunteer work in this country.

    • Blackspade (3717 posts)
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      11. Welcome to America…

      …where your detention is a profit center.


    • travelamerica (939 posts)
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      12. You really think this started with Trump?

      There has been at least a 15 year buildup to this since the Patriot Act.   Fascism was determined to be America’s destiny by the Deep State.

      • Hawkowl (1387 posts)
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        15. Deportations are down under Trump

        They peaked under Obama.  That’s when I really noticed an escalation of Gestapo like tactics when crossing the border even as a US citizen.  You must, MUST push back against these tactics or we are finished as a country.  Unfortunately too many are willing to sell their souls for the myth of security.

        "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” - Burke
        • MistaP (7715 posts)
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          17. it's very important that this be framed as an unassailable Constitutional

          issue, and never a partisan lib-vs-con one (of course the 2001 Patriot Act attack on it was almost unanimous)

          2016 was almost a punchline as all the ponytails broke down in public screaming, running for the therapist whenever Trump announced things that Obama’d been doing without such free-flowing tears, and that two-facedness hampers the fight for even overwhelmingly-supported policies

          http://www.salon.com/2016/11/09/the-hillary-clinton-campaign-intentionally-created-donald-trump-with-its-pied-piper-strategy/ (Third Way = Bell Curve)
          • Hawkowl (1387 posts)
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            25. Yes!

            It is not a partisan issue. It is an issue of humanity.

            "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” - Burke
        • vattel (1955 posts)
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          20. ICE stepped up its deportation efforts in 2017. Trump is way worse than

          second term Obama on immigration policy, which is not to say that Obama’s policies were good.

          ICE Administrative Arrests:  Up 42% from 2016.

          ICE Interior Removals: Up 37% from 2016.

          Overall removals were slightly down in 2017 due to a historic low in border apprehensions by CBP.  Does that mean that Trump 2017 is actually better than Obama 2016 on immigration policy?  Of course not.  CBP is not weakening its efforts to apprehend border crossers any more than ICE is.  The historic low in apprehensions is the result of a dramatic drop in attempts to cross the border without authorization.


      • Peace Patriot (3342 posts)
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        16. +1,000!

      • Lorien (1837 posts)
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        18. I certainly don't. My friend Scott wrote the first paragraph

        He’s very much “with Her”, so he doesn’t see that neocon/ neolib policies exist in every administration. Another friend from Canada was taken to a detention center and grilled for 12 hours when he visited to teach a weekend seminar in Seattle. Then there was the Australian young adults author who experienced a similar ordeal when flying from OZ to JFK as a guest speaker for a convention. Both of those happened pre-Trump.

    • djean111 (6236 posts)
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      19. Back in the mid-nineties, I used to work in Den Haag for four to six weeks

      at a time; flew to Holland a lot!  Every time I got there, I was asked why am I there, vacation or work, and every time I said work (of course!) I was pulled into a room and asked for paperwork from the company and person I would be working for, with phone numbers, and every single time I was asked what was that I was doing that a Dutch person could not do.  I said I was testing software that the phone company, PTT, had bought from my company.  Well, then – why would PTT buy software from the US when there were Dutch programmers?  I said well, it is like if you want software, and it already exists, why duplicate it, and why hire a bunch of programmers who will need other work when the software is done?  That was a good answer, really, because at the time, anyone who lost their job got paid 80% of their salary until they found another job.  So – economics.  And we were told before we flew there to never make a joke about this stuff.  And the people who grilled me always had little machine guns, I am not up on my gun recognition skilz.

      But we are hardly the only country who has rules about that sort of thing.  And look up how to emigrate to Australia or New Zealand.    Not very easy at all.  This is not a pretty story, though, and sounds like some people overreacted.

      • *Obligatory disclaimer - when I say "Democratic Party" I mean the DNC - the Clintons and the un-elected people and the consultants and the lobbyists and the corporations who actually run things.  The people who work and vote and are registered as "D" are no more the actual party than Trekkies are Star Trek.   Extra credit - the Democratic Party gets to actually fuck up your life. When you vote for it.
      You think the only reason that people won't vote for a warmongering Third Way fracking-enabling cluster bomb throwing H-1B increasing lying pandering corporate and Wall Street shill who says she has no problem putting abortion rights on the table is because we are mad about Bernie?  Um, nope.
      • FourScore (446 posts)
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        23. Thank you! Iused to travel extensively in Europe prior to the EU

        Border crossings are pretty much always intimidating. Without the proper visa, a nightmare!

    • Aldroud (1206 posts)
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      21. Woman has sad because she didn't get proper visa to work in US

      My feelbox meter barely registers. She should have known better, I have zero sympathy.

      Those who beat their swords into plowshares will plow for those who don't.