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An afternoon in airport jail

October 27, 2008

by Caroline Wigmore

It was my fault for leaving my flight itinerary behind, but the punishment was far greater than the crime.

I was passing through customs, entering England to attend my pre-wedding reception in June, when a particularly disagreeable customs officer at the London, Heathrow airport decided to “hold me for questioning.” This is a nice way of saying that I was under arrest.

I told them what I was coming to England to do, and I could tell that as soon as I mentioned my British fiance´, his eyes lit up and he started taking a lot of notes.

On top of that, I had lost my return-ticket itinerary along the way, and couldn’t prove that I was only entering the country on a 14-day visit.

I suppose they thought I was trying to sneak into the country to marry Chris and stay there illegally forever, but since this wasn’t the case, and we had been going through the grueling, and expensive legal route with our marriage, this whole arrest was very offensive and frightening.

If a customs officer decides that you are up to something fishy, he or she can put you on a plane headed back to where you came from before you even leave the airport. After having spent five months in separate countries, this possibility was extremely disheartening.

Apparently, customs officers are busy people, because they left me waiting on a bench for about half an hour, not knowing what was going on. When I asked repeatedly to use the restroom, I was yelled at by another officer and told to “Sit down and be quiet.” I did.

I couldn’t believe they were treating me like a criminal. I was finger-printed and interrogated for an hour, while Chris and his family were left in the dark, wondering what was happening to me.

The officers insisted on knowing everything about my relationship with Chris: how we met, how much time we spent in the same country, what our salaries were, and why Chris is the man for me. This was a delightful conversation to have with a stranger inside a locked room.

They also searched through my bags and questioned me about all of my belonging in plain sight of other travelers passing through the airport.

After calling Chris’ cell phone and questioning him, the officers returned, telling me that our stories weren’t matching up. To this day, I have no idea what story wasn’t matching up.

I remember asking them in a rather snide tone, “Will I be treated like this after I am married to a British national?”

I was locked in a room with a strange woman who was either crazy, or on drugs, and was trying to befriend me. I couldn’t help but think, “Why am I here?” The worst crime I have ever committed is speeding, and it’s been years since I’ve gotten a ticket.

They had taken away all of my belongings. The only item I was allowed to hold onto was my credit card. They said, “You can hold onto your credit card to give you peace of mind.” The safety of my credit card wasn’t the thing disturbing my peace.

In the end, they couldn’t find a good enough reason to keep me, so they let me go.

I believe that none of this would have happened if I hadn’t mentioned my British fiance´. If I had told them I was there on vacation, I think I would have passed right through customs.

It just makes you wonder about a security system where honesty isn’t rewarded.