People writer detained and handcuffed by US officials

                                                                              Sunday People chief writer Rachael Bletchly is the latest British journalist to fall foul of US immigration officials.

Incorrect I-visa: Bletchly was detained for 27 hours at LAX airport

 

She was handcuffed and detained for 26 hours at LAX airport in Los Angeles because she did not have the correct visa.

But she has not taken her ordeal lying down – both the Foreign Office and the World Association of Newspapers are to make representations on her behalf to the US Department of Homeland Security.

Bletchly flew to the US to interview an ex-girlfriend of former boxer Frank Bruno. She was unaware that since the September 11 attacks US immigration officials have insisted journalists visiting the country on business have the relevant I-visa.

In recent months, several other British journalists have received similar treatment, as did six French filmmakers who were detained for 24 hours in May.

Bletchly was body searched, photographed, finger-printed, denied proper food or a shower and for many hours was refused permission to make a phone call.

Before September 11, UK journalists were routinely allowed into the US like tourists under the visa-waiver programme. Bletchly was detained because she admitted to an official that she was a journalist on business.

She said: “I think they’ve had a lot of problems with people writing about the war and prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and the feeling is that’s what you are there for.

“I understand they have to enforce visa regulations and I didn’t have the right documents, but I can’t understand why it took 26 hours to process me.”

Fortunately for Bletchly, the Sunday People office was alerted to her plight by the photographer she was travelling with (and who had not been detained by immigration). They engaged a US-based lawyer to start making phone calls on her behalf and persuaded the LA British vice consul to make representations.

She said: “Immigration officials were going to make me wait for the next available American carrier flying back to Britain which means I could have been there for days. They also managed to persuade them not to handcuff me again.”

She added: “I am very wary of going anywhere now I have a stamp on my passport which says I was refused entry to the United States.

“Now if I travel to America again, even with a visa, they could look me up, see that I have a file and have been refused entry before and I could end up being detained and being back in the system again.

“I don’t see how I can travel to the United States again and I think that’s an infringement of my freedom.”

Since August, US immigration has insisted that journalists must attend a personal interview at the US Embassy to obtain an I-visa. The visa costs £67 and lasts for five years. Interviews can be arranged by calling 09055 444546 (£1.30 a minute).

A spokesman for the US Embassy said: “Journalists travelling to the US on assignment have always needed an I-visa. The visa-waiver programme covers British passport holders travelling to the US for 90 days or less, but journalists are one of the exceptions.”

By Dominic Ponsford

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