MORE

Screenwriter Mistaken for a Terrorist

{mosimage}I landed at LAX feeling relieved. I had been stuck in London for four months, waiting to be cleared by authorities to re-enter the United States. Although I had lived in L.A. for five years, I was for some reason perceived as a security threat. Now that that was over, I was looking forward to resuming my career and my fledgling relationship with my girlfriend.

Things at LAX, however, didn’t go according to plan. After the usual fingerprint and passport check at the immigration booth, the official, seemingly satisfied with my answers, said those dreaded words: “Follow me.” He led me past a sea of disapproving faces and sat me in a pokey room, federal officers coming in and out, giving me the once-over. I waited for yet another immigration interview.

It is harder for Britons to travel to the United States than ever before. We now have to use biometric passports (in which the passport has a chip with the holder’s key physical data) to enter America simply as tourists. Anyone traveling to the U.S. is now assigned a risk-assessment score. If you score above a certain number, you will be interrogated and possibly sent back home. According to estimates from the Association of British Travel Agents, there are now 20 times more cases of U.K. citizens being turned away at a U.S. airport than before September 11.

For those who wish to work in America, it is even harder. Quotas for the standard work visa, the H-1B, issued to all foreign professionals working in the U.S., were filled in June last year, months ahead of schedule. This means that if you want to work in America, you have to wait until October 2007 to start your job and you’ll need an exceptionally patient employer.

As a Los Angeles–based screenwriter, I had heard of a way to overcome such issues. No, not marry an American. Rather, hire an expensive immigration attorney. My lawyer was efficient and quickly managed to get me an O-1 visa for aliens of extraordinary ability due to the writing assignments I’ve had, including adaptation of the novel Yardie, currently in production. The U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services approved it; all I had to do, they said, was take the approval letter to an American Embassy to get the magic stamp.

Technically, I could have gone to any U.S. Embassy, but since I was born and brought up in London, it seemed like a trip back home would be the perfect opportunity to see friends and family.

When I arrived in London, the official at the U.S. Embassy asked just two questions before dropping his bombshell: They’d need extra time. He wouldn’t say why. They just needed more time. He didn’t say how long. When the official handed me back my passport, I realized it wasn’t going to be anytime soon.

As my lawyer investigated further, it became clear that I was undergoing an extensive security check. Although my visa had already been approved by the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, embassies fall under the State Department, an entirely different jurisdiction. I had been deemed a potential risk to homeland security, and they wanted to check me out. Two months later, the embassy said the check they were doing on me could last indefinitely.

I began freaking out.  I had an entire life back in L.A. that I had put on hold. I had rent and medical insurance to pay, two cars to maintain, not to mention business meetings I’d had to cancel and an increasingly frustrated agent. Even my girlfriend, vehemently opposed to long-distance relationships, threatened to leave me.

My lawyer eventually figured out that my name appeared on a State Department watch list. He concluded the authorities may have mistaken me for a terrorist.

We found out that the man sentenced to death in Pakistan for abducting and helping to kill the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl had a scarily similar profile to me: We shared the same name (Ahmed) and similarly spelled last name (Shaikh). He had attended the London School of Economics, where I was an undergraduate. Even spookier, he had attended Forest School, a rival high school to my own alma mater, Chigwell Boys.

It didn’t seem to matter that this guy had grown a beard, bought an AK-47 and joined the Kashmir Liberation Front, while I had gone to L.A. to purchase a Starbucks loyalty card and write movies. In the eyes of the U.S. authorities, it appeared, we might as well have been the same person.

Three months passed and I still had no word. Given that I’d attended USC film school, paid taxes to the U.S. government for years, and lived and breathed that all-American institution of Hollywood, I did ask the obvious question: “Why me?” Was it simply because of my British Muslim background?

After a depressing conversation with my girlfriend, who was now seriously suggesting we break up, I decided to e-mail the U.S. Embassy. As a British passport holder, I asked them whether I could simply travel to the U.S. as a tourist. My lawyer warned me against this strategy, saying a deportation from LAX would ruin my chances of ever returning to the U.S.

The embassy didn’t reply. Instead, the following week, I received a letter in which I was told to send them my passport. It instructed me not to come to Grosvenor Square in person. I was only permitted to deal with the embassy via a courier company. The courier picked up my passport; five days later, the courier company phoned me to say my passport had been returned.

I had no idea what this meant. I had not gotten my passport and was waiting anxiously at my parents’ house, which is where I had been stuck all this time. Finally, the courier delivered the passport. And there it was: my O-1 visa. I was now free to go back home to L.A.

It is hard to know for sure why my name was on the watch list. The racial thing is obviously one factor. However, Victoria Aitken, a former student at Georgetown University and daughter of British Conservative politician Jonathan Aitken, recalls the numerous occasions when she was extensively searched and questioned by U.S. immigration officials. She told me recently how she was often harangued by U.S. officials to the point of tears. It seemed every time she entered America, her passport would cause some kind of alert. Eventually she discovered, via a more novice immigration official, that her father’s Arab connections — he was jailed in the 1990s for lying to investigators after an adviser to the Fahd family of Saudi Arabia picked up his Ritz-Carlton tab — meant that her name was flagged too.

For all Britons wanting to travel and work in the U.S., the fact is there are no exemptions for being British. The so-called “special relationship” has no bearing. The dollar-pound exchange rate may be on the rise, but the value of the British passport, it seems, is on the wane.

Back at the secondary inspection room at LAX, my questioning began. The immigration official asked me inane questions, including: “Is this your first time in the United States?”

“No, I’ve lived here for five years,” I replied, wondering what exactly was on her computer screen.

“How long do you plan to stay?” the official asked.

“The length of my visa, which is three years.”

At this point I mentioned the security check I had endured. The official said she had no idea I’d been through that. So much for their new centralized database.

Then, she asked with genuine curiosity: “So it says here you’re a screenwriter. Have you worked on anything I might know?”

“I’ve written an episode of Scrubs

Her eyes lit up. “I love that show!”

The fact that my episode was just a spec script – which technically anyone can write – didn't matter to them, because 30 seconds later I received the requisite stamp and I was through. It took four months of toil, and name-dropping was all I had to do to get back home.

I don’t think I’ll be returning to Britain anytime soon. L.A. may occasionally be a soulless, empty place. But I’m not risking international travel for a while. In fact, I may join the 80 percent of Americans sans passports and never leave these shores again.

Zak Shaikh won a Hollywood Foreign Press Association award for his USC thesis screenplay.


Sponsor Content