Frozen In and Blocked Out

After our flight from Hong Kong arrived at LAX, we had to wait in line for a grueling hour and a half. Finally, a customs officer waves me and my cousin, Sophia Fung ’17, over. We step up to the counter, passports and travel documents in hand. Officer “Ruiz” quickly looks over my American passport, scans it for authenticity, and admits me to the US without a hitch.

Sophia, on the other hand, had to show her I-20 student visa forms. Officer Ruiz takes a look, expresses mild surprise at Sophia having her form already signed by a faculty member and proceeds to verify her as a student in the computer.

No match.

Sophia explains:

At the immigration desk the officer asked me how old I was, where I went to school, if I was attending school, and with a puzzled face, asked for my age again. I answered all the questions and then he told me that my “status” as a student wasn’t showing up on the computer. Then, much to my distress, he told me that the worst case scenario would be that I would be put back on a plane to Hong Kong. It’s a 14 to 15 hour flight. He got out of his little cubicle and led us to a secondary waiting room.

After we were asked to move into secondary inspection, where rows of other “detainees” (composed mainly of minorities) were sitting,  we had to waited for further verification on Sophia’s eligibility to enter the country. Jasmin Arculli ’17, who flew in on the same flight, turns and gives a tired smile, obviously in the same situation. Felicia Jiang ’14 and Shinnosuke Taniya ’17 also hit roadblocks during their arrival.

Sophia continues to describe how “we sat on the edges of our seats and waited for one of our names to be called. I got called first, much to Jasmin’s dismay, and the woman at the desk asked me the same questions as the first officer did. She then told me with a smile that I could leave. It was roughly an hour delay, and we spent a total of about three and a half hours in LAX.”

No further explanations were given as to the reason for the delay.

Ben Yoon ’15, who has now been detained at least three separate times, also faced additional scrutiny at LAX. At the immigration security checkpoint, Yoon was faced with a particularly curious US Customs agent.

He looked at the passport, then at me, and then back to the passport, and then 10 minutes later I was taken to another room. There, they looked at me and then decided to ask for a Korean Air agent to come assist in translation like they didn’t think I spoke English. Another US Customs agent came to interview me, but as soon as I started speaking, they realized I spoke English and the Korean Air agent left. They looked at me again and my photo a couple of times and then decided that I just was wearing glasses and let me go. It was an additional 30 minute delay.

While all international students eventually got through, other students were not so lucky in returning to campus. Plagued by the current weather phenomenon known as the polar vortex, several students were stuck at airports around the world.

Karl Nozadze ’17 arrived at school a week late after having his flight canceled four times.

We had a day with zero visibility in the skies, a day with a blizzard, and a day where the runway was so frozen that planes could not land.

Anand Shah ’14, in a correspondence to Ms. Vickery, stated, “There are no planes going to Los Angeles from India.”

Taylor Bacon ’15 also got sucked in the arctic black hole.

Last Tuesday, all American Airlines flights out of Chicago were canceled when the antifreeze stopped working and the planes’ engines froze over.  I got booked on another flight the next day, but the first two planes we boarded couldn’t take off for various reasons.  The captain quickly apologized to the cabin saying, “Sorry Ladies and Gentleman, we’re just trying to find a plane that works right now.” Eventually, they found one that worked and we took off several hours late.  After a long, caffeine-fueled journey, I arrived back at school just past 2 a.m. Thursday morning.

Students weren’t the only ones delayed by the enormous weather system.

Dr. Sarah DelVecchio and her family, after spending the winter break back east, became prisoners of the snow for two additional days in Boston. They were forced to rent a car, make way to her in-laws’ house and “were fed muffins, casseroles, and homemade goodies.”

But the biggest question on everyone’s mind is, “Where the heck is Mr. Okpalugo?”

Sitting at his friend’s house in South London and waiting for his background check to come through, he detailed the “immigration vortex” that he is still enduring in order to renew his visa.

  1. US immigration procedures for work visa renewal are altered, but not publicized.
  2. Okpalugo goes to the embassy the week before he is due to return, and realizes that said procedures have changed.
  3. Embassy says that Okpalugo has his stuff ready to renew, but they need to see a domestic background check (even though Okpalugo hasn’t lived in England since 2007).
  4. Okpalugo tries to explain that he has a flight booked and a job waiting for him in the beautiful Ojai. Request denied.
  5. Embassy will not process the documents until background check comes in. Okpalugo is stuck for the next couple of days.

Mr. Okpalugo also expressed dissatisfaction about the seemingly pointless requirements about visa renewal. When asked via our email interview, he had a few choice words about the US immigration system.

If the NSA has been using PRISM to spy on aliens all this time, why does it take so long for a simple background check to come back? Why must I jump through so many hoops?

He goes on to describe his last experience trying to enter the United States. To cut a long story short, Mr. Okpalugo witnessed some mild racism and abusive behavior from Customs and Border Protection officers towards members of minority races in the very same “secondary inspection” area several Thacher students had to endure.

His opinion? The additional procedures US immigration has put in place makes it difficult for legitimate people who want to come in to do actual work and are not a harm to the security of the country to actually enter the country.

In the meantime, the class is being taught via email, and school life has returned to a normal routine.

And just in time.