Bryan Caplan  

A Tale of "Voluntary Departure" from the Comments

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From long-time EconLog reader Tim Worstall:

Having been caught up in the US system once "voluntary departure" is anything but.

On entering the country on a 10 year, multi-entry, business visa (I owned a small business in the US at the time) immigration officials decided that I should not be allowed to enter.

I was not allowed legal representation of any kind. I was interviewed and then the notes of the interview were written up afterwards (ie, what the officer remembered he and I had said, not what was actually said).

I refused to sign such misleading notes. I was told that if I did not I would be deported, my passport declared invalid for travel to the US for the rest of my life.

So of course I signed and then made my "voluntary departure" which included being held in a cell until the time of my flight, being threatened with being handcuffed while going to the flight and the return of my passport only upon arrival in London.

My 10 year multi entry visa had of course been cancelled. My attempts to get matters sorted out, so that I could visit my business, were rather hampered by the way that the interview notes which I had signed under duress were taken to be the only valid evidence by the INS (as was) that should be discussed when deciding upon visa status.

I lost the business and haven't bothered returning to the country in the more than decade since.

There is no law, evidence, representation nor even accurate recording of proceedings in such "voluntary departures". It is entirely at the whim of the agents at the border post. I was actually told by one agent "I'm gonna screw you over".

Something of a difference from what's scrawled over that statue in New York really. And I'm most certainly not the only business person this sort of thing has happened to.

A collection of vignettes like this would make a great book.

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Daniel writes:


Brian writes:

This would be a lot more interesting and a lot more convincing if we were told what the problem was.

The officials decided Tim was a danger for some reason. What was it?

Some lessons are obvious. Don't perjure yourself by signing a false statement. Don't do or say suspicious or clever things to hostile and armed agents of a cruel and nasty government. Demand access to a supervisor, a lawyer and a judge, even if they tell you you're not entitled to them. Have some friends expecting you who know to demand answers from local officials. Never say or do anything whatsoever in the USA without advice from a good lawyer.

But the actual nut of the story was left out here. Was Tim carrying unlicensed copies of patented AK-47 rifles? Did he try to slip kilo blocks of black tar heroin past customs with counterfeit brand markings from a rival cartel? While he was in line, could he have made some casual off-hand remark that offended the immigration officer instead of keeping his mouth shut like you should?

When you're passing the borders of a country like North Korea, Myanmar, Syria, or the USA it pays to know in advance what not to do and say. Tell us what you learned, Tim.

Dan Hill writes:

@Brian: You ask a lot of good questions. Of course we'll never know the answer to any of them because there was nothing approaching even an abbreviated version of due process here.

Nathan Smith writes:

Migration restrictions violate natural rights and are inherent lawless. If you support the rule of law, you must be in favor of open borders. Procedural horrors of this kind are valuable as reminders of that fact.

Tim Worstall writes:

The specific point at issue was the difference between a B1 business visa (the 10 year, multi-entry one mentioned) and an H1B or even Green Card.

On an H1B or Green Card one is of course allowed to take up a paid working position in the US. On a B1, you're not. On a B1 you can enter the US, hire staff, conduct business meetings, do most of the things which are "running a business" but you're not allowed to actually "run a business".

The dividing line is a little sketchy to say the least.

It's possible that I was on the wrong side of that line. Certainly, the immigration officials at the airport thought I was. I stoutly maintain that I wasn't (I didn't "run the business", didn't take an income from it, didn't manage it directly).

However, my point isn't about where the line is: it's that the decision process about which side of it I was was left entirely to those immigration officials in an airport 1,500 miles from where the actual business was, without any form of legal process being possible and under, as I've indicated, a certain amount of duress. And a certain lack of what we'd all consider to be due process.

Their major evidence was the amount of time I had spent in the US in the preceeding years. Time for which I at all times had a valid visa and time which had been approved by immigration officials at the various ports of entry (under the I-92 rules).

It does have to be said that it's your country and you can allow in or not who you please, as you please. But given the way in which the decisions are made you might understand the wariness that some of us have about deciding to invest in the country?

In an entirely unrelated case, an English writer was asked to come and give a speech about his work. An honorarium was involved. He was turned back at the US airport because, in the opinion of the officials at said airport, that honorarium was "too high".

If, even with a valid visa, entering the country is something of a lottery then please don't be all that surprised if some decide not to buy tickets.

Scott from Ohio writes:

Ridiculous. We kick out the business owners and then wonder why unemployment is so high.

@Brian: The first two pieces of advice you give (Don't perjure yourself by signing a false statement. Don't do or say suspicious or clever things to hostile and armed agents of a cruel and nasty government.) seem to be in contradiction in Tim's case.

Richard G Brown writes:

Tim makes a good point. It is, indeed, the right of the US to decide which foreign nationals are allowed in or not.

However, it is also the right of foreign nationals to decide whether to come or not.

The last three times I have tried to enter the US, I've been detained for over two hours whilst some apparent anomaly in my passport is checked out. No explanation, no apology, no attempt to help me fix it.

I have identified a perfect solution to the problem, however. I simply don't travel to the US any more.

Daniel Klein writes:

Great stuff.

Non-libertarians need constant reminding of what they are failing to oppose really is.

Colin K writes:

US immigration policy reminds me of William F. Buckley's old joke about the CIA: "The attempted assassination of Sukarno had all the hallmarks of a CIA operation: everyone in the room was killed, except for Sukarno."

The current system seems designed to maximize misery, in that we have massive undocumented immigration by barely-literate, unskilled laborers, while we relentlessly harass and discourage immigration by the highly-educated and professionally accomplished. This is great for upper-middle class professionals as it keeps down the cost of restaurant meals, gardeners, and housekeepers (i.e., servants), with basically zero risk of wage competition.

As for the bottom end, I remain entirely unconvinced that our current immigration policy is anything but an unmitigated disaster for the working class. Unless we can find out a way to export the unemployable, I don't see this ending well.

Pierre Honeyman writes:

Years ago I, and several co-workers, obtained H1-B visas to work in the United States. Our visas applications were approved, and we "simply" had to pick our visas up from the airport, in Vancouver, as we left for the U.S. I left on a Saturday and, upon arrival at the airport, was greeted by a surly and unpleasant Immigration agent who decided to change the length of time on my H1-B visa from 1 year to 2 weeks, since that was the length of my current stay. The whole point of an H1-B visa is that it allows re-entrance on the same visa, that is, the year it is valid for does not have to be spent entirely in the U.S.

The next day, Sunday, several more co-workers left for the same job, from the same airport, and got the same surly, unpleasant official that I had. Some of them had their visas cancelled outright and their entrance denied.

Fortunately, in this case, we were able to fight back with corporate lawyers - both from the Canadian company I worked for and from the American company we were doing work for. Eventually all our H1-B visas were restored, and we were able to enter the U.S. and do the work we were hired to do.

Years later, and a different company, it became standard practice to send some workers to different airports - routing people through Toronto to go to Texas, for instance - in order to try to game the Immigration system. From experience, the Immigration officers in Vancouver had a reputation of being very difficult with Asians.

As for pleasure trips, as I said, I live in Vancouver. The U.S. border is minutes away. But, in the back of my mind, I realize that every single time I attempt to cross the U.S. border I'm throwing the dice that some Immigration agent is going to bar me for life, for a reason I may never know, and so I rarely cross the border unless I have to.

It's the new reality, but I sure miss the halcyon days of the 1980s when Canadians and Americans could cross each others respective borders with little more trouble than leaving a note.


Leo writes:

The RSS for this post was broken only the first line of the quoted section was indented.

Brian writes:

Incidentally, it is difficult to fly between Asia and Latin America. This poses something of a problem for those world travelers and businessmen who choose to avoid the USA.

There are two flights available that do not land at USA (or Canadian) airports. One flies from Narita to Mexico City and the other from Shanghai to Mexico City. They fly two to seven days a week depending on the origin and the season. One way they have to stop and refuel in Tijuana. From Mexico City you can easily connect to everywhere in Latin America.

(Technically there is also a flight from Dubai to Sāo Paulo sometimes.)

The cost of tickets that don't pass through American airports and American immigration formalities is about 50% higher than tickets that do pass through America. Note that the refueling stop guarantees that the America-free flights are actually not more convenient for anyone. The premium is entirely due to the bonus and relief gained from avoiding America's government on your way around the world. And the benefit does not come from the world-famous Mexican efficiency, honesty, or transparency. The gain is entirely from skipping an American government that has somehow become malevolent and vile.

Thus the market price of avoiding American immigration evil is $500-$700 round trip, $250-$350 per visit. Since the passengers don't actually enter the USA, that isn't the price to get in without passing formalities; it's just the pure price to avoid American processing.

Thomas writes:

"This would be a lot more interesting and a lot more convincing if we were told what the problem was.

Some lessons are obvious.

1. Don't perjure yourself by signing a false statement [produced by a government official].

2. Don't do or say suspicious or clever things to hostile and armed agents of a cruel and nasty government. Demand access to a supervisor, a lawyer and a judge, even if they tell you you're not entitled to them.

3. Have some friends expecting you who know to demand answers from local officials.

4. Never say or do anything whatsoever in the USA without advice from a good lawyer."

I've taken the liberty of reformatting what you wrote a little bit, but I see some problems right there.

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