By Cyriaque Gilbert, as told to Donna Olendorf
I am a 14-year-old exchange student, visiting the Blondia family from France. There are six children in my family, and it has become a tradition for us to come to Traverse City as teenagers. Two of my brothers have already been here, one in 2012 and one in 2013.
Both my brothers got into the United States without a problem, so there was no reason for me to worry that I would be turned away. But that is exactly what happened. Between their visits and mine, a new president had been elected and he had signed an executive order tightening immigration policies and border control.
When I arrived in Detroit after an eight-hour flight from Paris, I got in line with my father and mother to go through Customs. The agents asked to see my documents, and my parents showed them my paperwork, explaining that I was an exchange student who would be studying in the United States for a few months.
The agent looked at my passport and then he looked at me. At first I wasn’t worried, but when he asked for documents that I did not have, I started to feel nervous. He wanted to see my ESTA form, which stands for Electronic System for Travel Authorization, and he asked for my SEVIS ID number, which the government uses to maintain information on non-immigrant students and exchange visitors. I didn’t’ have either of those things. I was documented for a vacation.
After three hours of questioning, the outcome was firm: I could not enter the country. I would be an illegal alien. And so, my parents and I were ushered back onto the same plane we had gotten off of for eight-hour return flight back to Paris. If I wanted to come to the United States, I would have to correct my paperwork and buy a new round-trip ticket.
Back home in France, my parents and I visited the US Embassy and they helped us fill out the right paperwork. But the problems didn’t end there. I was supposed to attend Glen Lake School, but that district did not have a SEVIS number allowing them to access the internet database that transmits data to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Luckily, the Leelanau School, where my host parents both work, participates in that government program and they assigned me a number and agreed to sponsor me.
The process took two weeks and delayed my arrival by almost a month, from the end of March to the end of April, but I am here now. This time, we flew to Chicago where, a family friend had assured us, the customs agents are more lenient. My mother stayed home, but my father was with me and we cleared Customs without incident. Then we rented a car and drove to Traverse City.
I will be here until June 25 and I’m looking forward to becoming fluent in English and experiencing American culture, including the Youth Group trip to Chicago later this month. I never dreamed that I would be impacted by a crackdown in immigration laws, but now I know that a presidential ban can apply even to a student like me!