An American Story: That time my fiancé was detained as an illegal immigrant in the Paris airport for 26 hours.
“For the past five years, France has been deporting around 30,000 people each year. That is not enough for the government. They want to increase this number, that’s the objective,” said Bruno Vinay, a French immigration lawyer.
Thursday, September 7th.
6am MT: My fiancé and I board our flight from Salt Lake City to Dallas.
9:36am CT: We kill our 7 hour layover by playing Pokemon, scheduling our Airbnb, and planning our DisneyLand Paris trip.
4:20pm CT: We board our overnight flight to Paris.
Friday, September 8th.
9:35am CET: We safely land at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France. The overcast gloom that usually introduces the “something bad is about to happen” horror scene in movies was ever present. Since I love gloom, I was only happy about the tattling weather…
10am CET: My fiancé and I approach French customs, hiding behind their glass homes waiting for an opportunity to practice their power. I walk through, but my fiancé gets held up by a broken English speaking French police officer.
“Is this your only passport,” asked the officer.
This is where our nightmare in Paris began.
After recognizing that we brought my fiancé’s “lost” passport instead of his new passport, it was already too late. The French custom’s police allowed me a one minute goodbye with my fiancé before they detained him for 26 hours in a holding cell without his phone, without his laptop. The only thing that could save him, and save our dreamy European adventure, was the U.S. embassy 1.3 miles away from the airport.
Shortly after they took him away, I called the embassy. “As long as the French custom’s police will transport your fiancé to the embassy, we can print him off a copy of his passport and everything will be fine,” they said.
Followed by a, “but we have no jurisdiction over the custom’s police and it will ultimately be their decision to transport your fiancé or not”.
While the French had confirmation from the U.S. embassy that my fiancé had a valid passport, they were unwilling to transport him.
At this time, I had no idea where my fiancé was being held. I had no idea when I would see him. I assumed they confiscated his phone. It had been 2 hours since his last call or text. I didn’t know whether to leave the airport or wait for his safe return to the other side of the customs boarder. My phone was at 30% and my power converter was with my detained fiancé.
Finally at 1pm CET, the U.S. embassy gave me an address where I could visit with my fiancé. They confirmed he would be sent back to the states first thing in the morning…
…then they said we would be separated until we were both back in the U.S.
The Detainment Center
“If you have a family member in the detention centre, you have to pass through security at the gate, which is under the control of the Interior Ministry. In terms of image, a foreigner thinks it’s a detention centre. The new place is very intimidating.” — Vinay
I received a call from a strange French number and answered it hoping it would be some sort of hero to our situation. It was my fiancé (praise the lawwwwd). He was given a call card to use during his detainment. We could at least keep in contact every hour.
I left the airport and headed for the detainment center where I could see my fiancé during visiting hours. Traveling around Paris without knowing a lick of French and running on 2G data proved to have it’s own set of roadblocks which I’ll spare.
I waited outside the detainment center for an hour before I realized my fiancé was not going to be transported there on time.
It was pouring rain and I wasn’t allowed inside. No one spoke English. When I asked where “Michel Knowles” was, they asked for his nationally. The police then said, “No American’s here”.
I guess I would be confused by a light skinned man with a French name who speaks Italian, but has an American passport too… (smdh).
I decided to find a hotel where I could charge my forever dying iPhone battery. Thanks to hopping on a random bus, I found a room.
Then, the strange French number called again. It was my fiancé. He was finally at the detainment center and it was time for round two. I requested an Uber, who also didn’t speak English and couldn’t find the detainment center with the address I gave him. We roamed for 20 minutes until I gave up and told him to just take me to the airport. On the way to the airport, I saw the familiar road leading up to where I had been just 2 hours ago. I hopped out, then visited with my fiancé for an hour.
The detainment center was more or less a jail with 30+ illegal immigrants filling it’s walls. People from all over the globe, speaking various languages were being held in hopes of being let go or at least sent home soon.
This detainment center had beds and meal hours as compared to the last place my fiancé was being held; with it’s handle-less, escape-free doors and feces covered walls. The French called this new detainment center a “hotel” where he was “free” but not welcome to leave or have his phone.
Whatever. At least we could see each other.
My fiancé is not a shy person. He’s a conversation starter. He knew enough Spanish, English, Italian, and French to talk with other detainees. He knew enough to discover that half the people he spoke with were being held unfairly or illegally. Some detainees were even being sent back to countries they hadn’t lived in for more than a decade.
The largest issue? The language barrier.
After visiting hours, my fiancé stayed in the detainment center and I headed back to my hotel.
Thanks to friends and family, I was able to get a flight back to the states, following behind my fiancé, the next morning. And our 7 day Europe trip? In the hole. Gone. Lost.
What did we learn from this experience?
- The separation and detainment process of illegal immigrants is traumatizing. We’ve heard the stories, but experiencing it has given us a new sense of empathy.
- There are many situations where immigrants and travelers are being held illegally or unfairly. Surprise.
- Compassion for families that aren’t American who face the fear of being illegally or unfairly detained every time they travel; mostly due to meeting quotas or some sort of prejudice/racism.
- Don’t use your “lost” passport when traveling.
Well duh. 🤦🏻♀️
France has one of Europe's oldest administrative immigration detention regimes, which dates back to the 1970s. Although…www.globaldetentionproject.org