I didn’t think this would happen to us.
I never imagined that the immigration crisis that is all over the news would hit so close to home.
I had a stereotype about who gets locked in immigration detention centers and it was people who were using illegal means to enter the country.
It wasn’t my boyfriend who was flying into the country and was carefully following the rules.
I was wrong.
At work, it was an ordinary Wednesday. I work online, and I was finishing up some projects, hoping to submit them before the close of business that day.
My Norwegian boyfriend of a year and a half, Karl, was flying in around 6:00 PM. We hadn’t seen each other in about six weeks while he was working in Norway.
I had just gotten a text that he had landed in Seattle. One more flight to go.
I had put off most of the typical summer activities like hiking, camping, and sightseeing and devoted almost all my time into working while he was gone. That way I’d have enough done by the time he came back that we could enjoy the summer together.
The fridge was stocked with his favorite American foods. My apartment was clean. I had deleted all indications that I had watched some of our favorite Netflix shows without him.
Then I got this text:
And that was all I heard.
From that point, I had no communication.
I contacted a lawyer to see what could be done.
I tried to figure out what immigration detention center he had been taken to, but for the three days he was in there, the records online weren’t updated and there was no way to know.
There was zero communication. No phones. No email. Not a word.
The lawyer said even if I could figure out where he had been taken, it was a bad idea to try to contact him. Having a US girlfriend try to initiate contact wouldn’t make the situation look good.
I was confused. What had we done wrong? Was it wrong to have a relationship with someone from another country?
So for three days, I didn’t even attempt contact.
But why had he been denied entry?
Now, for some context, Karl is a 36-year-old Norwegian heating and air conditioning engineer with no criminal record. He’s been working contract work the last year while we figure out how to navigate life between two countries. As you might guess, his background doesn’t strike most people as one of someone who is high-risk.
Another lawyer told me he may be kicked out of the United States for five years. Even if we got married within those 5 years, his chances of returning to the US after that were slim.
Kicked out for five years? For what?
None of it seemed to make sense, and the punishment absolutely did not seem to match the crime.
Was there something I was missing?
I had nothing to do but wait.
It was a sickening, helpless feeling.
While I was making phone calls, Karl was handcuffed and transported to an immigration detention center.
His cell phone and personal belongings were confiscated. He was given a prison uniform and prison underwear, I might add, and placed in a cell with 7 other men. Four of whom were dressed in red, indicating they were the highest level of danger in the facility.
Mostly, the guys were bored, playing football with empty toilet paper rolls. There was one toilet in the corner with no doors, prison-style. After a few hours, some of the men started screaming.
Karl said one definitely seemed to be mentally unstable and just kept shouting and shouting.
Another had just gotten out of county prison and kept yelling to find out why he was just put into another cell and not released that day like he was supposed to be.
It was going to be a long afternoon and evening for Karl.
After finally falling asleep, half-way through the night, Karl was woken up and moved to a 72-person dorm. Then two hours later he was woken up again and was moved to another dorm.
Karl is one of the calmest people I have ever met. So he just went with it, knowing that in that situaiton, there isn't a lot that can be done that won't make things worse.
During the next day, he talked to the other prisoners. Some had been there for 3 years. No one thought he would get out to catch his flight back to Norway. Everyone seemed to believe that once you were in, there wasn’t any fast path to getting out.
The day trailed on with room inspections and scheduled meals into another restless night.
The next morning at 3:30 AM, Karl was woken up and put into a 60 degree (F) room with an Austrian photographer.
This is the icebox technique and is common to keep dangerous prisoners in check.
I know 60 degrees doesn’t seem that cold, but when you are in a concrete box and can’t move around much, it’s chilly enough to keep your energy and spirits low.
The Austrian guy had been in there all night. He had two tiny blankets and was freezing. He told Karl the guards came by and pounded on the doors every 20 minutes so he hadn’t slept. He said he understood why people commit suicide in these places.
The Austrian was in the immigration detention center because he had the wrong type of work visa. He wasn’t attempting to cross the border illegally, he had what he thought was the right visa. There are many different types of work visas and the process can be very confusing, even with a visa lawyer.
The Austrian photographer was slated to be on a photo shoot in Portland, Oregon, but due to his mistake, he was in a cell being tormented by guards.
Two men were detained in a freezing cell who were both trying to enter the United States lawfully.
After a few hours in the icebox, Karl was given back his clothes and cuffed to return to the airport.
He was allowed to check-in for the flight and get a cup of coffee and promptly returned to the police car to wait for his flight.
He was brought directly from the police car to the plane.
On the plane was the first contact I had with him since he told me he was being sent to a detention center.
He said he had never been so happy to be in an airplane for an 8-hour flight.
I had never been so shocked by my own country.
Karl has most recently been staying in the United States on the ESTA visa-waiver program. It’s an agreement made by most western European nations and the United States that allows travelers to be in the United States for a duration of 90 days within a 6-month period.
This is the same program I have used to stay with him in Norway periodically over the last year. We’ve been very careful to never overstay in either country.
Earlier in 2019, Karl and I entered the United States and he was stopped at the border and questioned for about an hour.
“Why are you in the US?”
“You spent 3 months in the US last year, why are you back?”
Karl answered honestly that his girlfriend lived in the US so he came to spend time with me.
A lawyer would later tell us that admitting to having a relationship with a US citizen to the US border patrol is a big mistake.
That took me by surprise, it sounded like I was doing something wrong by having a relationship with a foreigner.
A second lawyer would re-iterate this same information. We shouldn't have been open about it.
When a lawyer is telling you it’s best that your relationship is secret from the government, you start to feel pretty threatened by Uncle Sam.
What about MY freedom? Why am I, a law-abiding citizen, advised to keep my relationship a secret?
The border officials told Karl that he needed to book a return ticket before they would allow him entry, which he did.
They also warned that the next time, he would need proof of his home, his job, and strong ties to Norway or he would not be allowed entry.
And with that, he was allowed in with barely time to make his connecting flight.
We got a visa lawyer before the next time to make sure we weren’t in violation of any rules. We followed the instructions, Karl left the US on time and even applied for the ESTA visa waiver online and was approved before he booked his ticket to return.
We thought we were prepared.
Karl flew back to the United States on August 7th. He brought proof of ownership of his home in Norway, work history, bank statements, and current employment information.
His passport was stamped at the border and he was allowed entry, but as he left the immigration area, he was randomly selected for an inspection.
They took him in for questioning and looked through his backpack.
“Why could he travel so much?”
“What did he do for work?”
I get asked these questions at borders sometimes too. I tell them I work online, I show them I have funds to support myself during the stay, and I’m told to have a nice trip and am on my way.
This wasn’t what happened. Standard questions dug deeper and deeper.
Karl is currently taking a life-coaching course online and is doing some coaching practice. He was asked if he ever had a client in the United States. He said he works with an American once-in-a-while. This is true. He practices with another coaching student occasionally. But they are both students and no money is exchanged.
To date, Karl has made zero dollars from either United States or international clients.
But after hours of questioning. This seemed to be what they wanted to hear. Karl was flagged as someone who was potentially earning money in the United States.
That was that.
To be fair, English is Karl’s second language and also, Karl is not inherently good at understanding what is happening in these situations.
I’ve seen it before. He thinks you can just explain things over conversation and border officials will use reason. He wants to talk to them like you would another ordinary person.
That is not how it works at the US border and on the cuffs went.
This is despite having no record of violating a visa and no criminal background.
After Karl’s immigration detention center and deportation experience, I booked a ticket to Norway so we could be together while we figure out what to do next.
On my arrival in Norway, the immigration officer leafed through my passport.
“You have spent a lot of time in Norway this year and last?”
“Yes, my boyfriend lives here.”
“Oh, so love brings you to Norway?”
“Welcome back. Have a nice stay.”
And with that, Norway and my boyfriend welcomed me back.
As we waited for my baggage, a screen in the terminal with the day’s news announced new and updated visa restrictions in the United States, including rules that would keep immigrant families in detention centers indefinitely.
I never imagined my country would treat people this way.
I’m scared for the people in detention centers and I feel for their families.
I no longer thought they were people who were obviously attempting illegal activity. And what's worse, how could children be subject to this?
After the immigration detention center, Karl and I are facing a very uncertain future. We have hired a visa lawyer and are told to wait and see.
We are lucky enough to be in Norway, a beautiful, economically advanced country with a favorable exchange rate. If Karl were from a less-privileged place, it’s likely we couldn’t afford the fight for options.
Now, we have to wait a month for his paperwork, telling us if he is eligible for another visa or barred for 5 years.
I feel a deep sense of loss.
My relationship is barred from the country indefinitely. The only thing that is definite, is that I misunderstood the current state of my homeland.
After my emergency trip to Norway, I flew back to Montana to work as Karl and I figured out our situation.
On the ground in Missoula, Montana, a truck in front of us at a stoplight had a bumper sticker that read, "Fuck off, We're full!" plastered over the outline of the United States.
Thanks for the welcome home.