Immigration Man

“Won’t you let me in, immigration man – I won’t toe your line today – I can’t see it anyway – Here I am with my immigration form – It’s big enough to keep me warm when a cold wind’s coming – So go where you will as long as you think you can – You’d better watch out, watch out for the man – Anywhere you’re going”

Graham Nash wrote this song about John Lennon but his words relate to my own immigration escapades. John’s protagonist was Richard Nixon mine was Donald Trump. Different presidents – but it was the same, lame persecution for possession of a plant that is now freely and legally available in twenty six states in the U.S. and a dozen countries worldwide. Prohibition is finally ending and we were on the right side of history.

2020 Cannabis Legalisation (medical and recreational)

In the 1970’s John’s high profile, anti-Vietnam War protests and peace campaigning had made him a thorn in the side of the US authorities. President Nixon actually believed he could damage his chances of re-election and tried to boot him out of the country because of his 1968 UK conviction for possession of marijuana. The events surrounding his battle to stay in the States became the subject of the 2006 film The US vs. John Lennon.

The U.S. Board of Immigration issued a critical ruling stating they were ‘not unsympathetic’ to the plight of John and others who, under immigration laws, have committed only one marijuana violation and suggested that Congress change the law. As of 2021 this has still not happened and any foreigner with a marijuana offence is automatically banned from obtaining a green card in the U.S.A. I was one of many thousands who suffered from this policy and had to learn to live with the consequences.

By the time John made his appeal Nixon had resigned, over the Watergate scandal, and his successor Gerald Ford was less interested in deportation proceedings. With help from John’s top class lawyers and huge public support his case was deemed to be ‘selective deportation based upon secret political grounds’ and in 1976 John was finally given his green card. Luckily, for John, being a Beatle made all the difference.

I was not so famous or fortunate and later suffered a different outcome in the U.S. Immigration officials, passport control, borders and immigration laws have had a major impact on my life. I was unfairly deported from St.Lucia and twice accepted voluntary departure from Canada. As a result of draconian, discriminatory drug laws I lived as an illegal alien for most of my 36 years in Hawaii, and was eventually deported in 2017. Living in fear of immigration officials is no walk in the park but was a part of my daily life for decades. Each time I flew out of USA I worried about my exit stamp. Every time I flew into the USA by airline I had to check what I was carrying making sure to remove any evidence of living in Hawaii. I had to get my story straight for Mr Immigration Man. I said I was only visiting, staying with friends, with a job and a home back in the UK and most important of all I always had a return ticket in my pocket. As every illegal immigrant knows this is not a easy lifestyle, there’s always anxiety, always fear of being rejected and then black listed. Not being permitted to live with your family and friends is a heinous punishment.

My immigration hassles started long before my own 1988 marijuana conviction in the U.K. In 1975 on my first trip to the U.S. I was the whistleblower and primary witness in a case involving 78 charges of physical and sexual abuse. Knowing that my tourist visa was about to expire the County Prosecutor appealed to U.S. immigration to extend my visa so that I could attend the upcoming trial. Their request was refused and I was forced to leave the country.

I hitchhiked south through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama uncertain at every border if they would let me in because I had very little money. To get into Guatemala had to cut my hair short because the official didn’t like hippies. I made it to Panama City and went to the U.S. Embassy where I showed immigration officials another letter from the Prosecutor requesting my return to attend court. Surprisingly, they refused to issue me a visa saying again I didn’t have enough money.

Abandoning that plan I looked for a cheap way out of Panama and was lucky to get a crew job on a schooner about to depart back into the Caribbean. I joyfully discovered that entering Colombia, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Saint Croix, Dominica and St.Lucia was no problem as a sailboat crew member.

Soon after arriving in St. Lucia in December 1975 I was granted a work permit and while crewing sailboats between the islands I had a sailors visa and enjoyed a hassle free immigration experience – well almost. In 1978 I went to the Canadian Embassy in Barbados to request an application to migrate to Canada. My friend Martin and his wife managed it very easily and my plan was to join them in their move north. Much to my shock and awe the immigration official I met that day must have not liked my hippy, sailor appearance because he asked for my profession and when I replied teacher (I was actually the headteacher of Tapion school at the time) he told me Canada didn’t need teachers and I would be wasting my time applying. Instead of arguing and insisting he refused to give me an application and I just walked away. My pathetic acceptance of his rejection was a huge mistake and changed the course of my life. Despite having had many experiences I failed to see how much personal discretion immigration officials have. I know now.

It was while I was working at Tapion school that a friend turned me on to a little trick for crossing borders without a big wad of cash. This was a perpetual problem for poor renegade travellers like myself, before the days of credit cards. I bought £2,000 worth of travellers checks in London and when back in St. Lucia I reported they were lost. I used the replacements and kept the ‘lost’ checks for many years, never ever cashing them but showing them to officials when crossing borders. Never again was I refused entry for lack of proof  that I had cash assets – although visa issues continued to plague me throughout many of my foreign travels. This knowledge was not something that I taught to my students. Honest !

When I left St. Lucia and flew into the Dominican Republic I got profiled by customs and they took me into a cubicle and subjected me to my first ever intimate cavities check, cheeky buggers!  It was very humiliating but they didn’t find any contraband and I had the last laugh because my ganga stash was in my wash bag and that got through just fine. I later entered the U.S through the Virgin Islands which proved to be trouble free at that time and after cruising through the U.S. for a while I met up with my bro Martin in Toronto.

We traversed Canada together and after arriving in Victoria B.C. I really liked the idea of living there. With Martin and a bunch of hippies I started a workers co-operative. As the expiration of my three month visitor visa approached I came up with a way to stay in Canada legally. I obtained a student visa by enrolling in university doing a Masters degree in Education. After attending my first class I realised it was a waste of my valuable time so I never went back. It was incredible how quickly the authorities responded. Within a couple of weeks I answered a knock on the door and two immigration officials told me my student visa was canceled and I had four weeks to leave Canada.

I scrambled for another solution, not wanting to leave my new found heaven. Luckily an ex-girlfriend offered to marry me so I could apply for a spouse visa. A week later we went through a civil ceremony witnessed by Martin and her new boyfriend and I completed the paperwork for my new visa. This plan might have worked out for me and saved me considerable future grief but my ‘wife’ decided to move 3,000 miles away to live in Quebec Province and that was a problem. Immigration officials requested us both to attend a hearing in B.C. but she was living her new life far, far away. I had to fudge a few facts and underestimated the ability of Canadian immigration to smell a rat. After a year of stalling I had another surprise visit and was confronted by evidence that the officers had talked to my neighbours who reported never ever seeing my wife. I had to admit we lived apart and discovered that was grounds for dismissing my application for a visa. I was given a month to leave voluntarily or they would deport me. I chose the first option after a lawyer friend advised me I would then still be able to return as a visitor.

In 1979 I returned to St.Lucia and sailed down to Bequai island to help my friend Mac get his new pizzeria business started. When my one month visa was about to expire I signed on as a crew member of Tantra Schooner which was doing some repairs in the bay. This new visa was indefinite until the boat left and worked for me until I landed in the U.S. where I managed to obtain a seaman’s visa.

In 1980 I was back in St. Lucia and started a Model Farm Co-operative with my rasta friend Petra. I pitched the idea to Jon Odlum the Minister of Community Development who promised that he’d get me a work permit, but like everything in the laid back West Indies it was subject to the ‘soon come’ lifestyle.

All was okay until a particular police Sergeant took a dislike to a hippy honkey hanging out with the local ganga growing rastas giving them big ideas about development and positive progress. He did some investigating and issued me with an order to go to the police station in the main town with my passport. Guessing he was out to cause me some trouble I stopped by Jon Odlum’s office to explain the situation. He immediately wrote me a letter confirming that my work permit was being processed, I was working for his department and the police should afford me due respect. When I showed this letter to the officer at the police station he just laughed, screwed it up and threw it in the trash bin.

I was taken to a very dingy cell, my girlfriend and her two young daughters were collected from the village and they threatened to deport us all the next morning. Luckily none of us had any tickets back to Canada or anywhere else so we negotiated a deal where they would fly us out to nearby Dominica. I was able to get a message to Jon, who was also the Deputy Prime Minister’s brother, and he said he would call the chief of police and we would be set free the next day. After a terrible sleepless night the police told us we were going to the airport. I called Jon and he met us there on the tarmac. Despite all his appeals to the police chief and his cajoling of the police officers he failed to free us. As they put us on the plane he told me his newly elected government was being ignored by the police. Apparently the police establishment had been appointed by the previous government and their allegiance remained with them.

A month later we sailed back to St.Lucia, and slipped back into the island, very quietly, obtaining tourist visas issued by an immigration official who must have been off duty when we got deported. My work permit was issued soon after and I returned to assisting my rasta friends with the farming and fishing projects in the village, much to the disdain of that uptight police Sergeant.

In 1981 I moved to Hawaii but traveled abroad a lot and entered and exited with a tourist visa. The technique I used when I exceeded my length of stay was to create a duplicate exit form with a forged date and it worked. By 1987 I was enjoying life in Hawaii so much that I decided to commit my body, soul and all my financial resources to the establishment of Bellyacres – my dream for a sustainable community – knowing that at anytime l could either get refused re-entry into the U.S.A. for overstaying my visa.

My immigration problems were severely compounded after I was caught with a bit of weed at a Juggling Festival in Bradford, England. I had naively mailed it to myself and would have had no issue but for the fact that the U.K. postal service went on strike giving customs officers an unusually long time to investigate parcels and packages like mine. A tragic twist of fate led to my arrest and imprisonment. Within ten years of no further arrest my conviction was expunged from U.K. records BUT………. under U.S. immigration laws I will never be excused for this crime – legal immigration is not an option for me and it even prevents me from getting a visitors visa. This conundrum is even more of a travesty now that marijuana has been legalised so extensively across the U.S. and the State of Hawaii even issued me with a legal permit to grow medical marijuana for nine years up until my 2014 deportation.

I chose to take the risks of living as an illegal alien after 1988 but still crossed borders because l refused to accept irrational government regulation over my life, because l love traveling adventures and because l loved my family in England. I often reflected on John Lennon and how his solution had been relatively simple and easy compared with mine. Three times I got advice from immigration lawyers and they all said the same story – my life as an illegal alien was my best bet – there was no hope of me getting approved for a green card even though I married U.S. citizens – three times and had a U.S. born daughter!

Back in the summer of 1996 I flew over to Seattle to kayak with Henrik and Michiel around the northern tip of Vancouver Island in search of orca whales. Our expedition didn’t quite go according to our plan. After arriving in Victoria by ferry boat I was detained by Canadian immigration and refused entry because my U.S. visa had expired many months previously. They handed me over to U.S. immigration who intended to deport me back to the U.K. That would have really messed up my life in Hawaii so I called upon my special powers, other forces intervened, and I mischievously managed to avoid their evil plan.

On the vehicle deck of the ferry returning me to Port Angeles in the U.S. was a lorry transporting huge irrigation pipes. Without being seen I crawled into a 30′ tube angled conveniently upwards to avoid easy inspection. Luckily for me the port inspectors were in a hurry and after a brief halt let the driver through carrying me as his unknown illicit cargo. Getting off the lorry was a bit problematic but when he stopped for a pee break I made my escape to become a free man again. After hitchhiking to my friend Charlie’s house in Port Townsend and shaving off my beard I called Henrik. He was ecstatic and relieved to hear I was not on my way to London but free as a fugitive to pursue my dreams in Hawaii and share more escapades with him. The next day he and I, with Michiel, rescheduled our kayaking trip to the islands in the Puget Sound and during the next week or so we had some amazing wildlife interactions especially with the playful and prolific orca whales.

A year later after an exhausting period of HICCUP circus activity I took another well deserved summer break. I flew again to Seattle and finally joined Henrik on the kayaking trip to Canada we had been forced to abandon the previous year. He drove me to Lime Point State Park on San Juan island and early one morning I paddled across the Strait of Juan Da Fuca dodging oil tankers, barges and logging rafts which were all easy to spot. Harder to see were the deadhead logs saturated from long periods in the water, bobbing just below the surface. The force was with me again that day and, with more than a few anxious glances back at the U.S. coast, five hours later, I landed on the rocky shoreline of Vancouver Island. Meeting me at our chosen rendezvous point was my original juggling mentor Andy. I then got to celebrate with friends from the glorious years I had previously lived in Canada.

Entering Canada clandestinely was an adventure but my real challenge was re-entering fortress U.S.A., as an undocumented alien, so that I could return to my community and friends in Hawaii. Once again I channeled the power of unknown, untold refugees, paddled purposefully and Henrik greeted me on the other side – I was free to renegade once again.

Surviving without legal documentation involved me smuggling myself into the U.S. in the back of a sixteen wheeler truck with an unsuspecting driver, kayaking to-and-fro from Canada – twice- and, in 1999, legally changing my identity in the UK so I could travel back to the U.S. on a new passport. That approach worked for me twice in 2002 when my Dad was passing away. Soon after that the events of 9-11 resulted in much tighter border controls including upgraded computer systems and biometric identification measures. I managed to return to Hawaii on a visitors visa but then faced the option of staying permanently or risk leaving without having a chance to ever return.

I was aware that my good fortune could run out at anytime, I had survived for well over three decades in Hawaii, fully aware that at anytime I could be visited by immigration officials and be removed from my family, friends, Bellyacres and my work with kids that I loved. This forced me to examine my feeling of attachment carefully over many years. I knew that I was risking deportation until immigration laws relating to cannabis changed, to allow me to apply for residency, but like most people in the world I was hoping for the best and not anticipating a renegade president like Donald Trump getting elected.


Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

One thought on “Immigration Man

  1. Wow. Brother Graham this story reads like a contemporary Victor Hugo Les Miserables with a touch of Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell. Your ability to not succumb to torture is a heroic voice of inspiration in darkening times. Finding time to enjoy the scent of an exotic flower of life even as the bloodhounds relentlessly persist. Yet mass murderers and corporate thieves drink champagne and laugh at the “peasants”. You my friend have amassed a true treasury of friendships and adventures that most can only dream about.If only you were here in Hawaii, it would be wonderful for your coming to my 70th birthday event on August 1.But we are all in a special gathering beyond space and timeMuch love and AlohaGeorge

    Liked by 1 person

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