Immigration Horror Story-returning to the US from Turkey


This time the horror story happened to Mr. Z, not me.

But it still started with me, anyway

Mr. Z and I had a red eye flight from Istanbul, Turkey to Frankfurt, Germany to catch our connecting flight to Miami, USA. We were bleary eyed, exhausted and trying to catch some snooze at 5 am in Istanbul Ataturk airport. When we arrived in Frankfurt we were surprised to see a lot of extra security and checking at the airport. We had to show our boarding pass first in the checkpoint.

Mr. Z got through quickly. Lucky him. When the Lufthansa checkpoint guy saw I was Filipino and came from Istanbul, he waved me to secondary screening.

When I was led away, Mr. Z came towards me innocently, not knowing what was happening.


Go away!, my eyes pleaded him. What was I to do? If I say anything, he might get implicated. I tried to wave him away in small gestures hoping the guy wouldn’t see.

It did not work.

When the checkpoint guy saw Mr. Z he put 2 and 2 together. “Ah, he’s traveling with you,” he said. “Please, come join us.”

Unwittingly, Mr. Z joined me for secondary screening.

Grumbling and scowling, he grabbed his sweater and suitcase from the scanner belt. “Sorry,” I said. It was all my fault.

“It isn’t,” he said as if  reading my mind.

We got our things. A packet of a gingerbread man was waiting in the tray for us. Merry Christmas! it said on the packet.

How thoughtful of the Germans. At least Mr. Gingerbread uplifted our spirits.

It was not over yet.

When we got to our boarding area, a short weasel-like man was waiting for us. He reminded me of a snake.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said to Mr. Z. He flashed his I.D. “I’m from the US consulate here in Frankfurt.”


He’s definitely not a “staffer” from the US consul. How could someone from the US consul come here so quickly if they wanted to talk to Mr. Z? I smelled CIA. They were definitely planted in this airport to weed out suspecting people.

Mr. CIA took out his blackberry. “I have a few questions,” he said. He then launched into a series of questions. What did Mr. Z’s parents do? What did he do? When did he leave the US? How long had he been away? Where did he go?

I admired how Mr. Z kept his cool throughout this whole interrogation. He had been away for six months visiting me, his girlfriend in the Philippines. Mr. CIA snuck a look at me when he said that and continued typing Mr. Z’s answers with amazing speed – his fingers tap tap tapping into those tiny keys in his blackberry. Mr Z concluded by saying he was visiting Turkey en route to the U.S.

Satisfied that Mr. Z was no terrorist, Mr. CIA had one last question, “Have you been to Syria?”


He closed his blackberry, satisfied. “Have a nice day.”

The trouble was not over yet. When we arrived in Miami airport, I got through US immigration but the US citizen, Mr Z didn’t.


I waited and waited for him in the baggage claim area. After almost half an hour, I decided to grab our luggage. The longer I waited there the more suspicious I looked.

Mr. Z emerged 15 minutes later, annoyed and scowling. He had been gone for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, his parents had been texting me worried why he had not showed up yet. His mom, a powerhouse lawyer was ready to burst into TSA guns blazing.

It turns out he was flagged in immigration. It was most likely because of what happened in Frankfurt with Mr. CIA. Mr. Z was led to a separate room with other people, mostly immigrants. They took his passport and it inserted  it into a small basket along with other passports of the people in that room. They told him to sit with other detainees facing a wall (scare tactic).

Then the lazy TSA upped the anxiety by not doing anything but watch football and letting them wait and sweat.

Obviously, they had not met Mr. Z.

Getting more annoyed by the minute, Mr. Z kept asking the TSA officer when he could talk to them. The TSA office scowled at him and told him to wait.

Finally, he gave Mr. Z his attention. First, he wanted to see Mr. Z’s computer files.

“Are you sure you want to see all my files?” Mr. Z said. “We’ll be here till Christmas.”

It was a week before Christmas when this happened.

Mr. TSA scowled at him more. He was probably cursing his luck to get a wise guy. “Give me your phone then.”

“I don’t think you have the right to do that.I might need to see your supervisor.”

“When you’re in immigration, technically you have not entered the US so we can request more information. You can choose to stay here and wait all day for my supervisor or we can speed this up by letting me see your phone.”

Knowing his parents and I were waiting plus the fact he would rather do anything but spend Christmas in TSA, he grudgingly gave his phone to the officer.

After thumbing through the pictures, Mr. TSA returned it to Mr. Z. He was probably disappointed not to see training pictures of Mr. Z in Syria but instead see pictures of us being normal tourists doing normal touristy stuff  in Turkey which we are.

“How many countries have you been to the last five years?” Mr. TSA asked.

“Bear with me.” Mr. Z was the ultimate traveler. If he listed all the countries he’s been to, then they would be there till Christmas.

“Spain, Morocco, Turkey, Switzerland, Portugal, China, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia–”

“Ah-ha!” Mr. TSA slammed his fists triumphantly on his desk. “Libya!”

“BOOO–LII–VIA. As in B-O-L-I-V-I-A – the country in South America?” Mr. Z looked more annoyed than ever.

“Oh.” Mr. TSA looked deflated.

In the end when he finally let Mr. Z go, he glanced at his entry card. “You didn’t tell us you had global entry,” he said.

“It’s there in the card. You have been staring at it the whole time. It’s got a big X in it.”

“Why?” Mr TSA looked genuinely perplexed.

“You tell me. I don’t know.”

“If you had global entry, we wouldn’t need to go through this.” Then he handed Mr. Z a comment card. “You know, we were just keeping you safe.”

Extreme irritation level rising to unbelievable heights.

Mr. Z related all this to his parents and I in the car. I squeezed his hand. I’m just glad he’s safe here with us  and they let him out.

Mr. Z wasn’t even worried about that. He knew they’d let him out eventually because he did nothing wrong. What he was depressed about was the state of the TSA detaining people like him and not even knowing he had global entry all along. He was saddened by the lack of IQ.

One thing we have learned is that visiting the Turkey and the Middle East and then going to the US in a one way ticket was getting to be more and more difficult.

We just hope we get through the next immigration unscathed next time.

Photo credit by NPR and US Customs and Border Protection


5 thoughts on “Immigration Horror Story-returning to the US from Turkey

  1. gelfo07 says:

    I have also had some similar troubles at border controls because I have tanned skin and a long unkempt beard, at times. Once, returning to the UK, I was thoroughly searched – I asked the guy – is this a random check? and without further explanation he said “No”.

    If you invade someone’s privacy like that you could at least have the courtesy of providing an explanation.

    By the way, you left one instance of the name of your Mr Z in your post, without substituting it with Mr Z… I presume this was an oversight? It’s at the ‘thumbing through the pictures’ part.

    • Kate says:

      Sorry, this comment was late. I was traveling with Mr Z, as usual.

      I fixed it. Yes it was an oversight. Thanks! 🙂

      I know. They never provide an explanation because if they did they would be labeled ‘racist’. I’ve been stopped once for ‘random’ checking.

  2. Wild Wild Basch says:

    I was just on a facebook argument about something related to this issue. Looks like visiting the middle east, specially Syria, is not the best idea nowadays. Not that Mr. Z had visited those countries… but if he had, it would be messed up. I’m living in Bulgaria (one of its borders is with Turkey), my sister lives in the USA, I just hope I do not have to be under this kind of investigation whenever I travel there the next time (specially because I’m thinking of spending a few days in Turkey and visiting some countries in the middle east) – Not that I’m interested in visiting Libya or Syria, but Lebanon, Israel and the AUE are in my plans…

    Best regards and keep up the great work! 😉

    • Kate says:

      Us too! Syria and Turkey are not the best ideas these days because many people use Turkey as a transit point to Syria. But remember, Mr Z’s case was different because he had been for 6 months staying with me in the Philippines and he had a one way ticket from Turkey to US. Our friends had a round trip ticket from Boston to Turkey and didn’t have that much trouble except they had to go through secondary screening but that’s it.

      I think if you have a round trip ticket from Bulgaria to US it’ll be fine. Visiting Israel and UAE are okay as well as long as you stay there for a short time before visiting the US. Lebanon I’m not too sure.

      Best of luck! And thanks! 🙂

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