A banker, Mr. Tajudeen Popoola, tells TOBI AWORINDE why the US immigration officials stopped him, his pregnant wife and children from going ahead with their trip to Florida on vacation
You were recently denied entry into the United States. Can you narrate your experience?
I travelled with my family on Etihad Airways and we had to stop over at Abu Dhabi. When we got to Abu Dhabi on Monday (February 27), an officer who had ‘US immigration’ on his badge called my wife to ask, ‘Where are you going?’ On the form, I had filled that I was travelling to the US to spend two weeks of my annual leave with two children and my wife. The officer asked her where we were going and she said we were going to Florida. ‘Did we book for the hotel?’ My wife said yes and ran back to me to collect the booking ticket, which she showed to them. ‘How much do you have at hand to travel with?’ So, I walked up to them and said I had $8,000 with my wife to spend on a two-week holiday. He said the money we had at hand was not enough and asked me, ‘Do you know how much the journey from New York to Florida will cost?’ I said I was a first-timer and that the money I had on me at least would be enough for me.
They then said the hotel booking was fake. I said, ‘How can it be fake?’ I did it through an agent. My agent even saw me off to the airport. The man (immigration officer) then said they called the Florida hotel and that there was no booking reservation for us. I said, ‘It is not possible. I booked for it and it was charged.’ They said, ‘It’s a lie.’ I said, ‘Sir, I’m not a criminal. Search my bags, you won’t find anything incriminating in my luggage.’
At the end of the day, they started asking series of questions. The man started bragging that if I could book in the next 10 minutes, he would allow me in. But in that vicinity, there was no network. I couldn’t make or receive phone calls. I tried everything I could and told the man that there was no network, so there was no way I could book. It was midnight here and there was no way I could call my brother to re-book for me. I even showed them the confirmation code (of the hotel booking) on my phone. They said, ‘It’s a lie.’ They then held on to me for almost two hours. They then brought a questionnaire.
What questions were you asked?
The questionnaire said, ‘What is your name?’ The only options were yes and no. You can’t say yes or no to that question. They said I should circle my answers, which I did and gave everything to them. My wife was heavily pregnant. They said because of the condition of my wife, they would return us to our country. I said, ‘Why did you want to return us? Look at everything with me. This is where I work.’ I said even if the money with me was not enough, I could call a friend of mine to transfer money to my credit card. He asked all sorts of questions and at the end of the day, they seized my passport. All the documents I gave to them, they seized. Being a first-timer, I didn’t know what to do. I was helpless. So, I sat down. My children were crying. They asked what would happen if my wife had to be delivered of the baby there, since I did not pay tax or pay for insurance. They said travelling from New York to Florida alone would cost me $4,000. And I said, ‘What is the matter? My wife is in her sixth month (of pregnancy) and it would be nine months before my wife gives birth. Even if the baby will be born prematurely, it would be seven months and above.’
The following day, they handed over everything to Etihad officials, who said they would take us to a hotel. Before they took us to the hotel, we were outside in the cold. My wife was shivering until I went to the officials that ‘do you want to my wife and children to die here in the cold?’ We hadn’t even experienced any of this. I had to cover my wife on the street. Hours after, they took us to one hotel. Later, around 1 am, we went back to them. We didn’t even see our passports until we came back to Nigeria. That was when they handed everything back to us. I then discovered that they had crossed out the visas. Am I criminal? Why should they cancel my visa? There was no one I could explain to, until the lady, who booked the flight for me, called. It was a bitter experience. In fact, my wife hasn’t recovered from the shock. They really embarrassed me.
When did you arrive in Nigeria?
We returned on Wednesday around 7.50 am. We left Lagos on Monday at 9.30 am and arrived in Abu Dhabi at 7.55 pm.
How old are your children?
One is nine, the other is six.
What is your occupation?
I am a banker.
Was this your first time of applying for a visa to the US?
It was my first time. The visa was given to me on December 19, 2016 — B1/B2 visitor visa, two-year, multiple-entry. I had never travelled out of the country in my life. This was my first experience.
Were you going to visit any relative in the US or you were planning to simply stay in a hotel?
I just wanted to stay in a hotel for the two-week holiday. I don’t have anything to do there (after that). I have my job here (in Nigeria). They asked me why I wanted to stop over at New York and if I had somebody there. I said, ‘I don’t have anybody there.’ I didn’t find a direct flight to Florida, so I decided that I would have a stopover at New York. I don’t know anybody in New York. I don’t have relatives there. I would have been the first to travel to US in my family.
What is your religion?
I am a Muslim.
Do you think your religion had anything to do with your entry being denied?
I don’t think it was because of religion. I know another (Nigerian) who is not a Muslim. He also travelled through Abu Dhabi but was sent back because his luggage was too much. He was on the same flight.
Do you think the US travel ban has anything to do with your denial?
I follow the story every day and they said Nigeria was exempted. I don’t know why they are giving us problems at the point of entry. They shouldn’t have cancelled my visa. I paid for the visa. I paid for everything. Do you know how much it is cost me? For the four of us, it cost me N217,000. The flight cost me at least N1,364,000. That is a lot of money for me to lose just like that.
Would you want to travel to the US again after this experience?
If this (visa) is reversed, I just want to have the experience. I would like to travel there again. Even Etihad doesn’t want to refund my money. It cancelled all the legs (of the trip) and I didn’t do anything illegal. I paid for everything. They scrutinised me at the embassy. I didn’t go through the back door.