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Finally, around 6 p.m., a “detention meal” was pulled from a fridge, consisting of an orange, fruit-box drink and a roll that, Smethurst says, “I could play golf with.”
For a while she sat in the main detention center, unable to eat the food, as eight armed guards watched TV. Then one of the staff returned with a bag of takeout and began eating a hamburger and fries in front of her. ‰ 21
“At that stage,” she says, “I just lost the plot completely and threw the roll into the bin in front of me with sheer, utter frustration.”
The CBP would later call this gesture a “tantrum”; Smethurst, in turn, claims that she was thoroughly body searched by female staff each time she was moved from one part of LAX to another, and that she broke down in tears several times, swearing to her captors that she was not a criminal, had done nothing wrong and should be allowed in the country. She also says one sympathetic staff member told her she’d simply had bad luck in getting the agent she did at the first customs station, since the I-Visa rule was enforced at the discretion of agents. Smethurst could have entered the country by simply declaring herself a tourist on her traveler’s form — a routine practice among reporters entering the U.S.
Eventually, Smethurst’s release was won by the Consul General’s Office. The consulate also gained one other concession — the cup of tea she’d begged for. It was prepared by a senior CBP official whom Smethurst thought was the kindest American she’d met that day.
“It was the best cup of tea I’d ever had,” she says. “I didn’t waste a drop.”
There is, naturally, an officialversion that differs from Sue Smethurst’s description of the events that day, but a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department’s Customs and Border Protection bureau said he did not want to “spend time on he-said, she-said charges.”
“She did become abusive,” CBP spokesperson Michael Fleming told me, however. “We tried to calm her down. Handcuffing is a standard procedure because sometimes good people can do potentially violent things. It’s not our intent to parade passengers on a perp walk — Sue Smethurst is not a criminal. It’s important for journalists to know to enter the U.S. on assignment they cannot apply under the visa-waiver program. They have to do their homework.”
When Smethurst returned to Melbourne, camera crews were waiting — all major Australian media outlets reported her ordeal. The story was treated as an example of bureaucratic arrogance run amok, because many parts of the world are still outraged by what happens at American airports to foreigners — and to many Americans. (Last September, the CBP at LAX detained the Australian-born wife of a U.S. Navy sailor for five days, while also briefly denying her infant daughter food and medical attention.) Smethurst says she’s received hundreds of messages from fellow Australians claiming similar treatment at the hands of U.S. immigration officials and knows of two fellow journalists who were sent back to Australia. When Smethurst’s editor, who planned to visit the United States on business, inquired about obtaining an I-Visa, she was told it would not be necessary. She is going to get one anyway.
Smethurst says U.S. ambassador Tom Schaeffer privately apologized to her for her treatment, but will not do so in public. Not that it matters much — the only U.S. press coverage of Smethurst’s ordeal was found in an Atlanta Constitutionsquib culled from the Australian Associated Press. Before November 14, she and her husband had planned to return to America to celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary, but, as she learned, everything’s different now in America.
“We decided to stay in Australia and celebrate here,” she says. “There was always the chance we could have got the same customs officer if we flew to America.”