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A Worrisome Encounter with the INS

Bilal Zuberi

I am writing this so others, especially students from countries whose male citizens have to specially register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, will not end up facing the kind of situation I recently faced.

My name is Bilal Zuberi and I am a citizen of Pakistan. I am completing my graduate studies at MIT and am expected to defend my Ph.D. thesis next month. My research advisor, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, recently invited me to join a field research campaign on air pollution in Mexico City along with a team of 150 researchers from the US, Europe and Mexico. I had an unfortunate encounter with U.S. immigration officials at the culmination of this research trip, an account of which is shared here to help other students.

I was expected to fly out to Mexico City from Boston on a Continental flight via Newark at 6:30 am on March 27th 2003. As a male citizen of Pakistan, I had specially registered in the Boston offices of the INS in January and remembered being told at that time to arrive at the departure terminal at least five to six hours in advance for international flights. Hence, on the day of my flight, I arrived at Logan Airport at 12:30 a.m., but found the airport deserted at that time of the night, except for the custodial staff. I was perplexed why the INS had asked me to come in early when the airport wasn’t even open five to six hours before early morning flights.

Knowing that the INS offices were closed, I called the airline toll-free number and asked if they knew what citizens of Pakistan were expected to do. The answer I got from a rather confident male voice on the phone was that if the INS wished to speak to me they would stop me either in Boston or Newark and that the only important thing was to register when I reentered the country. At Newark, I asked the staff in the transit lounge the same question and I got a similar answer. Hence, I flew onwards to Mexico City, not knowing that I was in violation of an INS regulation the moment I crossed the border without getting an “exit interview” done with the INS.

A few days after arriving in Mexico City, I received an e-mail about another student who was denied entry by the INS for not having had an “exit interview” done. I read the e-mail in disbelief, realizing that I was stuck in a similar situation. I immediately called my lawyers in Boston -- luckily I had contacts with a law firm -- and informed them of the situation. I wanted to know if I could do some paperwork while in Mexico City to let the INS know I had no intentions of breaking any regulation and that I had indeed tried my best to comply with INS requirements. My lawyer tried to find out more information but was told that all my hopes depended upon the person who would interview me and that she should prepare for posting bail and/or petitioning against the INS (now called Bureau of Customs and Border Patrol in the Department of Homeland Security) if I was detained or denied entry.

I arrived at the Newark airport on May 5th. I was not allowed to use a cell-phone and could not get in touch with my lawyers and friends who were frantically waiting to hear from me. I informed the immigration officer about my experience at the time of departure, and showed letters from my advisor attesting that he was personally aware of my efforts to find the INS since he had driven with me to the airport to drop me off. None of that made any difference to my case, and I was taken inside for a more thorough investigation.

What followed bordered on a criminal interrogation. The officer seemed aggressive and agitated that he had to deal with my case. I had to repeat my story several times and even though he took notes, it did not seem to register with him. I was scolded for listening to advice from the airline, and was repeatedly told that I may not be allowed entry because I was a violator of INS regulations. At one point he even tried to make me confess to breaking an INS law intentionally, but fortunately, thanks to legal advice, I did not comply. I kept repeating that I did not intend to break any law and that I had tried to get as much information as possible to make an informed decision. Fortunately, I did not lose my calm during this process, even though it was quite unnerving, and tried to talk him into at least listening to me patiently. He gave up upon my persistence, and informed me that his boss would make a final decision on me.

I was expecting a deportation when the officer came back after a brief meeting with his boss and announced that this was my “damn lucky day”. I was being given the benefit of the doubt and was allowed to enter the country. God only knows what worked, but the decision depended on the whim of this one person and his boss, and I was not sent back to Pakistan weeks before my thesis defense. I was told that a note was made in my records about this and that any other infraction of INS regulations would result in permanent denial of entry! I only thanked God for getting me out of this mess and breathed a sigh of relief.

What followed was tenuous logistics of special registration. Because of what appeared as a glitch in the registration software, I had to go through the entire special registration again: name, address, parents’ info, friends’ info, credit cards, finger prints etc. The process took nearly three and a half hours and I missed my flight to Boston, but I was just glad I was not deported.

Needless to say, the message to be derived from my experience is to be extremely vigilant about immigration laws. Students who have registered earlier with the INS should read the information packets that were handed out carefully and double check their responsibilities. Nobody should take these regulations lightly and one must not listen to any outside advice, other than the advice of the INS. The airlines are continuing to misinform their passengers and are to be least trusted. It is the responsibility of the traveler to make sure they get an INS exit interview, and not the INS’s responsibility to be available at a given time. In certain cases, it may mean flying into the port of departure up to a day early to comply with the exit interview requirement. I was told by the INS staff at Newark that even if my ticket costs $10,000 and I had 10 connecting flights taking me to my final destination, I should not leave the country without completing the exit interview requirement. One can always take a later plane, or deal with the hardships of awkward travel times, but if a person leaves without the exit interview, it can seriously endanger the possibility of returning to the U.S. As per my experience at MIT, universities are least equipped to handle such cases and perhaps its not a bad idea to already have a lawyer in mind whom you can contact in case of any emergency. I know most students have not thought of this and in times of crisis, they would be glad they thought of all these issues in advance. The purpose of this note is not to scare people and raise unnecessary fear, but to caution and to increase awareness about the severity of the situation.

Finally, I can only repeat that during these difficult times when the Department of Homeland Security regulations seem complex, tiring, ever-changing and confusing, individuals from countries who are under tough surveillance should make it a priority to be extremely careful to comply with the regulations. Unfortunately, the penalty system is not proportional to the mistake when the “one strike and you are out” policy is being followed. While some of us continue to raise awareness and work on correcting biased, un-implementable and ill-structured laws, it is our duty to comply with all laws and regulations while we are visitors in this country.

Bilal Zuberi is a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry.