Coffee, Tea or Handcuffs?
An Australian journalist gets a taste of Department of Homeland Security hospitality
by Steven Mikulan
Sue Smethurst enjoys traveling. “It’s one of the things about my job that I absolutely love,” says the 30-year-old Australian, who works as an associate editor for the women’s magazine New Idea. She doesn’t even mind flying. “It’s one of the great pleasures of the world to be able to turn off your cell phone and be where no one can annoy you.”
But when her Qantas flight from Melbourne, Australia, touched down at LAX around 8 a.m. on Friday, November 14, Smethurst found herself nightmarishly annoyed — by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Smethurst was supposed to continue to New York and on Monday interview singer Olivia Newton-John. Smethurst had honeymooned in Manhattan last year
and was looking forward to a long, free weekend “having a good walk through Central Park, getting a decent bowl of chicken soup and going Christmas shopping — all those gorgeous New York things.” Better still, her six-hour layover in L.A. would allow her to have lunch with her American literary agent.
“I had a room booked at the Airport Hilton,
where I was going to my leave bags, shower and get a cup of coffee.”
But first she had to clear LAX’s immigration check-in, which she reached after 20 minutes in line. An officer from the DHS’s newly minted Customs and Border Protection (CBP) bureau studied the traveler’s declaration form Smethurst had filled out on the plane.
“Oh, you’re a journalist,” he noted. “What are you here for?”
“I’m interviewing Olivia Newton-John,” Smethurst replied.
“That’s nice,” the official said, impressed. “What’s the article about?”
When Smethurst tells me this, she pauses and adds, “I thought that last question was a little odd, but figured everything’s different now in America and it was fine.” What she didn’t know was that her assignment and travel plans, along with the chicken soup and stroll through Central Park, had been terminated the moment she confirmed she was a journalist. Fourteen hours later, she was escorted by three armed guards onto the 11 p.m. Qantas flight home.
“I want to say right off that I adore America and love Americans,” Smethurst says. Still, she remains perplexed and emotionally bruised by what followed in Terminal Four. The CBP agent who read Smethurst’s traveler’s questionnaire took her to a secondary inspection area 30 feet away and told her to wait, then left for half an hour. He returned with additional uniformed staff who, professionally and pleasantly enough, asked more questions.
What sort of stories did she write? What kind of magazine was New Idea?
Where was it published? What was its circulation? Does it print politically sensitive articles? When would her interview appear? Who would be reading it?
“I laughed,” Smethurst recalls, “because we’re a cross between Good Housekeeping and People magazine. The most political thing we’d likely print was Laura Bush’s horoscope.”
The polite interrogation continued. Who was her father? His occupation? Her mother’s maiden name and occupation? What were their dates of birth, where did they live?
The agents gravely nodded at Smethurst’s replies and left once more, promising to return. When they came back half an hour later, one of the officers offered Smethurst a cup of airport coffee.
“I thought at that stage something was quite wrong,” Smethurst says, “so I asked the man with the coffee if there was some problem.”
“I will tell you when there’s a problem,” he abruptly snapped, according to Smethurst. Then he pointed to a nearby sign:
Your Silence Is Appreciated
At about noon, CBP informed Smethurst she would be denied entrČe into the United States: While Australian tourists visiting the United States are visa-waived for 90 days, working journalists need a special I-Visa, which Smethurst had not been aware of and did not possess. She had, after all, flown into LAX on the same passport eight times previously without incident. Now she was being asked to raise her right hand and swear that her answers had been truthful, then was fingerprinted and photographed — every time she comes to America, her swiped passport will bring up this documentation of her rejection. As Smethurst’s inked fingers were rolled onto the government form, she noticed its heading:
Eventually she was escorted under armed guard to a pay phone to make the call she vainly believed would clear everything up and allow her to stay in the country. Then, while conversations were occurring among her husband, editor and consul officers in L.A., Smethurst’s baggage was thoroughly searched and a makeup bag temporarily confiscated. She was then handcuffed and marched through the airport to another terminal, where LAX’s main detention center is located.
After the phone call she pleaded for food, having now been away from home nearly 24 hours. Smethurst offered money for a snack to be brought to her — French fries, potato chips, anything — but was refused.
“Would it be possible to get a cup of tea?” she asked. This too was denied, because it could be used as a weapon — someone, it was explained, had recently thrown hot coffee into an agent’s face. When she requested a cup of cold tea, she was similarly refused, although no one could explain to her how a cup of cold water could become weaponized.
Finally, around 6 p.m., a “detention meal” was pulled from a fridge, consisting of an orange, fruit-box drink and a roll that, Smethurst says, “I could play golf with.”
For a while she sat in the main detention center, unable to eat the food, as eight armed guards watched TV. Then one of the staff returned with a bag of takeout and began eating a hamburger and fries in front of her. ‰ 21
“At that stage,” she says, “I just lost the plot completely and threw the roll into the bin in front of me with sheer, utter frustration.”
The CBP would later call this gesture a “tantrum”; Smethurst, in turn, claims that she was thoroughly body searched by female staff each time she was moved from one part of LAX to another, and that she broke down in tears several times, swearing to her captors that she was not a criminal, had done nothing wrong and should be allowed in the country. She also says one sympathetic staff member told her she’d simply had bad luck in getting the agent she did at the first customs station, since the I-Visa rule was enforced at the discretion of agents. Smethurst could have entered the country by simply declaring herself a tourist on her traveler’s form — a routine practice among reporters entering the U.S.
Eventually, Smethurst’s release was won by the Consul General’s Office. The consulate also gained one other concession — the cup of tea she’d begged for. It was prepared by a senior CBP official whom Smethurst thought was the kindest American she’d met that day.
“It was the best cup of tea I’d ever had,” she says. “I didn’t waste a drop.”
There is, naturally, an official version that differs from Sue Smethurst’s description of the events that day, but a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection bureau said he did not want to “spend time on he-said, she-said charges.”
“She did become abusive,” CBP spokesperson Michael Fleming told me, however. “We tried to calm her down. Handcuffing is a standard procedure because sometimes good people can do potentially violent things. It’s not our intent to parade passengers on a perp walk — Sue Smethurst is not a criminal. It’s important for journalists to know to enter the U.S. on assignment they cannot apply under the visa-waiver program. They have to do their homework.”
When Smethurst returned to Melbourne, camera crews were waiting — all major Australian media outlets reported her ordeal. The story was treated as an example of bureaucratic arrogance run amok, because many parts of the world are still outraged by what happens at American airports to foreigners — and to many Americans. (Last September, the CBP at LAX detained the Australian-born wife of a U.S. Navy sailor for five days, while also briefly denying her infant daughter food and medical attention.) Smethurst says she’s received hundreds of messages from fellow Australians claiming similar treatment at the hands of U.S. immigration officials and knows of two fellow journalists who were sent back to Australia. When Smethurst’s editor, who planned to visit the United States on business, inquired about obtaining an I-Visa, she was told it would not be necessary. She is going to get one anyway.
Smethurst says U.S. ambassador Tom Schaeffer privately apologized to her for her treatment, but will not do so in public. Not that it matters much — the only U.S. press coverage of Smethurst’s ordeal was found in an Atlanta Constitution squib culled from the Australian Associated Press. Before November 14, she and her husband had planned to return to America to celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary, but, as she learned, everything’s different now in America.
“We decided to stay in Australia and celebrate here,” she says. “There was always the chance we could have got the same customs officer if we flew to America.”