What it was like to immigrate to the US amidst a global pandemic.

Eduardo Ferreira
15 min readJul 1, 2020

It was May 2020, the world was facing unprecedented times with the new coronavirus outbreak, and I had to make the hardest decision of my life.

GRU Airport — Sao Paulo, Brazil (May 2020)

Green Card Approved

For brief context, I am Brazilian and I was in the process of getting a work visa. After 3 years I finally had my green card approved by February, and I had to immigrate to the US before July. Before flying out I decided to get my overdue wisdom tooth extraction done and to spend one more Carnival in Brazil. I needed some extra time. Given that, I booked everything for departure by mid April.

The Outbreak

In February the outbreak was starting to ramp up in the US, while Brazil would only register its first case by the end of the month. Most of the people at that time couldn’t imagine how the situation would develop.

I underwent the tooth surgery in March, on a Friday the 13th. Things were normal on that day. I had to return one week later to get my stitches removed. However little did I know that everything would change over that week.

The next week I drove to the dentist and I noticed less cars on the roads. I arrived at the clinic, and the receptionist wasn’t there. My dentist was wearing a N95 mask. Another patient was using hand sanitizer furiously. The TV news was constantly commenting about the virus.

The pandemic was declared, and US cities started to implement shelter-in-place measures by late March. My future home would be San Francisco, and they were under quarantine status. My plans have changed and I decided to delay my flight to May or later.

Trump and Immigration Bans

By late April Trump signed an executive order that halts green card processing for 60 days. Luckily this didn’t apply to me as I had an approved visa already, but it was a first sign that immigration was getting tough.

It was early May and the virus situation didn’t seem to be getting any better. I didn’t see a reason to immigrate soon, so I wanted to delay this as much as possible. I’d rather be with my family during those hard times than alone in a foreign country. And even if I wanted to go, there weren’t any flights departing from Brazil to the US until May 7th. Flights from Rio (my hometown) would only resume by June.

By mid May I had concerns about what would happen to my visa if I waited until June. New bans could take place. Some friends advised me to come as soon as possible.

I was undecided until my birthday, on May 20th. On the night before, after going out for a run, I picked up my phone and started scrolling through Instagram stories until I saw this image:

Trump considers Brazil ban 😱

Trump was considering a travel ban to Brazil if our corona cases kept increasing. I started to wonder if I should leave on that same weekend.

The next day I turned 27 years old and I celebrated at home with my family. It was a Wednesday and I kept thinking about my travel plans.

The cake was delicious :)

The next day I pulled the trigger. I decided that I was going to fly on the next Monday, just four days ahead. It was a wise decision. Three days later Trump announced that he was effectively banning immigrants from Brazil that were not US residents, and that ban would take effect on the following Friday, 29th of May.

The Travel Day

It was 12:00 PM Monday, the 25th of May. There was only one available flight to the US, and it was departing from São Paulo. So my first flight was a domestic one, from Rio to São Paulo, departing at 3:00 PM from the Rio de Janeiro International Airport (GIG).

My parents drove me to the airport. We decided that it probably wasn’t allowed or safe to have them come inside the airport, so they would just drop me off. There was no traffic, so we got there quickly. The terminal curbside, which usually is packed with taxis or Uber drivers, was now empty with only a few people standing by. I hug my parents and we say goodbye for one more time.

I walked into the terminal with my luggage, wearing a mask and disposable gloves. I walked alone into this unknown world that now awaits for me. But I faced this as an adventure. I grabbed my stuff and moved forward — “now, where is the check-in gate?” 🤔.

Mom and Dad on the departure day 😃

International Airport

I quickly located the check-in desks. To my surprise I saw a few people standing in line and around four to five check-in agents. Before entering the line one airport personnel asks if I am bringing any hand sanitizer or alcohol into my luggage. I was, so she asks to see it.

I went to a corner and I opened my backpack and my suitcase to find all the sanitizers or liquid alcohol I was bringing in. This is when I realized it was really hard to not ‘contaminate’ your belongings. I had to lay my bags on the floor, open it, put things over chairs, and then pack again… I barely started the trip and I was already exposed to germs 😬.

The security check was quick, and everything was pretty empty. Some areas of the airport were closed off. Walking towards the departure gate felt like walking through a shopping mall with stores closed.

Passengers had to follow some simple guidelines, like wearing masks all the times. Social distancing was something that airports also tried to apply, so things like crossing off some seats at departure gates were common.

Pro-tip: If you want the least contaminated seat, take the one with an ‘X’ 😉. (Thanks Jake for the tip)

The boarding procedure was also different. Marks on the floor were indicating the 6 feet distance rule. However there were multiple lines side by side… people weren’t too worried about it 😅.

But it didn’t really matter. The social distancing was over once you step inside the aircraft. Blocking middle seats was not something that Gol Airlines did. Instead they even had some of the airline crew from other flights to take seats among passengers. To my surprise this first flight was completely packed. It was a complete shit show 💩.

There was a guy sitting in front of me speaking loudly on his phone, airline crew members by my side talking about work, and I was on the window seat, glancing over the emergency instructions and thinking if this was an emergency or not 🤔.

Too much virus here, please, I am out.

The First Layover

Less than 2 hours later I was already in Sao Paulo, at the GRU International Airport. My next flight was the international one. It was a 7-hour layover, so I had plenty of time to check-in again, drop my baggages and get some food. But first I had to pick up my luggage.

The person in a hazmat suit was on my first flight 😄

GRU is the biggest airport in Brazil and it has 3 terminals. I landed at terminal 1 and I had to walk over to terminal 3, passing through terminal 2. Again most of the stores were closed, and only a few handful of people were passing by. As I had time, I walked between terminals to find my options for lunch. There weren’t that many, but more than enough.

I was surprised by how tasty this chicken was 😋

International Check-In

The baggage check-in was open about 4 hours before departure. I was not expecting many people to be flying at this moment to the US. But I was wrong, the check-in line was huge.

I wonder if there were any tourists there.

I saw most people keeping distance, but some didn’t really care. As I had two luggages, I used them to create distance barriers between me and the other people standing in line. Genius right? 😛

I was next on the check-in line, and I heard some agents asking passengers the reason of their trip. I got that question during the self check-in at one of the kiosks, but I didn’t know why they needed it. Maybe they would interrogate if you were a tourist without a good reason to fly.

I asked the airline agent if the flights were stopping after the ban was effective on Friday. He said that those flights runs the entire year, and the ban didn’t impact American residents. It was good to know that there would be a route available back to home.

Boarding Time

It was about 9:00 PM and the boarding time was approaching. I was hungry and looking for the food options around. I saw Starbucks, Subway, and even some casual dining restaurants open. Lots of options considering it was the only flight departing by that time. I was walking around this huge and empty terminal hub, with dozens of gates, and yet there was just a single gate in use.

My favorite gelato store (Bacio di Latte) was closed 😞

Around 10:00 PM I was going to get a Subway sandwich, but the store was closing. Luckily I could get a quick snack at Starbucks. While I was eating my dinner, the United Airlines personnel announced that this flight had lots of passengers and that they couldn’t block middle seats. They gave the option to take another flight if you felt uncomfortable. You can think that it was pretty nice of them, but I believe no one would take that offer 😁.

I was preparing myself for another shit show packed flight. This time they were trying to board by rows, but it backfired. It was confusing and no one knew where to stand or if their row was already called. So people just got even closer by agglomerating around the entrance and waiting for their rows.

I felt that this flight took off very quickly. Once I was in my seat it didn’t take too long for the flight instructions to show up and we start to move. Being the single flight on the airport probably made it easier to take off quickly.

You Got To Go

This flight was going to take about 10 hours. I was pretty anxious during the first minutes, but then I calmed down with music. I was playing Above & Beyond — You Got To Go when the aircraft took off.

you gotta go 😌

Dream on little dreamer
Follow all of your signs
You gotta gather up what you need
You gotta choose a direction
And when the moment is right for you
You gotta go

This flight was about 80% full, and I got lucky enough to have no one sitting right next to me. I was on the window seat and there was a young guy on the aisle seat. Later on I realized he had two other friends with him who seemed all to be students, maybe returning to their homes.

When I first arrived to my seat I also wiped it with alcohol solution. Not sure if I was the only one doing it. I have read that you could angle the air vents to create an air barrier and form turbulence. This turbulence pushes down airborne particles to the ground.

It was served two meals, dinner at the beginning of the flight and breakfast at the end. Those were the only moments where I removed my mask. I used the toilet about twice, and this was probably the most contaminated place in the plane. It was hard not to touch doors or the sink. Back to my seat I replaced my mask and sanitized my hands. The guy next to me was also often cleaning his hands.

I didn’t use the entertainment tablet at all in this flight. After eating dinner and spending a few minutes listening to music, I tried to just sleep. I just wanted the flight to be over, and sleeping is usually a good trick to fast forward time. I did get to sleep really badly, waking up multiple times, checking how many hours have passed and going back to sleep. I managed to do this until 2 hours or so before landing. Then I took some amazing pictures of the sunrise.

A view of the sun you can only get from an airplane 🌅

About one hour before landing, we were handed over immigration papers to fill if you are not a citizen. I didn’t see many people getting it.

Immigration

Disembarking was also done row by row. But as usual, people were standing before their row’s time. However they were mostly respecting and just moving after the front rows were empty.

I was a little bit worried about the immigration, and also worried about my connecting flight to San Francisco, which was scheduled 2 hours after the first landing. I needed to immigrate, get my luggage and check-in again in time for this flight. Otherwise the next flight would require a 12 hour wait.

I walked a bit faster than other passengers to get first in the line. There weren’t many people in front of me, so I didn’t wait too much in line. Here again, of course, everyone was social distancing.

I was next in line to get to see one of the immigration officers. I had seen two people being escorted to a room to the right. I knew this was going to happen to me, because they had to process my visa papers. I handled over my passport and visa package. The officer just scanned my fingerprints and another officer came and walked me to that room.

Inside I am asked to take a seat, where there were about five other passengers waiting. While one officer was opening and reading my visa package, I could hear others being asked where they were going to or what they were doing in the US. One girl was coming for college, another person was going to New York, and one guy didn’t know English and had to get help with translation.

Phones were not allowed in the room, but despite the signs some were trying to use it. The Officer had to call people out twice. C’mon it is a simple rule, you just have to wait, guys 🙄.

After 20 minutes I was called, and I was handled my passport back with my I-551 stamp. It was finally real, and I was now a lawful permanent resident of the United States. The officer just confirmed the address to deliver my green card, and I was free to go. While going out the door he said “Pull the door”. If you are Brazilian you know that it is easy to mix up “pull/push”, because in Portuguese the word “puxe” (that sounds the same as “push”) means “pull”. I of course pushed the door 😅.

Officer shouted: “This is America, not Germany.”

I guess that was my welcome to America.

Houston, we got a problem?

The immigration turned out to be quicker than I though. Now I had a little over one hour to board the next flight to San Francisco. I started to run towards the baggage area to get my suitcases. I stop running while passing through the exit, to avoid unwanted baggage inspections that would delay me further. I didn’t walk more than a few minutes and there was already a drop-in area to dispatch my bag. The lady scanned the bag tag and I was off to the security check.

There was a line through security, but it was because scanning was halted for a few minutes. After it was back up, I got through it quickly, took the rail link and I was finally into the boarding terminal of the Houston Airport (IAH).

Different than the other airports, this one was actually busy. Some convenience stores and restaurants were open. I found the departure gate, and I had time to wind down. I bought a snack, used the toilet and I was ready to board. No problems in Houston.

It almost seemed like a normal airport day, except for the masks.

Heading to San Francisco

I boarded the final flight to my final destination. I saw a woman on my seat and I asked her if that was her seat. Her seat was the middle one and she wanted to keep distance from others. “I don’t think there is much we can do”, I said. I got in my seat, wiped it, and realized this was another packed flight 😫.

Before taking off I updated family and friends that I had gone through immigration successfully. I also got to know that the ban that Trump imposed for that week’s Friday was brought forward by two days, effectively banning the entry on the last minute of Tuesday, 26th of May. So basically I got into the second to last flight available to come to the US. The last flight would depart Brazil on that same day, a few hours before the ban taking effect, and it would land after the ban effect date. However the ban didn’t apply to flights already coming into the US. I guess I was lucky 😝.

The flight attendant announced that unfortunately this flight was pretty full, and so they couldn’t really enforce social distancing. They said it was an uncommon day, and that IAH was a hub airport, connecting multiple flights.

This flight took 4 hours, and I was not that tired. I even pulled some document and read it.

I was surprised by those snow mountains in the middle of nowhere. Turns out it is Sierra Nevada (Thanks Daniel for the info) 🏔

Final Stop: Hotel

It was 12:00 PM on Tuesday, 26th of May. I was waiting for my Uber ride to the hotel. I had left my home in Brazil 28 hours ago. There was only three more people waiting for their rides along the curbside. My driver arrived and off we went.

The driver had gloves and mask on. I asked him to open up the windows so we could get a nice air flow. It was a smooth ride to the hotel I was staying in for the next 6 days. There was no traffic in our way, something unusual the driver said, compared to common days.

The landscape of my new home city, San Francisco.

I left the car and picked up my bags. Before departing the driver sprayed some sanitizer where I was sitting. In other times this would have been considered really offensive lol 😆.

At the hotel entrance there was a long desk separating me from the attendant. There was also a tall glass between us. She told me that the city was under shelter-in-place mandate, and that I am only allowed to go out for essentials. Room service was not available, if you wanted clean towels you would have to ask. The breakfast was also not served anymore.

I got into my room, took a shower first and kept my used clothes in a corner to avoid possible virus. I video called my family and messaged friends. The trip was fine, and I was doing well.

At elevators we had to be conscious about keeping distance or letting a single person or family use it at a time. I got most of my food through delivery, where I picked it up at the reception desk, always wearing a mask.

The New Normal

Walking outside I realized about half of the people were not wearing masks. San Francisco had been under quarantine for over 2 months and people were weary of it. The corona cases count was low compared to New York. The death count was about 42 the day I arrived and it kept below 50 for more than one month.

I avoided going as I just had gone through packed flights. I didn’t feel sick after 2 weeks. So I believe I haven’t got it. I started to work remotely, doing my daily chores, exercising, groceries shopping. This was the new normal for a while.

Flying during this major outbreak was something that I never imagined going through. It was different of course, you kept worrying about masks, coughs, sanitizing hands, cleaning seats, and things that you were touching. It was more stressful than usual flying. I hope humanity will get over this pandemic, and that we won’t have to deal with such a global crisis again, anytime soon. But I imagine, compared to going to fight a war for example, flying in unprecedented times is not that bad.

Be safe everyone 😃

Author: Eduardo Ferreira, Senior Software Engineer @Mode.net
Follow me on social media: @edufgf

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