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Wednesday 1 October 2014

'I was frogmarched through Dublin airport by an armed US customs guard ... '

In 1996, Dawn O'Shea overstayed her American holiday visa by eight days on medical advice. This summer, it came back to haunt her

Dawn O'Shea

Published 29/09/2009 | 00:00

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There are few times in life when I have faced true and utter humiliation but being frogmarched through a crowded Dublin Airport by an armed US immigration officer is something I will never forget.

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In June, my husband and I beat a path to Dublin Airport for our first week away together without the kids since our honeymoon.

A week in Chicago was just eight hours away. But then it all went pear-shaped.

At US Customs and Border Protection in Dublin Airport we showed the careful respect for authority that a room full of armed Americans deserves.

We had our fingerprints and webcam snapshots taken, and even chatted with the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer about the charm of the Windy City. He was quite pleasant when he asked us to take a seat while he checked something with his supervisor.

I was quietly confident as I sat down among the other 100 or so expectant tourists awaiting clearance.

However, my nonchalance was completely unfounded. Within minutes my name was bellowed out over the heads of the other potential terrorists and criminals. And it kept ringing out until I eventually fought my way through the crowds and found the source -- a fairly unremarkable American lady sporting a uniform and a gun.

I followed her into an office and stood as instructed at the first Perspex window of a row. She, oddly, went to the third window so the only way for me to answer the subsequent questions was to shout.

When I attempted to move closer there was a stern "Stay where you are please, Ma'm". This did not bode well.

I answered the questions politely and with a smile. After the perfunctory 'business or pleasure', 'duration of trip' questions, she pulled out a whammy: "What were you doing in New York in 1996?"

Having racked my brains I remembered that I had stopped off in New York to get a connecting flight to Wisconsin to visit my sister and her family.

How long did I stay? Well, I'd taken a year off college and had planned to spend three months of that with my sister. What date had I arrived in the US in 1996? What day had I left?

Alarm bells were going off and after delving deep into my subconscious I uncovered the problem. A week before I was due to fly back from the US in 1996 I came down with an ear infection. The doctor I had seen at the local eye and ear unit advised against flying until it resolved for fear of rupturing an ear drum. The still unsmiling CBP officer pointed out that, in 1996, I had actually overstayed the three-month holiday period by an unforgivable eight days and as such I was not permitted to travel to the US without a visa.

I pointed out that I had already received authorisation from US immigration through the new online Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA) system. But, I was informed, obtaining ESTA authorisation to travel to the US does not in fact authorise one to travel to the US. Who knew?

The individual CBP officer at the point of contact can make a decision to overrule such authorisation and deny entry.

I thought I saw a glimmer of satisfaction as this CBP officer announced that she was doing just that. There would be no sleep-ins or visits to Sears Tower for me. I asked for an explanation as to why she was taking this decision and was told "those are the rules".

I could, she said, get a letter from the doctor who had treated me in 1996 and bring it to the US Embassy and apply for a holiday visa which could take up to two weeks to come through. But even if I did obtain a holiday visa, it would still not guarantee entry to the US as the final decision comes down to the individual officer at the point of contact because "those are the rules".

I could feel the blood draining from my face. I stumbled to the nearest seat while I waited for the strength to return to my knees but before I even sat on the chair, I could hear her dulcet tones. "Ma'm, you can't sit there! You can't sit there Ma'm."

Next thing I knew, a second officer appeared from behind the Perspex, hand on pistol and I was not-so-gently escorted from the room. Without a word of explanation to my bewildered husband who was soon scurrying after me, I was frogmarched to the nearest Garda Siochana desk and ejected from the airport.

Two months later, the humiliation is still raw. I still have flashbacks -- the whispers of the other tourists as I was shoved past, the speculation as to what vile crime I had committed, the relief that another Shoe Bomber had been foiled.

The whole incident would be comical if it weren't for the fact that it is such a common occurrence.

Official figures obtained from the US Department of Homeland Security show that almost 10 Irish tourists are denied entry to the US every week.

Beware, next time, it could be you.

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