'They made me feel like a criminal' - Irish dad imprisoned in US during family holiday over 1996 visa violation
An Irish family's dream holiday to Disneyland Florida turned into a nightmare recently when the dad was imprisoned for overstaying his visa in 1996.
The man, who has only been identified as Darren, said that he was made to "feel like a criminal" during his ordeal, despite having been to the US four times since 1996 without any issues arising.
Darren and his wife Linda had been planning the trip to Florida since last June and when they told their kids (aged 15, 11 and 9) on Christmas Eve, he said "everyone was buzzing and it was all we could talking about from then."
They flew to Gatwick Airport on March 22 and from there to Orlando Airport, it was when they were going through the usual immigration checks there that things started to go wrong.
Speaking on Liveline on RTE Radio One today, Darren said: "We went through a place called Primary Inspection and we spoke to a border agent and everything seemed fine, we gave another set of fingerprints and then suddenly his attitude and line of questioning changed and all the attention was focused on me.
"He asked when was the first time I was in the United States and I kind of hesitated and fumbled my line because of a long flight and said 2002, my wife Linda nudged me and said it was 1996.
"He asked how long I stayed for and I said three months, he took my passport and separated it from the rest, he said they would need to look into it and asked me to follow him."
Darren was then led away from his family to be questioned by Customs and Border Police for two hours.
The officers told him he overstayed his three month visa by a month in 1996, although Darren maintains it was just two weeks.
He was then told he would not be allowed to enter the United States.
Darren explained: "I've been there four times since and I gave her the years as best as I could remember, I asked how I got in all of those times and they said I had just been lucky."
He was allowed to go out to let his wife know what was happening and to give her his wallet and cards and he said things were understandably emotional.
"The kids saw their mam crying and they started crying, my wife tried to reason with the agent and she was threatened that she would be arrested.
"I managed to calm Linda down, I went along each of the kids and tried to reassure them it would be okay and to go enjoy their holiday, it wasn't how we planned it but it is how it is, the kids were bawling.
"Linda said she wouldn't stay without me and the border agent said that was entirely her choice but she would have to foot the bill herself for her and the children to fly home," Darren said.
The couple decided the best option was for Linda and the children to continue with their trip, Darren was then led away for more screening and at 1am he was handcuffed and moved via a prison van to a correctional facility 17 miles away from Orlando Airport.
He said that he felt "threatened" during his time in his cell, which he shared with other inmates.
Darren recalled: "They made me feel like a criminal...
"There were upwards of 20 people in my cell that night, I stood out like a sore thumb, they were hardened criminals.
"Listening to some of the criminals it wasn't just stealing a pint of milk from a shop but things like being caught with a load of weapons, assault and battery and domestic assaults, they were openly discussing it almost like a badge of honour.
"I just wanted to curl up and be left alone.
"One man in his 50s kind of befriended me, for want of a better word, he could tell i was distressed and that I wasn't the type of person you would usually in that environment.
"So he was asking me was I okay, that was a small bit of comfort I suppose, he didn't look like someone you would want to meet on the street usually but he was the best of a bad lot.
"The room we were in was massive, with about ten bunk beds and the air conditioning was on a constant cold setting, I felt threatened."
He was collected at around 2.15pm the following day, handcuffed and brought back to Orlando Airport in the prison van.
After around 24 hours, Darren says he was relieved to be on his way back to Ireland.
"I was escorted to the plane by two armed guards in full view of the passengers I was going to be on the plane with, I was in handcuffs until we reached the departures area.
"I was getting some funny stares when I was sitting at the departures gate, I didn't know how it would be on the plane but it was okay, to be honest I was just relieved to be leaving the country," the father-of-three said.
He was back in London by 9.30am on Saturday and then he landed in Dublin around midday.
His family are still in Florida and he said they are trying to make the most of their holiday.
Darren said: "Linda is making the best of it but it is hard for her.
"I was reassured by the border agent that I will be allowed enter the US again but I will have to go in via a different means, by submitting an application to the American Embassy in Ballsbridge and applying for a ten year travel visa.
"That in itself would involve a lot of hoop jumping.
"I can't really say at the moment if I'd want to go back, my head's all over the place, I want to just get my family home and have a think about it.
"I'll have to talk to my wife when she's home, for all I know she could be against ever going back there but then again they could be having a whale of a time, I hope they are enjoying it because they deserve it."
He said that he also wants to highlight how serious the implications of overstaying a visa in the US can be.
Darren warned: "I just want to use my story to help make people aware of what they could potentially be dealing with if they do decide to go the US and were involved in a minor thing such as staying longer than your alloted time."