Visa snafu lands Spaniard in TD jail
Editor’s note: This story has been updated throughout to include comments from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
By Neita Cecil
The Dalles Chronicle
A 22-year-old Spanish woman heading for a six-week stay in Corvallis was denied entry to the U.S. at the Portland airport July 5 and spent 38 hours at the regional jail in The Dalles before being returned to Spain.
Her family didn’t know her whereabouts for 20 hours.
Cristina Alonso said she was told by customs agents her visa was incorrect and she would have to go home. But, they offered a “deal” to her: she would be taken to a “house an hour and a half away from the airport so that I could wash, eat and rest for awhile, but they had to put me in handcuffs,” she said.
She took the deal, but instead of a house – they had used the English word for house, and Alonso said she understands English perfectly -- she was taken to the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities (NORCOR).
Jaime Ruiz, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Alonso was not told she’d be taken to a house. “I’m sure they probably said, ‘You will be housed for a night.’ It might be something like that.”
He said, “no one at PDX told her she would be going to a house or a hotel. So it’s a he said/she said.”
She had a panic attack at the jail – she’s had them before -- but was not given any medical treatment, she said. She said the food was “awful” and she drank little of the water because it had “a yellowish color.”
Jail Administrator Bryan Brandenburg said the jail’s menu is prepared by a certified dietician, and fortified juice is provided with meals. Regarding a panic attack, he said, “If there was a crisis-level event,” staff would have called the on-call physician’s assistant. “I can tell you the physician’s assistant wasn’t called that night. I’m not saying she wasn’t under some distress because she was incarcerated.”
Laurie Bridges, the Corvallis woman who was at the airport waiting for Alonso but didn’t learn of her whereabouts for 20 hours, contacted the Chronicle about the incident.
Alonso said the Spanish consulate in San Francisco even told her parents she was taken to a “house.”
Bridges said Alonso was “absolutely traumatized” by the experience, and her story had been featured in Spain’s largest newspaper, and on Spanish TV shows.
“Should she go to prison for that, with the prison population?” Bridges said. “It would not be in my wildest nightmare that that’s a possibility. And the fact that no one would tell us where she was. It was like, ‘Where am I living?’”
LONGSTANDING JAIL POLICY
Regional jail officials have said it is their longstanding policy that it only accepts immigration detainees with criminal charges.
It became clear at a regional jail meeting last spring that the jail did not actually know the criminal status of detainees, but relied on immigration officials to only send those with criminal charges. Brandenburg told the Chronicle after that meeting that he confirmed with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that all detainees taken to the jail have faced criminal charges.
Despite this assurance, several non-criminal detainees have been known to have been at NORCOR.
Aside from the case of Alonso, recently Brandenburg was checking on ICE detainees at the jail and learned two of them lacked criminal charges. He had them both sent back to the Tacoma Detention Center, an immigration detention facility.
He said they don’t have a perfect system, and sometimes people get missed. He said it was his understanding Alonso only stayed one night in The Dalles. He said, “I checked with ICE and she was here 12 hours, thereabouts.”
Alonso said she left the Portland airport for The Dalles around midnight Wednesday, July 5, five hours after arriving in the U.S. The Corvallis woman, Laurie Bridges, got a text Friday afternoon from an inmate at the jail, saying Alonso left that day at around 3:30 p.m. In total, according to Alonso and Bridges, Alonso spent 38 hours at the jail.
Alonso had arranged to stay with Laurie and Eric Bridges, where she would help their eight-year-old son learn Spanish, improve her own English, and babysit him four days a week. She’d get $100 a week spending money and go on trips with them.
Spaniards traveling to the U.S. do not need a visa, but they do need a travel authorization, Ruiz said. It is only for coming to the U.S. as a visitor for pleasure, or for seeking business, but does not cover working.
Alonso got the travel authorization, which allows tourists to stay up to 90 days in the U.S.
At the airport, Alonso was asked questions about her stay. She described her arrangement, and officials decided the travel authorization did not fit her intentions, which included babysitting and receiving money.
They said she needed a visa for “au pairs,” or nannies, but that visa didn’t fit, Bridges said, because it requires a 12-month stay.
Ruiz said from a Customs perspective, there was no wrongdoing on Alonso’s part. “It’s just an unfortunate set of circumstances where a good citizen gets tangled in a system that is designed to protect us from bad people.”
“We refuse entry to bad people every day, and this safety net is keeping us safe.”
Alonso arrived at a small airport, he said, which doesn’t have its own 24-hour secure holding area for those denied entry. Large airports have secured areas with couches, beds, TVs, vending machines and restrooms for those awaiting departure.
Regulations require those denied entry to return home on the same airline they arrived on, he said.
“It took the airline two days to get a seat back to Munich,” Ruiz said. “Customs and Border Protection has nothing to do with that.”
So, Alonso, arriving at a small airport on a little-known airline, unfortunately had to wait two days for a return flight, he said. Had she arrived at JFK airport in New York, she could’ve been heading home within two hours, he said.
Less than .08 percent of travelers arriving at Portland International Airport are denied entry, he said.
“She was pretty honest about the reasons she was coming and many times people lie and get through,” Ruiz said.
He said her situation was “a terrible deal. It was a set of unfortunate circumstances.”
He said CBP does not require persons being taken to secure detention to be handcuffed, so that aspect of her experience was outside CBP jurisdiction. THE CBP does not transport detainees to off-site detention facilities, he said.
Alonso said in an English language statement on her Facebook page, “The summary of all this is that an administrative error is not a crime and can not be punished as such. They treated me like a criminal since I stepped on the US soil. If you put together idiots and power, the result can be catastrophic.”
Solea Kabakov, an organizer with the group, Gorge ICE Resistance, which opposes housing immigration detainees at the regional jail and has been protesting for over 90 consecutive days outside the jail, said, “Cristina's story is one of thousands of stories from the many who suffer in detention centers across the country every minute of every day. Even worse, they are thrown into our ill-equipped jail and that has to stop.”
Alonso was held and questioned at the airport for five hours, then taken to the regional jail. When Alonso told a corrections officer at the regional jail that she had come to America to practice her English, the officer responded that she could at least practice it while at the jail. She said the comment made her feel “horrible. I felt that she was laughing about me.”
Alonso said, “I had not committed any crime so I could not understand why I was there. I was very sad and depressed. I could not stop crying.”
She said she was told at the jail she could call Bridges in awhile, “but that never happened.” She was told early on that she would be leaving in a few hours, but that also didn’t happen.
Since she’s gotten home, Alonso said, “It has affected me a lot, I sleep bad so my doctor has prescribed some pills to be able to sleep.”
SEARCH FOR ANSWERS
On Wednesday, July 5, Bridges had been waiting since 7:35 p.m. at international arrivals for Alonso when she got a call just before 9 p.m. from a polite border agent, telling her Alonso had the “wrong visa” but he would see what he could do and would call her back. He never did.
Around that time, Alonso quit communicating with Bridges via whatsapp messages. A flurry of messages began between Bridges and Alonso’s parents and a Spanish friend who translated.
Bridges called the agent back an hour later, but nobody answered and the mailbox was full. She drove to the customs office a mile away. It was closed. She got a motel room, and the next morning, called the border agent’s number again, but got a different agent, who was rude and unhelpful.
She went to the customs office again that morning and spoke to a polite agent who was ultimately only able to say that Alonso had been denied entry to the U.S., was at a holding facility, and would be leaving the U.S. on Friday evening.
Bridges said agents would not tell her where exactly Alonso was being held because Bridges was not family.
Ruiz said border agents did tell her. He said in an email, “We could not verify Ms. Bridges relationship to the subject we could not release information to her regarding the individual.”
However, he also said in the same email, “Ms. Bridges was told the passenger was taken to NORCOR and if she wished to contact the facility directly she could.”
He said agents can use their own discretion on what information to provide. “While they cannot discuss the case with her, they can provide clues and tips on how to find her.”
Bridges said she was not told any information beyond that Alonso was in detention when she spoke to the agent in person on Thursday morning, July 6. She said her phone records show no incoming calls from CBP after Wednesday night.
Alonso’s frantic parents were told by the Spanish consulate she was at a nice place, “like a hotel,” Alonso said.
It was only some 20 hours into it, when Bridges’ friend told her to call the immigration hotline of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, that Bridges finally got somewhere.
After leaving a detailed message on the hotline, she got a call back within five minutes. They had located Alonso at NORCOR through a website called “gettingout.com,” which is run by Telmate, a provider of phone and messaging services to jail populations, including at the regional jail.
Bridges couldn’t understand why border agents couldn’t say where she was, since it was publicly available on a website.
Bridges had been told Alonso had access to a phone and could call Bridges if she wanted. One border agent said he would see if he could get Bridges’ phone number to Alonso, and said he would call Bridges back. He never did.
And while Alonso did have access to a phone in NORCOR, for many hours she was unable to reach any of the numerous family members she repeatedly tried to call because she didn’t have any money put into her Telmate account to allow her to call or text.
Alonso said she was told nothing at the jail about how the Telmate services worked, or that she needed to put money into an account in order to make calls.
It was a Catch-22: She would have needed to call somebody to put money in her account, but she couldn’t call anybody because she didn’t have money in her account.
The Telmate system only allows placement of collect calls domestically, not internationally, a Telmate official said.
Bridges said Alonso’s phone was confiscated at the airport, and given back to her when she got back to the airport. Bridges continued to send Alonso messages on whatsapp, and saw that they were being read, but no one ever answered. She even asked the unknown reader to pass along her phone number to Alonso.
Alonso said she didn’t provide her password, and assumes customs agents hacked her phone, since it’s easy to do.
Ruiz said, “CBP officers have the authority to see the messages coming on electronic devices under detention. No phone hacking.” He said the agency doesn’t need passwords to see messages.
Once Bridges found Alonso at NORCOR, she put money into a Telmate account so they could communicate. She spent $130 in a 24-hour period on a flurry of expensive calls and texts.
Bridges, meanwhile, had placed many calls to many people, from border agents in Portland, to the Spanish consulate in San Francisco, to Portland Airport and also the regional jail.
The most shocking was calling the regional jail, she said. Their first question was whether she was a lawyer. She said she was a friend. The reply was, “’We don’t let friends up and call prisoners.’ That confirmed to me she was a prisoner. She used the word prisoner because I remember it hit me like a ton of bricks, like ‘What?!’”
A Spanish-speaking inmate at the jail helped Alonso navigate the phone calling system.
Bridges said while Alonso was at the jail, she was asked for Bridges’ name and contact information. She didn’t know her phone number, but knew her street address. Bridges doesn’t know what they did with the information because she was never contacted by anyone.
When Friday morning arrived, Bridges learned that NORCOR had told Alonso she was not booked for a flight home that night.
Bridges texted a woman at the Spanish consulate, to ask that she confirm – or demand – that Alonso was leaving that night. Bridges only found out Alonso left the jail because her online profile through gettingout.com was changed to “released,” and another inmate messaged her that she’d been released.
Bridges’ son cried when he learned Alonso would not be coming to help him with his Spanish.