After a 15-hour flight from Manila, Carina Grande landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport this month with plans to visit her grandson in Everett before the two left for her daughter’s wedding in California.
She never set foot outside the airport.
After a nearly six-hour interview in a small room there, the Philippines native, who had been coming to the U.S. for decades, was denied entry, her visitor’s visa was revoked and she was sent home on the next flight after authorities concluded her intentions were not what she claimed.
It’s a scene repeated at U.S. airports every day as international visitors find themselves unable to overcome a major presumption in immigration policy: that arriving foreigners intend to stay, unless able to demonstrate otherwise.
Any number of factors — from attempting to visit a fiancé in the U.S. to being broke, jobless and lacking strong ties at home — can raise suspicion that a visitor has what’s known as “immigrant intent.”
“The law is tough, and the U.S. has every reason to have suspicion of people coming here and hoping they can find a way to stay forever,” said Seattle immigration attorney Shannon Underwood.
“But there are lots of people who are perfectly happy in their home countries.”
The story about how Grande, a 64-year-old retired procurement officer, was “harassed” by authorities in Seattle was widely broadcast on national news across the Philippines.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) officials accused her of coming to work here as a home-health-care provider, despite a return airline ticket, evidence of her daughter’s wedding and a comfortable life back in Manila, where she is the primary caregiver for her sick husband.
They made the determination in part after calling her nearly 90-year-old aunt, who lives with and is being cared for by her own son and his family in California. The aunt told them she would pay Grande $10 a day for caregiving, and Grande’s grandson, when contacted, said he told them he would give her a few dollars to buy groceries during the time she was at his home.
“I understand immigration officials have a tough job, but they need to improve the process so that innocent people like my mom aren’t being unfairly singled out,” said Stephanie Grande, who had assumed her mother would be there for her Oct. 26 wedding.
“My mother clearly has no intention of paying someone else to take care of my father so she can come here and live and provide care to someone else.”
CBP officials won’t discuss individual cases. In a written statement, the agency pointed out the dozens of circumstances that could make a visitor inadmissible — from health reasons, the possibility he or she might become a public charge, to having immigrant intent.
During the federal fiscal year that ended in September, CBP officers in the Seattle region sent home 182 visitors trying to enter either by air, land or sea — up 14 percent from the year before.
That number doesn’t include those, like Grande, who agreed to withdraw their applications and leave voluntarily to avoid a five-year ban from the country.
“Citizens have no idea the scope of questioning and probing CBP can conduct against anyone — including spouses of U.S. citizens,” said Seattle immigration attorney Robert Gibbs.
He was referring to a recent case involving the German wife of a U.S. veteran (the two had been living for years in Germany) who was denied entry when she admitted the couple might look into getting her a green card while they were here.
Separated from her husband at Sea-Tac, she spent the night at the Tacoma detention center and was sent home the next day.
“It’s tricky to explain intent ...” Gibbs said. “You may have a wish or a hope ... but if you have intent or a plan and that’s what the officer thinks, that becomes a problem.”
Home country matters
The U.S. allows citizens from most European countries, and others such as Japan, Australia and South Korea, to travel to the United States for business or pleasure on a passport issued by their home countries.
People from elsewhere must first obtain a visitor’s visa from the U.S. consulate in their home countries — represented as a stamp in their passport.
While international business travelers often have corporate lawyers at the ready for times when they run into problems at the airport, casual visitors denied entry are sometimes caught off-guard.
CBP officials prescreen all visitors. So even before they land at the airport, they are known to authorities.
“They’ve predetermined the people they are looking for in certain circumstances,” Underwood said.
And after long flights across the world, some of them may find themselves in a room at an airport, relying on an interpreter on the phone to help explain their intentions to immigration authorities, while on the outside frantic friends and relatives rapid-dial local lawyers seeking any kind of help.
If there’s any help, it often comes too late.
Underwood recalled a case of a Russian visitor, a victim of domestic violence, who had gone through a difficult divorce, sold her home and shipped 500 pounds of items from that house to her daughter’s in the United States about two weeks before she arrived at Sea-Tac.
Authorities most likely connected the woman to the shipment through pre-screening, and red flags went up all over the place.
“They decided she was moving here — which wasn’t true,” Underwood said.
The experience is less dramatic for Canadians, who can be denied entry either at the border or prevented from boarding a U.S.-bound flight during preflight screening at a Canadian airport.
At the airport, “they can’t be denied entry, since they’re not on U.S. turf,” Blaine attorney Len Saunders said.
“So they get punted out of preflight at Vancouver Airport and can simply come back prepared a day or a week later.”
Why the close scrutiny
Those who advocate tough scrutiny of arriving visitors point out that nonimmigrants who remain in the U.S. after they were supposed to leave account for one-third to one-half of the some 11 million people living in the country unlawfully.
In weighing whether to allow visitors entry, CBP officials typically look at various factors and may go through laptops and cellphones to find evidence.
Strong ties in a home country help demonstrate a person will likely return home: kids in school, a house and a job. “The more of those you have, the more likely it is that CBP officers will reach the right conclusion,” Gibbs said.
On the other hand, certain factors raise suspicion: retirees, young people without jobs and people with no family members back in a country that offers few job prospects.
“The officer starts thinking: ‘Why would this guy go back?’ ” Gibbs said.
And if you’re engaged, or married — forget about it.
Attorneys say you probably shouldn’t even attempt to visit without first getting proper documents — a fiancé visa, if you’re engaged, for example. And with recent changes in federal law, those same rules now also apply to same-sex couples.
The worst is to be caught lying to an officer — an offense that can lead to a determination of fraud and possibly a permanent bar.
In some cases, particularly when they suspect intent, CPB officials will allow the person to withdraw an application to enter the country, avoiding what’s known as “expedited removal,” which bans a person for five years from attempting to enter the U.S., unless he or she can obtain a waiver.
Given those options, Grande said she chose to leave voluntarily.
She said authorities kept her cellphone until it was time for her to board the plane and then placed it in her checked luggage, preventing her from calling relatives until she was back home in Manila, 15 hours later.
In a statement about the incident, she said, “It pains me so that I was mistreated by people from a country known as human-rights defenders.”