“Extreme Vetting”: Where Do We Draw the Line?

Two sisters from Colombia who flew into Massachusetts have been sent back to their home country after being detained at a Boston airport for nearly 36 hours, which included a hospital visit for the younger girl.

Dayana Gomez, 20, and Laura Gomez, 11, landed at the Logan International Airport last Wednesday to visit their mother and stepfather, currently residing in Lowell. The girls were immediately detained for questioning by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). They were not allowed to see their mother, stepfather or an attorney during their questioning. Their mother, Otilia Gomez Lopez, was frantic and unaware of her children’s whereabouts. After spending hours in the international arrivals area, she finally spoke to CBP Wednesday night when the dog traveling with the sisters was allowed through but not the girls. She returned to the airport the next day with an immigration lawyer. But by then, her youngest daughter had been rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital with severe stomach pains. Only there were their mother and stepfather allowed to visit, but they were not allowed to use their cellphones, and a border agent stood guard outside the room the entire time.

After Laura was treated, she and sister were taken back to the airport for additional questioning. Last Friday, the two girls were packed up and shipped back to Columbia. No official reason has been given, although the agency released a statement on the incident. It reads in part:

“It is important to note that issuance of a visa or a visa waiver does not guarantee entry to the United States. A CBP officer at the port of entry will conduct an inspection to determine if the individual is eligible for admission under US immigration law.” Citing privacy laws, the CBP have not said why the sisters were detained for two days or why they were put on a flight back to Panama, where they’re expected to fly on to Colombia.

Attorney Heather Yountz, who volunteered to provide legal assistance to the girls, said that it was unlike anything she had ever seen before. She believes US Customs and Border Protection were concerned that the girls would stay in the States with their mother and not go back home, but disagrees with the assessment. The sisters, who are dual citizens of Colombia and Spain, have valid Spanish passports and had return tickets.

“Our concern here is not that Customs and Border Protection doesn’t have a right to question an individual entering the country, but here we have an 11-year-old child who is held for hours overnight, developed severe stomach pains, and had to be taken to Massachusetts General Hospital,” Yountz stated. “Alternative practices were available, and they should have been used. Deferred inspection, a process by which an individual can be paroled into the United States and allowed to return a few days later for question, would have made much more sense given this little girl’s age and health situation.”

Gomez Lopez speculates that her daughters were detained because they had school documents with them. She has applied for permanent resident for herself and her younger daughter, and wanted to have the required documents to apply for school for her daughter once their papers came through. The plan was for her daughters to visit, see the area, spend time with her and then return to Colombia until the youngest daughter's green card came through.

“The authorities did not let them through because supposedly, they were coming to stay, but they are only coming for two months, no more,” Gomez Lopez said at the airport late Thursday. She told reporters that her daughters had planned to stay in the US only until May 30, and attempted to prove that fact to the authorities with those return tickets to no avail.

“The detention of this 11-year-old, who was not healthy, is the perfect example of how this administration’s policy of inspecting everyone in search of reasons for deportation can go terribly wrong,” Yountz said. “Is this what enhanced screening looks like? You have a young girl being detained for more than 36 hours?”

The girls are just the latest victims of President Trump’s aggressive immigration crackdown. The mandate set in place last month calls for advanced scrutiny of foreigners’ visas, with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson directing representatives to identify “populations warranting increased scrutiny.”

I’m hard-pressed to think of another way to open the door for discriminatory practices. Maybe we can just hang up a poster saying “no visible minorities.” It’s frustrating to hear these stories over and over again, especially in recent weeks given global responses to Trump’s rhetoric and actions. I’m not saying that we should allow just any individual into the country, I just strongly disagree with the mandates set by the Trump administration. There is too much vague language used that can be interpreted in numerous ways, and it seems to be done on purpose. The four memos issued by Tillerson over the last few weeks have raised alarm bells around the world, with many advocates and immigration lawyers saying that these instructions will undoubtedly lead to visa applicants and travelers being profiled on nationality or religion rather than based on the threat they pose to US security. I think Trump and his administration are now fostering environments through which agents can conduct themselves however they wish and cite security as a factor, whether it is true or not. It seems safe to assume things have been phrased as such to give greater power to the authorities without accountability for actions.

Hey, I could be wrong, but an 11-year-old girl who ends up being hospitalized during questioning that lasted 36 hours? Not a threat to security.

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