So, as many of you know, I was accepted into a graduate program in London at the University of Westminster. Enrollment and registration takes place on October 2nd and classes start on October 6th. With this in mind, and to allow myself plenty of time to get situated in London (move in, unpack, purchase a Tube pass and new mobile phone, etc.), I purchased an airplane ticket that had me arriving at London Heathrow on September 22nd.
Unfortunately, my student visa support letter didn’t arrive from the University until a week before my scheduled departure. And, of course, a week is not sufficient time to send off one’s passport to a consulate and to receive it back with a fresh visa inside. No worries though as I’d heard about this before and everyone just entered on a tourist visa and sorted out the student visa before their tourist visa expired. Just to be certain though, I called the University and spoke to someone there that confirmed my plans were legitimate.
Following an excellent visit with my sister, her husband and three kids on the way to London, I was brimming with confidence when I approached the Immigration Officer at London’s Heathrow Airport. Her first question to me was, “How long are you staying in the U.K.?” I answered honestly and briefly explained my situation.
This was met with a curt, “You can’t do that”, and after some attempted haggling on my part, I had my passport confiscated and was led to her supervisor where I was presented with an IS91R form advising me that I was now a “detainee”. Isn’t “detainee” such a Bush-era word? At this point, I was escorted down to the baggage claim to retrieve my luggage which was then searched very extensively. After this, I was led into the bowels of London Heathrow to a processing facility where my luggage was searched again, documented and then placed in storage while I was photographed and fingerprinted and then also placed in storage (a detention facility).
There were some very tired looking people in there and a few people were sleeping on the uncomfortable chairs. I thought I’d only be in there for fifteen minutes or so before this whole mess was sorted out and I’d be allowed in. I asked a Nigerian guy how long he’d been there and he said he was on his 27th hour, while the guy sleeping next to me had been there for more than 36 hours. My confidence began to diminish a bit after hearing that and watching a number of people that had been on the Air India flight with me start to trickle in to the detention facility.
After a short while, I was pulled out and taken to a private room where I was interviewed by a pleasant Immigraton Officer named Neil. I repeated my story while he carefully wrote down my every word. At the end of the interview, Neil said that the immigration laws in the UK had changed in April and that one could no longer enter the UK on a tourist visa if they were going to be a student for more than six months. As such, although he said he didn’t like it, he would have to enforce the new law and send me home.
This is the official IS 82A form that sent me on my way home…
As one being refused entry to the United Kingdom has to return on the same flight they arrived on, I was in for a 25-hour wait for the next Air India flight back to Chicago (where I had my layover on the way to London). Twenty five hours gives one a long time to get to know their fellow detainees and the inside of a detention facility quite well.
Two guys on my flight that I got to know pretty well were Nathan Wick (in identical circumstances to mine except he is an LSE student) and Jon York who was over to visit a friend, but hadn’t yet purchased a return ticket. Yes, that’s right. Also as of April, it is extremely unlikely that you will be allowed to enter the United Kingdom without a round-trip ticket, ample funds and a complete intinerary (including addresses). In my last 45 minutes in the detention facility, a Major League Baseball player from Miami was brought in to the detention facility with us because he didn’t have a round-trip ticket (He was not happy).
During our time in the detention facility, the guards changed several times and I soon learned to assess the psychology of each guard carefully to measure what I could get out of them. One of the guards really didn’t like Arab women, but was very generous in handing out drinks and sandwiches and letting people bring in small things like books. After a cursory examination, another guard let me bring my coat inside (it was really cold in there). He missed my mobile phone (electronic devices were not allowed) and I was able to take these two pictures (Honestly, who else do you know that would smuggle pictures out from inside a detention facility?):
The Chinese girl in this picture above (that’s the back of her head) was gorgeous, but spent half the night (literally) talking on the pay phone inside the facility to her boyfriend. They’d talk for a few minutes and then hang up the phone. Then he’d call back a few minutes later and they’d start up again. This became rather annoying as the ring on the phone was quite loud and it was already hard enough to sleep anyway on the uncomfortable seats and under the constant glare of the fluorescent lights (there were no windows, of course). And, of course, other people were getting pissed off because they were trying to sort out their shit over the phone as well.
Finally, it was time for the Air India flight back to Chicago and we were escorted onto the aircraft and despite being exhausted, sweaty and smelly enjoyed seeing the first sunshine we’d all seen in a while.
I have to say that at no time were any of the British people I encountered rude or unpleasant. Really, they were quite sympathetic to all of the students being sent back. And even back in the United States where I had to have my bags thoroughly searched again and had to strip down to my underwear to have my person searched, everyone was pleasant and friendly (with the one exception of a Department of Homeland Security employee that gave me a hard time about visiting Pakistan, Afghanistan and South Africa).
Really, if one has ample free time and some disposable income, I would almost recommend the detainee experience. It sounds kind of cool when you can say you’ve been a detainee, you get to meet a lot of interesting people and make some new friends and you can have as many egg, chicken or tuna sandwiches you want in the detention facility. And the hot chocolate is pretty good as well, although you need to give it a few minutes to cool down. Oh, and last but in no way least, there were a lot of hot girls in the detention facility – not just the Chinese girl. A couple of other really attractive Chinese girls were brought in, as was an attractive Jordanian woman and a fiery Iraqi woman that I particularly liked and that had some great stories. Anyone that’s bad with women should consider the detention facility pickup because everyone is bored and eager to talk and even if one does overplay their hand when talking to a woman, it isn’t like she can get very far away. So, one could take a shot at redemption and a second chance.