Aussies ‘treated like criminals’ at US border
AUSTRALIANS have told horror stories of being aggressively interrogated at the US border and being stuck in limbo over visa applications as President Donald Trump's immigration crackdown begins to bite.
Readers have shared stories of being "treated like a criminal" by US immigration officials after news.com.au revealed last week that Aussies hoping to visit and work in the US were undergoing more scrutiny under Mr Trump.
As part of his "hire American" push, the President has directed his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, to tighten rules on granting visas to foreigners. Heightened terrorism fears have also led to increased scrutiny on anyone who has ever visited predominantly Muslim countries.
Brisbane compliance director Jinda Baikham, 32, says she felt "very violated" after being challenged at the US border in Hawaii for having visited Iran for a holiday years before.
Ms Baikham flew into Hawaii - her fourth visit - earlier this year for a trip with her mum, dad and three sisters.
Despite declaring the Iranian trip on her visa waiver, when a customs officer saw the stamp on her passport, she was escorted to a room and interrogated for three hours.
"I was told nothing. I had to sit and watch an officer go through my entire phone at the counter for over an hour," she told news.com.au.
"Every now and then, he would ask who certain people were, like texts from my sister, and he commented that I have a lot of photos of my dog.
"After he went through everything on my phone, he decided there was nothing threatening on my phone against America."
She was eventually allowed into the country, but she's unlikely to return.
"I felt very violated," she said.
"I now feel like I can't make my annual trip to Waikiki Beach even if I wanted to, not while Trump is in charge, and that is really sad."Another Aussie, who wished to be known only as Julie, says she was "traumatised" after trying to enter the country via Los Angeles with a valid J-1 visa, but without a particular form she was not aware she needed.
"You would've thought I was a criminal," she told news.com.au.
"I was whisked away to a separate holding area, whilst my partner was separated and cleared through customs to baggage collection, where I proceeded to sit for three hours, the first 2.5 of these with no explanation, interaction or any idea of what was going on.
"Post a 17-hour transit, this was considerably painful.
"Finally when someone called me through, I was yelled at for a good 10 to 15 minutes, asking where my form was (I had told them repeatedly) and that I needed to get someone from Australia to fax them one straight away, being 1am Queensland time - and who owns a fax machine?
"Over-tired, overstressed, the tears started from me. Keep in mind, at this whole stage they were yelling - not just discussing like rational people.
"After being passed on [through customs], the result was I basically just needed to fill out a form with my personal details and send it back in before 30 days. I'm still slightlytraumatised by the experience and, to be honest, post this trip I don't think I will return to the US."
Immigration lawyers told news.com.au it was important for travelling Aussies to be vigilant with their paperwork and transparent with their intentions when visiting the US under the Trump administration.
Another Australian, who declined to be named, fell afoul of this increased scrutiny in February after his B1-B2 visitor visa expired and his application for an E-3 working visa was rejected because he had spent more time in the US in the 12 months prior than he had in Australia.
When attempting to fly home from Mexico to Sydney via California, he was pulled up for being in the States on an expired visa.
He said immigration officers treated him with excessive aggression.
"When they did the pat-down, the guard kicked my feet apart with enough force to almost knock me over," he told news.com.au.
He was held in a room for hours where 20 people were forced to share three beds and where access to a toilet was only granted with permission.
"We were forced to sleep with the lights on, only fed two-minute noodles and water, but only when requested, and when requested met with great attitude," he said.
"If you asked for any info, you were basically told to shut up and wait your turn.
"They called others who were detained derogatory names, some bordering on racism or, at the very least, profiling."
Other news.com.au readers report lengthy delays in having visa applications approved since Mr Trump's presidency.
One US-based academic, who wished to remain anonymous, said he had been approved for a visa within two weeks in 2012; but today was still waiting for approval eight months after applying to upgrade his visa from a J-1 to an E-3.
'SIGNIFICANT' VISA SHAKE-UP
Zjantelle Cammisa Markel, an Australian immigration lawyer based in the US, says there is "more scrutiny than ever before" for Aussies who want to work in the US under Mr Trump.
She explained that US immigration and consulate staffers had been given expanded powers to deny foreigners access to the country under White House-sanctioned updates to the Foreign Affairs Manual, which guides the issuance of visas.
The updates to the manual give these officials the discretion to refuse visa applications if they feel granting one would go against the US's best interests.
Ms Camissa Markel said this enhanced authority was being applied particularly if there was a suspicion that the foreigner was taking a job away from an American or helping to drive down American wages.
As a result, she is finding that applicants are experiencing delays, requests for more evidence and more intense interviews.
There is also increased scrutiny for foreigners who want to change their visa statuses within the first three months of their trip.
Visa holders who do something they failed to telegraph with an immigration official - such as getting a job or marrying an American - could be accused of lying on their application and be deported.
"If you do anything that's inconsistent with you visa application within 90 days, it can be considered a misrepresentation," Ms Cammisa Markel said.
American Immigration Lawyers Association government relations associate director Diane Rish said this was a "significant policy change".
"If someone comes to the US as a tourist, falls in love and gets married within 90 days and then applies for a green card, this means the application would be denied," she told The New York Times.
Ms Cammisa Markel said some US companies she worked with that regularly hired foreign workers were no longer bothering because visa applications that previously were a slam dunk were now being rejected.
"A lot of employers are backing away from employees that are going to need an H1-B visa because they think they are throwing thousands of dollars in the garbage," she said.
Ms Cammisa Markel said Mr Trump's "hire American, buy American" policies were making a big difference for her clients.
"I feel like the changes are trying to make it more difficult for employees to hire foreign employees and for foreigners to obtain visas, even in categories it would be typically straight forward for them to obtain," she said.
"There's more scrutiny, and more looking into people's backgrounds and checking people's social media to make sure it's consistent with the story they are telling."
The good news is that Aussies are in a better position than many other countries because we have access to a special class of working visa, the E-3, 10,500 of which are offered each year. There are no indications that this visa class is under review.