Living without legal documentation in Hawaii for 36 years was not an easy or comfortable reality for me. I exhausted many efforts to rectify the situation over the years but each lawyer I consulted told me it was futile due to a loophole in the system that I was stuck in. As a result, my ongoing status as an undocumented citizen necessitated me to smuggle myself back into the U.S. several times in order to get back to my home, my friends, and my loved ones: once in the back of a 16-wheeler truck with an unsuspecting driver, kayaking to and from Canada—twice—and, in 1999, legally changing my last name in the U.K. so I could travel back to the U.S. on a new passport. This strategy gratefully enabled me to be with my Dad as he was passing away. However, soon after that, the events of 9-11 resulted in much tighter border controls, including improved computer data systems and biometric identification measures. I managed to return to Hawaii in 2002 just in time but then I faced the sobering reality of staying in the U.S. or risk leaving again without a chance to return.
Knowing that my luck could run out at anytime, I had created a fulfilling life for well over three decades in Hawaii but always with the cloud of possibility hanging over me that 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 feelings of attachment carefully over many years. I held out hope that draconian immigration laws relating to cannabis would eventually change and allow me to apply for permanent residency. However, like most people in the world, I never anticipated a president like Donald Trump getting elected.
I knew that the immigration authorities were aware of my situation in 2014; however, I was reassured by my attorney that, under the Bush and Obama administrations, executive orders had instructed immigration services regarding their priorities. At that time, they did not attempt to enforce immigration laws unless a person was found to have committed a crime in the U.S. When Donald Trump was sworn into office in January 2017, everything changed.
Deportation news stories in America typically focus on Hispanics being detained after attempting to cross the southern U.S.-Mexican border. Very rarely does the news cover any of the thousands of arrests which happen in cities and rural communities around the rest of the country. Awareness and concern about the long-term effects of deportation actions is even rarer but the ongoing fallout is no less traumatic and no less worthy of public outcry. My own situation is just one example that illustrates the family devastation that can occur and serves to show the complex life changes affecting many thousands of people as a result of the Trump administration’s inhumane immigration policies.
On June 1st 2017, I answered a knock on my door and faced two ICE officers from Homeland Security, plus a policeman. As they stepped into my home, they explained that they were there to take me into custody and deport me from the U.S. Fortunately, my wife Dena was present.
They talked with me, and then separately with Dena, explaining that I would be “processed” in Honolulu on Oahu and then I could apply for temporary release with a bond payment, which they said was likely to be less than $5,000. They added that this would enable me to be released immediately pending a court appearance before an immigration judge. I’d heard that typically it took a month or more to schedule an immigration hearing so I could expect lots of time to work out a support strategy with my lawyer and my community. They gave me the option of leaving immediately with them or surrendering my passport, purchasing a plane ticket myself, and flying to Honolulu the following morning. We chose the second option and Dena insisted that she would accompany me.
After they left, Dena comforted our distressed daughter (who had been home sick in bed that day) while I informed my lawyer what had happened. He agreed to meet me at the ICE office in Honolulu the next day. Dena and I started talking about our future with the chilling reality that everything was about to change. We were uncertain exactly how our lives would be impacted but we knew that it would have a huge effect upon our family no matter what. Deciding how much information to initially share with our children was an immediate issue, as was deciding when to inform our many friends and family. We thought it best to wait and see what happened the following day in the ICE office before doing either.
The officer in charge threatened me with grave consequences if I did not turn myself in at 9 am in Honolulu and insisted that I call him with my flight details within three hours. The complete uncertainty about what would happen to us was more stressful than awaiting the arrival of Hurricane Iselle a few years prior. Time seemed to go very quickly and very slowly at the same time. Some moments appeared to freeze in suspended animation as it was all very surreal. All we could do that night was hold each other and comfort our children as best we could.
On arrival the following day in Honolulu, I was picked up at the airport and driven to the Department of Homeland Security office alone as Dena was not permitted to accompany me. She had to rent a car and then drive to meet my lawyer. I was taken into an interrogation office where two ICE staff initiated my deportation paperwork. They said they had been really busy since Trump had come into power. It was a very slow, laborious process and I noticed my anxiety levels rising. I was told that I was not under arrest and that I had not committed a crime; this was a purely administrative procedure. However, after they locked the door of the room I was in and escorted me when I went to the toilet, it was obvious that I was clearly being detained as if I was a convicted criminal.
Outside, I could hear the officers talking a lot about my case and gathering information to complete my paperwork. After a couple of hours, I was given some forms to sign so I called my lawyer who reviewed them with me and confirmed it was all standard stuff. Another hour went by and the door was unlocked.
I was told that everything had changed.
Apparently, because my last officially documented entry into the U.S. had been on a visa waiver program, I would not be eligible for a bonded release or a hearing before an immigration judge but rather I would most likely be put on a plane back to the U.K. that very evening. I would’ve been better off if I’d kayaked back to the U.S. from Canada that time!
Obviously, I went into shock at this news and immediately called my lawyer again who then gained permission to come into the center with Dena and the three of us talked over the implications of this new situation at length. My lawyer said he would take every step he could to delay my departure and advised my wife to go public with the story immediately. Fortunately, I am married to an extremely capable and articulate female warrior who charged directly into battle to save her husband. Her impassioned post on social media produced 105 passionate letters of support within 24 hours.
Sitting alone in a locked room for hours, my head went into a spin imagining some horrific outcomes. Eventually, I was presented with a Notice of Intent to Issue A Final Administrative Removal Order to review and sign. Basically, it outlined the facts justifying the Dept. of Homeland Security’s decision to deport me immediately and stated that I had no right to appeal. Scouring the pages closely, I noticed that one section allowed me to tick a box stating “I admit the allegations and charges in this notice of intent. However, I wish to request Asylum, Witholding, or Deferral of Removal as noted below.” After thinking it over, I ticked the box thinking I was applying for a ‘Deferral of Removal’ because it obligated the D.H.S. to refer me to an immigration judge and therefore would delay their plans to deport me that night. Unbeknownst to me, this is called the ‘Asylum Clause’ and I was later asked if I was serious as they had never previously known a U.K. citizen requesting asylum.
After a short visit from Dena I was then handcuffed and moved to another building and placed in a 12’ x 12’ metal cage where the cuffs were removed. I was locked up with a very large Micronesian man slouched on a wooden bench who just peeked at me and grunted as he kept falling in and out of sleep, snoring profusely. Lucky for me, he was a very sweet giant and talked with me once he woke up. After a couple of hours, we were both handcuffed and transported to the Federal Detention Center located nearby.
The admissions process included three separate body scans, body searches, and an anal inspection. My personal clothes and effects were taken from me and I was issued the standard inmates clothing. I was given a TB test injection and a DNA swab and asked to sign lots of paperwork. A lieutenant interviewed me and seemed sympathetic to my case, blaming Trump for the rapid increase in deportees filling up his prison. He then allocated me to a wing. After sitting around a long while, I was escorted into the main detention block navigating through several more metal detectors and a cold steel elevator where I was told that I had to face away from the door while in motion.
I walked into my wing where I was confronted with about a 120 men staring at me—the new arrival. The officer on duty assigned me to my second story cell which had a bunk bed, a sink, a toilet, and two small closet shelves. I met my Tongan cellmate and he immediately started to teach me the cellblock routines and practices which included bed making and toilet training. He taught me privacy codes whereby inmates sit facing the wall to pee and only use the toilet for heavy use when their cellmate is outside and use a towel hanging on the cell door handle as the occupied sign.
There was a 50/50 mixture of state and federal prisoners on my wing. The state inmates were all convicted of crimes or awaiting trial. The federal inmates were mostly all awaiting deportation removals or federal court appearances and a few had been there for years. The racial mix of those awaiting deportation was significant; including Hispanics, Micronesians, and other Pacific Islanders. However, I was the only Caucasian. There was a tremendous camaraderie amongst inmates and I witnessed many examples of support and encouragement which was also shared with me. I was honored as the oldest guy on the wing and presented with a real toothbrush and extra tea bags by the 65-year-old previous title holder.
On Saturday, I was taken off the wing and escorted back to the DHS office to sign more forms. I was transported there by car after changing into a white jump suit, going through numerous metal detectors, and being shackled with handcuffs and chain around my waist that connected down to another chain with cuffs around my ankles. It was a slow and uncomfortable walk from the car into the DHS office and I felt like a dead man walking. While being treated as a convicted felon, I kept remembering the officers telling me that I was being detained for “administrative purposes” and not for any crime. What a joke that felt like?!
I was then permitted to make a brief call to Dena, who had been waiting anxiously outside the detention center for two days. We had no idea how long I would be detained so we started planning for a variety of different outcomes. I later received a letter from her saying in part, “I hope that you will get a chance to write to me and the kids. The kids all send their love and hope to hear your voice soon. Isla [my 13-year-old daughter] was very scared and saddened by all of this…we are all looking forward to your return hoping it will be sooner rather than later. I haven’t spoken to your mum yet…we think it might be best that way for now as she will get anxious and worry a lot…I’m taking time off from work this week to concentrate on getting you out…I’m doing my best to take care of all your projects. Please let me know if there’s anything you need. I’m not sure what they allow in there or how to get it to you. Keeping the faith and holding down the fort, Your Soulmate.”
Daily life in the federal detention center was monotonous. Correction officers were harsh but not brutal. Lock up times were approximately 7:30 pm until 6 am, 10 am until 11 am, and 2 pm until 4 pm. Protocol requires inmates to keep their own cells clean and tidy and, three times daily, everyone is required to stand by their bunk to be counted. Between lockups, inmates engaged in activities like watching TV, working, reading, socializing, using computers, spiritual meetings, showering, playing sports, or exercising. I walked laps around the top deck balcony and found a quiet place in the chapel which became my yoga room during the few times when I was alone.
The major impact of detention on inmates awaiting deportation is not physical but mental. Separation from family and the home community is such a severe punishment that it may exceed the suffering caused by regular criminal inmates. An inmate with a conviction knows the length of his sentence and mentally adjusts to his separation while the deportation inmate has no idea how long he/she will be separated from their family. My cellmate had been held for eighteen months and transferred to three different prisons. He’d become a “hardened inmate” practicing push-ups and creating a training circuit in the cell as well as running his own legal services business for other inmates.
Facing this situation, I had to be prepared for everything from immediate deportation to the U.K.—leaving Dena and our kids in Hawaii—to a long protracted confinement while appealing the Administrative Removal Order. I was lucky because my lawyer somehow managed to get me an urgent hearing. My hopes were raised but not for long. On Monday morning, the judge quickly reaffirmed that I would indeed be immediately deported. I was devastated. My life crumbled before my eyes.
Shortly after, as I spoke tearfully on the phone to Dena, she received a text from my lawyer to say that the high level calls that he had made had miraculously resulted in me being granted a 45-day stay of deportation, providing that we immediately came up with a $10,000 bond. Other inmates I had met had been waiting more than 18 months for a decision to be made in their case, while their families waited anxiously. After Dena made another social media post, we received some miraculous favours from friends: over sixty ‘angels’ donated the money to set me free. I felt very fortunate and very privileged to walk away after five days in federal detention and fly home with Dena by my side.
Forty-five days is not a reasonable length of time to wrap up thirty-six years of life and to make plans for a new beginning in another country but I was very grateful to have it.
First, there was the legal paperwork required which included transferring vehicle titles and insurance policies, bank account access, responsibility for house maintenance and upkeep, and transfer of names on numerous other accounts and documents. I then had to deal with all my physical possessions: some practical like clothes, tools, and equipment; others sentimental like correspondence, books, music, and gifts that I had been given over the years. I was told that I’d have to stay out of the U.S. for at least ten years so, since I couldn’t afford shipping costs to the U.K., I was confronted with the daunting task of consolidating my most valued possessions gathered over three decades into just a couple of suitcases and getting rid of the rest.
How could I say goodbye to the multitude of friendships that I’d gained over 30 years with the thought that U.S. immigration may never permit me back to see them again? Harder still, as the day of departure ticked closer, was the growing pressure on my family to adjust to this new reality. How could our 7-year-old twins understand me having to suddenly leave them? How could our two 13-year-old girls be expected to cope with their anger and confusion over the Trump administration’s actions? What would it take for our 14-year-old to learn to deal with the shock of the ICE raid on our home and the resulting permanent changes to our family life?
The day of departure was one of the saddest of my life, although it was gratefully softened by Dena travelling with me to the U.K. During her three-week stay, we focused on the tasks required to start this new chapter in our lives. She met my U.K. family for the first time, started to familiarise herself with life in a foreign country, and witnessed me start to establish myself as a U.K. resident after 42 years living abroad. She then returned to Hawaii to tend to our children and our home, and to go back to work.
Some people are totally shocked about my situation when they hear my story as they don’t understand how this could happen. During my time in Hawaii, I had been married three times to Americans, my daughter is a dual U.S./U.K. citizen, and I am the stepfather to Dena’s six American children. All five of our school-aged children were permanently living with us when these events occurred. During my time in Hawaii, I worked with young people, was a well-known community-building activist, and received accolades from the Hawaii state governor, congressional senators and representatives, our county mayor, and our county council. I owned two homes and ran two non-profit organisations. I had a totally clean criminal record in the U.S. and only one expunged offence in the U.K. from 1988.
In the U.K., my 87-year-old mum was elated at my return and I was fortunate to have a brother-in-law who offered me temporary accommodation. This gave me the essential address needed to obtain a driving license, a bank account, a cell phone account, a library card, bus pass, etc. and to register with social services, the National Health Service, car insurance, and road tax. Establishing myself back in the U.K. took lots of time and, of course, I had to look for a job. As a 67-year-old who hadn’t been in traditional employment for over forty years, this was no easy task.
I was literally starting my life over again from scratch.
With this new paradigm in our lives, Dena and our children were able to visit the U.K. as tourists but couldn’t come to live here until I had successfully obtained family visas for all of them. U.K. laws required me to be employed for at least six months with a certain level of income and savings before we could submit an application for my family to be permitted to live here.
Once Dena returned to Hawaii to be back with our children, I turned my focus fully to the search for employment. The challenges that I faced included the fact that I was 67 years old, had been self-employed for almost all of my time in Hawaii, and my skills and experience as the director of a circus school and manager of a sustainable community were not easily transferable to the U.K. job market. I was later told that the ten weeks that it eventually took me to find work was actually a relatively short time by U.K. standards but nonetheless, it caused a further drain on our finances and needed all of my focus and energy. No matter what, I was fully committed to remaining in a job at least until our visa application had been accepted but…I had a serious complication.
The year before my deportation, I had been diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and was about to start treatment in Hawaii when I was deported. The physical and emotional stress from my days locked in the ICE box also took its toll on me. However, once in England, it took me two months to get a doctor’s appointment and then another six-week wait for an appointment with a hematologist. The specialist repeated the advice of my Hawaii doctor saying that I needed to immediately start treatment. However, at that point, I could not yet engage in chemotherapy because the side effects would most probably have prevented me from working for the period needed and that would delay my immigration application for Dena.
I doubt that there are many people in the U.K.—apart from other applicants—who understand how difficult it is to obtain a family or spouse visa for anyone outside of the European Union. Dena and I both worked daily and diligently for most of six months to compile the full package of 154 pages of documents that were required for the application. And then, there were fees that amounted to over $2,800—just for Dena—plus another $800 speedy processing payment. Due to the amount of income required from me to have available to support visa applications, I was only able to initially apply for Dena. Our plan was then for her to work to help raise the funds to apply for our children to eventually be able to live with us in the U.K.
There are a lot of parts to submitting a successful application, which is why most people hire the services of an immigration lawyer. Unfortunately, Dena and I didn’t have funds for that so we decided to do it all ourselves, which takes time, tenacity, and the courage to take risks. After submission, it can take three months or more before decisions are made. It’s a nail-biting time, like waiting indefinitely for high-stakes exam results. We had an added problem because we needed to buy airline tickets in advance, despite not knowing whether Dena could actually fly into the U.K. as we awaited word back if her resident visa application was approved. This meant that our kids might have potentially had to fly as unaccompanied minors on tourist visas to the U.K. without Dena. Fortunately, with only days to spare, our guardian angels pulled though: Dena got her visa and was able to fly together with the kids. It was a dream come true for me to see them all again!
The logistics involved meant that our family was basically separated for a full year after my departure from Hawaii. A further complication existed because Dena’s ex-husband initially refused to allow their four children to obtain the passports needed to travel to the U.K., even though Dena had joint custody. It took us many months to partially resolve this situation. The kids eventually got passports but only after Dena agreed to allow the kids to remain in Hawaii for another school year while she got settled in the U.K. and helped support me through chemotherapy. We had hoped to eventually provide the kids with better educational opportunities here in England than they had access to in Hawaii. However, since then, their father has only allowed them to leave the U.S. during school holidays. So even though we have established our home in the U.K. and Dena is living here, our children are ostensibly held hostage by their father who, under U.S. federal law, has the power to veto international travel and prevent our family from being reunited. Despite doing her best to try to rapidly adapt to all of these huge life changes, stay calm and balanced under the circumstances for our kids, and tirelessly advocate for mediation and family counseling back in Hawaii, her ex eventually filed for full custody on the grounds that she had “abandoned” her children. This was just after she returned to the U.K. in early 2020 after maxing out the time allowed on her spouse visa and taking a six-month leave of absence from her U.K. job so she could focus on negotiating a custody agreement in person in Hawaii during the second half of 2019. To say that this blow was devastating is an understatement. Dena had flown back and forth to Hawaii several times in both 2018 and 2019, spending over eight months there in total; all the while not employed and racking up expenses. Living in Hawaii is not cheap: travel, housing, transportation, food, etc.; especially when you are not permanently living there. We had also agreed to take on the financial responsibility of travel expenses for all of the kids as part of the mediation agreement to initially allow the kids to visit me as we anxiously didn’t know how successful chemotherapy would be. Unfortunately, this arrangement then became the precedence in their mediated agreements, resulting in us carrying the load of thousands of dollars of travel expenses over the last four years.
Then, due to the ex’s court filing, we had to spend another $5,000 on hiring a lawyer just before we went into our first COVID lockdown. The trauma and deep grief of separation, uncertainty about the pandemic, and financial anxiety of losing our jobs took its toll on our family’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Several family crises during 2020 necessitated Dena to travel back to Hawaii again. However, the reality of lockdowns, travel logistics, and our dire financial situation tragically prevented her from it.
Due to the pending court situation, the children did not travel to the U.K. to visit us that summer. Eventually, after another devastating family situation arose in Hawaii, Dena had to navigate through many challenges in order to rush back to the children. While she was there, she also had to go back to court to get a judgement to protect her joint custody and get an order allowing the children to come to the U.K. for the holidays and summers. This all took a considerable amount of time, energy, stress, and—of course—more money. Dena is one of the strongest women that I know but even she has her limits and I saw her stretched to the very edge of them. However, through all of this, the ones who have unfortunately suffered the most are our children.
Deportation is generally seen as the removal of an individual from one country to another but, as you can see from my situation, it is far more complex and involved. The consequences can affect families in the most dire and extreme ways. Children can lose a parent—sometimes both—and suffer the stress of separation that no amount of phone and video calls can remedy. Spouses have to deal with the emotional loss of their partner and/or their children. The financial stress is also significant with income and support for the home and children being wiped out. Perhaps the greatest strain for everyone is the uncertainty of what deep trauma was triggered for each person by the deportation, which can flare-up for months and, possibly years, thereafter as PTSD. Being an undocumented citizen is technically not a crime in the U.S., yet this is undoubtedly cruel and unusual punishment, which is considered unethical and illegal for actual criminals.
It’s incredibly sad and inhumane that respectable, contributing members of society and genuine asylum-seekers were treated like disposable citizens by the U.S. Republican Party’s immigration enforcement policy during the mortifying years of the “Trump ‘em and dump ‘em” era.
Our family will undoubtably continue to feel the impacts of it for years to come.