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The Monday Rant: Detaining Foreign Visitors

So now America is trying to keep European tourists out.

In a shocking story, the New York Times revealed on Wednesday that an Italian man who frequently came to the States to visit his Alexandria girlfriend was denied entry to the U.S. by a customs official at Dulles airport. Customs agents have the discretion to bar entry to anyone who violates certain rules; apparently, the agent suspected that the man, Domenico Salerno, was trying to live here permanently. After Salerno allegedly claimed to be an asylum seeker (a charge he denies), he was shackled and taken to a rural Virginia prison, where he was held for 10 days. Virginia Sen. John W. Warner pleaded for Salerno's release, to no avail, having been called in by Salerno's girlfriend, Caitlin Cooper, and her family.

Salerno's case is shocking, and not just because the detained man is from one of the 27 countries whose citizens are allowed to travel to the U.S. for stays up to 90 days without obtaining a visa (22 of those countries are in Europe; the others are Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Brunei and Japan).

No, it's shocking because for something like this to happen to any innocent tourist, regardless of his or her nationality, is a huge leap backward for our country's tourism industry, not to mention reputation.

The article mentions a woman from Iceland who was detained last December for supposedly overstaying her visa more than 10 years ago. She said she was visiting the U.S. in part to -- guess what? -- go shopping. That's right: She was here to stimulate our economy. Recently, British artist Sebastian Horsley was denied entry because of "moral turptitude" -- he had been arrested for drugs a quarter-century ago, and wrote a memoir describing his sordid past.

Salerno, on the other hand, was just coming to visit his girlfriend, who's now considering moving to Italy to be with him. After 10 days in a jail cell, I wouldn't blame him if he never wanted to come back here. I've heard people write off countries for far less -- that one rude French salesclerk, the trinket-hawkers in Jamaica -- than being unfairly imprisoned.

None of those 27 countries on that visa-waiver list is a short hop away. Imagine paying through the nose for a flight here from one of those countries and getting turned back -- or worse, jailed -- when you finally land.

If you risked incarceration as a tourist to a certain country, would you really put that place -- even one as exciting, interesting and otherwise welcoming as America -- on your list, especially with the cost of airfare?

If the U.S. has an image problem now, incidents like these -- and the rightful outrage they spark -- are only making things worse. After all, Washington is a tourist mecca, and if those Europeans stop coming and spending dollars like Monopoly money, what'll happen to our fair city? Thoughts?

By Christina Talcott |  May 19, 2008; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Christina Talcott , Europe , In the News , Monday Rants
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Have you seen passport and immigration lately? That is enough to make anyone not want to visit the United States. I have heard of people missing their connections because of extremely long waits for passport control. Not only that, but immigration officers are frequently cold and unfriendly. And then throw in TSA and all the additional hassles of flying and you would be content to stay at home.

Posted by: Bev | May 19, 2008 9:07 AM

We allowed the government to create DHS to "protect" us and we are now reaping what we have sown. Hopefully, once we get new faces in charge we may be able to root out and repair the damage that has been done to liberty and freedom in this country.

Posted by: M Street | May 19, 2008 9:49 AM

I have a similar story about my mother in-law. This is not half as bad as the story above, but maybe just as agitating. My husband is from Germany. So we had my mother-in-law (a German citizen, who resides in Germany) come over and visit one weekend last fall. She went through customs and immigration as usual, but a customs official detained her saying that she was carrying over $10,000 in currency, which was far from the truth. They kept her in a holding cell for over 2 hours in Dulles airport after finding no currency in her bags while my husband waited for her with no idea what was going on. It was not until another officer came in and told the officer that detained her to let her go. My question is, why are they wasting their time detaining a 64 year old woman who was clearly a tourist and possibly ignoring the people they are hired to look out for? Our USCIS is an embarrassment and needs to be reformed extensively.

Posted by: MWalter | May 19, 2008 10:56 AM

When I was in Berlin and Prague last month, I spoke to a couple of people who encountered grilling for several hours themselves (1 British, 1 Czech Rep.) I actually met an Icelandic woman who was a friend of the person kept in jail.

Bottom line: the English guy may come to America again, the Czech woman has a boyfriend in the US, so she will come here again. The Icelandic woman will not.

Posted by: anonymous | May 19, 2008 11:43 AM

Our border control policies are becoming insane. Every time I travel overseas my most unpleasant border experiences are when I return here.

Christina's point about travelers writing off a country for far less is dead on. And think about what happens in the USA every time there's some incident overseas, and how Americans rush to cancel their upcoming trips to go someplace "safer." Well, if we're going to imprison harmless people on bogus charges for 10 days (!!) nobody's ever going to come here again. I certainly wouldn't. It's a big world out there, and Americans need to realize that we're in grave danger of being cut out of it. If that happens it'll be our loss, not theirs.

Posted by: Andy | May 19, 2008 12:50 PM

Other countries can be pretty strict about who they allow in as well. Getting into Canada if you've ever been arrested for drunk driving is pretty tough.

Posted by: Tom | May 19, 2008 12:56 PM

And for this we give thanks to the fascist Bush-Cheney regime. I cant wait till January 2009.

Posted by: Washington DC | May 19, 2008 3:29 PM

Are you going to investigate this more? How many cases like this are there? - Why is a very senior US Senator unable to help? Lots of questions arise.

Posted by: Bill | May 19, 2008 4:09 PM

My husband and I travel r/t to Canada several times a year. We used to fly but we've had so many hassles at Customs, mostly at Canadian customs, that we now drive. We find the land crossing to be easier to negotiate but it's still tricky and we're never sure if we'll be let in to Canada.

I asked several Europeans and Canadians why people travel effortlessly from country to country in Europe but we can't do it in North America and I've been told that the hassles we experience getting into Canada are retribution for similar treatment on the part of US Customs officers.

A Canadian friend's daughter had such a bad hassle at the US border that she says she'll never go to the US again. A country reaps what it sows, apparently.

Posted by: Mag | May 19, 2008 4:47 PM

To "Tom," about drunk driving and Canada. The issue there is that drunk driving is a felony in Canada, and they don't allow felons into their country. While it's not that big a deal in the US, it is a very big one up there.

I went to Canada 7-8 years ago, and I happened to be stopped at random. They asked to see my driver's license, which I don't have. They then asked if I ever had one. As it happens, I never did. I have mild epilepsy (no need for medication, just annoying when it happens), and I simply chose not to obtain a license. But I knew where that line of questioning was going, so it suddenly felt good to say I'd never had one.

Posted by: Ben | May 19, 2008 7:19 PM

Yes the US welcome mat is far from welcoming. But as stated above, Canada can be as unwelcoming. I flew into Toronto in January for work, and I had no problems ( although some co workers did have problems). I flew into Montreal for vacation in late March and was put through the ringer. Being asked questions as to where I was staying, etc. And then after I was cleared out of the first office I was put through a luggage search ( of my checked bag) befor I was able to leave. I asked the one agent if there was a problem with my passport or something. And he said no, it was a random thing because I was not Canadiean. That experience may lead me to go by train the next time I want to go to Montreal ( which I have done before, but it is a long ride)

Posted by: rja112 | May 19, 2008 10:21 PM

Yes, this incident was a shame, but he did overstay his VISA in the past. Try doing that with another country. Have any of you enjoyed the exceptionally warm welcomes of other countries? I have nothing in my past, other than being an American, but I always hold my breath until I pass through the agents. They most often have huge guns at their sides. I also don't enjoy being frisked! The $100-$200 VISA costs for short visits are also insane.

I guess we are the big bad USA and, of course, Bush and Co. are the cause, but my friends in other countries state we are friendlier by far - except none of us speak anything but English!!!

Posted by: Karen | May 20, 2008 2:23 PM

Seems like just a few months ago you noticed that the number of foreign tourists to the US was rapidly declining and wondered why that could possibly be the case. http://blog.washingtonpost.com/travellog/2008/03/where_have_all_the_tourists_go.html Gee, do you think that this has something to do with it? And what about the phenomenon that you also noted earlier this year of customs officials demanding access to computer files, blackberry emails, etc. of even US citizens?

Business travel is one thing, but I'd be Much less likely to take a relaxing vacation to a country that was known for having such customs/immigration problems.

Posted by: nyc | May 20, 2008 2:42 PM

to Karen above... if you read the article closely you will realize that he actually did not overstay his visa ever. You are thinking of the Icelandic woman in the article. Domenico is an Italian attorney, has no criminal record, and has diligently made sure to obey all immigration and customs laws. His detention was a result of border patrol officer "claiming" that he was seeking asylum even though no interpreter was provided and Domenico did not every say that.

Posted by: Caitlin | May 20, 2008 3:58 PM

Although we all think of tourists as being friendly foreigners eager to spend their gerkins here in the states, the United States is also an exciting destination for con artists, crooks, pedophiles, drug dealers, people who want generous social services, people who want to work illegally etc. There are a lot of people around the world who see America as a country of rich people ripe for the taking. I'm glad our government looks carefully at each person we welcome in. I would do they same thing if a foreigner wanted to stay at my house.

Posted by: Tom | May 20, 2008 4:14 PM

In retaliation for what they see as unfriendly and expensive visa restrictions on the part of the US, both Chile and Brazil now charge any American entering their countries $100. Europeans get in free.

Posted by: john myers | May 21, 2008 2:50 PM

Tom, while I can appreciate some of the point behind what you're saying, I can promise that there are no Europeans coming to the US in order to take advantage of the "generous social services" on offer. As an American living in the EU, I can say there is no comparison in terms of these services. The Italian was held in JAIL for ten days because they thought he might overstay.

I do fear that these policies will only add to retaliatory measures already being taken by some other countries against American tourists. Americans will only blame the foreign governments, of course, and not think to blame our own for lowering the bar in the first place, as they rarely have to deal with how foreigners are treated in their own country.

Posted by: erin | May 21, 2008 4:58 PM

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