Photo Credit: Jacob Hunt
After the van had passed through two more gated checkpoints, we four detainee passengers were led off the van and into a processing center lobby.
Thankfully, I was finally allowed to use the toilet, and quite a relief it was after such an anxious, uncertain waiting period.
I looked around the lobby, taking in the posters instructing proper methods of declaring asylum, amnesty rights, etc. No sooner had I started to familiarize myself with my new surroundings, than I was once again patted down and led back out to the van.
At this point, I was nearing my breaking point. Tired, fatigued, disoriented, separated from my bandmate, I became a bit hysterical. Where was I being taken? “Oakington,” and that is basically all the information I was provided.
I had been told I was going to Oxford, but now I was being taken someplace else? What the fuck was going on?
It was difficult to gauge how long the next van ride was, probably another hour and a half or two hours. It all seemed incredible, absolutely incredible. I was being treated like a prisoner, a dangerous terrorist or something equivalent, all because my stupid band had booked some shows in the UK without a work permit?
We stopped at another fenced and gated facility, one that looked considerably larger than the last stop in Oxford. Once inside it had more of an institutional feeling; dormitory-style housing quickly becoming evident.
Upon my release to the security staff at the Oakington facility, I made a rather alarming spectacle of myself by loudly declaring “I’m Nathaniel Mitchell. I don’t know where I am or why I’m here. I’m from the United States and I don’t even know what part of England I’m in right now.”
One of the officers, a female, did her best to calm me down a little, saying I was in Cambridge at a detainee center and that there had been several phonecalls from friends of mine concerning my arrival.
After nearly 16 hours of being kept captive, I was finally allowed to use a phone and talk directly to the girls in Manchester.
I spoke to Lowri Evans, who assured me everything possible was being done by her and the rest of Hotpants Romance to get Becky and I released, although it was a terribly bureaucratic process and time was anything but on our side.
Lowri gave me some phone numbers to try, numbers for legal aid, numbers that I would be able to call in the morning.
It was a relief to at least be able to talk to one of our friends on the phone, and the conversation brightened my mood considerably, especially being assured that folks were fighting on our behalf and that Becky was aware of my whereabouts.
After getting off the phone, I was required to check in with a nurse for a brief medical evaluation, to find out if I had any pre-existing conditions or was on any sort of medication.
I answered the standard questions I was given; no allergies, epilepsy, etc. I lingered a bit over the “self-destructive urges” section, gingerly feeling the lump on my head, but decided complete honesty would only further complicate matters.
Wrapping up the questionnaire, I confided my situation to the nurse and asked as to whether a case such as mine was a common one.
He surprised me with his reply, that in the four years he’d worked at the Oakington facility, I was the first American he had ever evaluated for processing.
Following the medical questionnaire, I was led by two guards down an ominous looking hallway, photographed, frisked thoroughly (the indignity of this was becoming a dull routine everywhere I went), my small suitcase torn apart once again, my valuable items cataloged, some items sealed in brown envelopes, including my passport, Georgia driver’s license, bank cards, birth certificate and some other sundry items that may have possibly revealed my private banking information.
I was given a laminated photo ID card that I was to retain and have available at all times during my stay, as well as an identification number: 20/3K (pronounced “twenty-three-kilo”).
After being handed the ID card, I was then assigned a vacuum-sealed blanket, two flat sheets, a pillowcase, and a white bath towel, as well as a toiletry kit, a plastic mug, a small packet with teabags, instant coffee, powdered creamers and sugar.
I was led down another hallway, outside and then into what would be my dormitory (Block 20), my floor section (3) and my bed position (“K”).
The security officers left me while I was making up my bed with the sheets and blanket. About a dozen other bodies were visible in the cots surrounding me, about six against each wall, each having a wooden wardrobe/locker.
The room was dark, everyone was asleep, and I did my best to get myself situated as silently as possible. My estimation is that it was well after 3 a.m. at this point.
I crawled into my cot, grateful to finally be able to lay down in a dark, quiet room, although anxiety made it difficult to switch off my whirring mind and succumb to sleep right away.
Now I was filled with a new resolve, one that was replacing the defeatism of a few hours ago. I would be able to make phonecalls tomorrow, arrange for legal counsel, perhaps a lawyer (or “solicitor” as the British termed it here) and get this whole awful business straightened out.
Perhaps Becky and I hadn’t been terribly direct with the nature of our visit, but we hadn’t done anything illegal. If anything, it was ignorance and poor planning that had exacerbated our situation, but nothing that warranted being treated as criminals.
It felt like I had only been asleep not but an hour when the fluorescent lights were flicked on and the security guards were rousing everyone in the room, declaring that we had a half-hour for breakfast.
It was 7:30 a.m., and I had much more interest in continuing sleeping than in eating breakfast, but I made a half-hearted attempt to visit the cafeteria in Block 31, but quickly returned to my dorm after learning that the meals were, in fact, optional.
I had been told the Immigration Advisory Service personnel would be clocking in at 9:30 a.m. and decided to doze until their arrival. It had been recommended to me by my keepers that the IAS staff would be the best ones to talk to regarding my situation.
So, I slept, although fitfully. At 8 a.m. my new roommates began arriving back from the cafeteria and it was quickly clear that I was the only one to whom English was a first language.
Most of the others were speaking Arabic, I gathered, although my closest bed-mate seemed to be from Southeastern Asia. Too distracted by their foreign sounds, I decided to take a shower.
The washroom was unusual. Three “European”-style toilets and one “Arabic”-style, the first I had ever encountered, where apparently gravity does most of the work when you are squatting.
The shower took a while to figure out; pushing a button would produce about 90 seconds of hot water, so soaping and shampooing would be done with one hand while the other continually pressed the hot water button as it began petering out, reviving the showerhead to a full-force stream.
Soap, shampoo, shaving razor, toothbrush and toothpaste were all provided in my toiletry kit, all of which I employed on my person.
At 9:30 a.m., I met with my block manager, requesting an audience with an IAS representative. She said that due to the high volume of detainees (approximately 400, I found out), I couldn’t expect to meet with anyone from IAS until about 48 hours after my arrival.
I informed her that I had a flight back to America scheduled for 10:30 a.m. tomorrow, to which she replied that there wasn’t much else she could do.
I told her I desperately needed to make some phone calls and she told me that phone cards were available in the shop in the recreation area next to the cafeteria, also that the shop accepted American currency.
Waiting in line for the phone card purchase, there were about 15 people of varying ethnicities ahead of me (myself being the most obvious variation). I reflected on what life must have been like for the handful of minorities that attended my predominantly all-white high school in New Hampshire.
The shop was set up in the far wall of the recreation area, a half-dozen or so miniature billiard tables commanding the attention of the inhabitants inside.
I marveled at some of the expert shots made on equipment that was probably intended for children, how the command of one’s cue could afford respect, no matter the country of origin.
The shop contained most standard convenience-store items and a three-pound phone card cost me almost five dollars American and, having been unable to arrange a meeting with the on-site IAS representatives, I decided to check in with Lowri, as to how arranging for a solicitor was progressing.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t. The legal aid help line in Cambridge could produce no one in the office that handled immigration affairs and tomorrow would be too late.
It was quickly becoming apparent to everyone involved that this was a matter that could not be easily overturned.
My three-pound phone card seemed like it got used up in a matter of minutes, even though no money/phone-time ratio had been provided on the card.
I met again with the block manager, who agreed to help follow up on my case. It took quite a bit of telephonic sleuthing, but it was eventually revealed who my denial caseworker was (we had both been told that person was, inexplicably, in Luton, although several follow-up calls placed the caseworker in the more appropriate Manchester).
For the first time, I was able to speak to someone directly involved in my case, although the news was dismal. Unlike a prisoner, a detainee was in no way guaranteed the right of legal counsel, the decision had been made by what appeared to be legitimate reasons and I would be shipped off on American Airlines tomorrow morning.
In short, there was nothing I could do.
Any hopes of reversing the Immigration Officer’s decision died right there. The only bright spot (and this was still a rather murky one) was that I was told that this denial could not be used against me in the event I decided to plan another trip into the UK.
Upon hanging up the phone, I slunk back to my dorm room and plopped myself down on the cot. It was over. We were getting sent back, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
I cursed the noisy Arabic chatter that filled the room and proceeded to lay prone for the next eight hours, skipping the lunchtime cafeteria visit altogether.
When dinnertime came around at 6 p.m., I decided to make a go of it, heading over to Block 31 with my fellow detainees. Despite it being Tuesday night and me not having eaten anything substantial since the in-flight meal on Sunday night, I still felt not particularly hungry, but was curious to see what amenities would be provided.
The cafeteria contained what must have been all 400 detainees in the center, although I swear more people were continuously pouring in and then out of the room.
I took my tray and plastic silverware, pointed like everyone else in line to my choice of entrée (one marked with a cartoon cow, another a cartoon bunch of vegetables) and settled down for a spicy Indian-style dish of ground burger meat and green peas with mushy mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes with brown gravy and a formless blob of chocolate cake for dessert.
I could only manage half of my food portion (mostly the potatoes), deposited my tray in the appropriate spot, and headed back to dorm Block 20, section 3.
When I returned, some of my Muslim dorm-mates were conducting their evening prayers, which I watched passively, but with interest.
This interest was noted by one of the participants, who called to me in broken English, “What country you are from?” “America. U.S.A.,” I answered. This unexpected reply seemed to get quite a charge out of my new neighbor. He smiled and called over again, “You like Bush? President Bush? He is good man, yes?”
“No, not a good man,” I answered. My Muslim friend smiled again and continued “No, not good. He is BAD man, terrible man. You good man. Come here, I will make you a Muslim.”
Such was my introduction to the Arabic contingent that dominated the room. The gentleman who called me over was Khalid, a 25-year-old native of Afghanistan who had been working illegally in England for about five years.
His English was the best of the eight or nine others I sat with and he would often translate on the other speaker’s behalf.
We talked about the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, about 9-11 and the possibility of the tragedy being an inside job that had sparked a war against Islam.
Khalid seemed pleased that many (most) Americans hated Bush and that a new president was only two months from taking office (“Yes, the black man. He is Muslim, yes?”).
I was told that I would be transported back to Manchester airport at least six hours before my flight was to depart. My last hours at Oakington were spent conversing with Khalid, Roman, Ahmir and a few other Arabic men.
It was interesting to hear about how Afghan residents like Khalid and Roman were directly affected by the United States’ actions against their country, how nearly 10 times as many Afghan civilians had been killed, versus those that died in the fall of the twin towers.
Ahmir was an Iranian, exactly the same age as myself and joked that we should switch passports. “You are musician, yes? You go to Iran and I will go to U.S.A.! America and Iran very friendly!”
I played along, “Oh, yeah. So, I should go to Iran and play music, huh?” I said, miming the motions of an electric guitar.
“Yes, yes.” Ahmir also strummed away at an invisible guitar, then abruptly stopped and smiled. “You will get killed!”
When the security guards came to get me, I opened up my lone bag of luggage and extracted three Cars Can Be Blue t-shirts and presented them to Khalid, Roman and Ahmir, thanking them for their kindness. Ahmir was to be deported back to Iran the next day, making him the first and only Iranian with a CCBB shirt. Hopefully, it won’t get him killed.
It was coming up on midnight as I was once again patted down and put back on the van. I once again signed for my valuables, reluctantly returned my photo ID card, and after a final bit of paperwork, was headed back towards Manchester airport, back to the holding room at Terminal 2.
The ride back was uneventful, although eerily silent. I paid more attention to the roadways on this trip, as it would be the only British sites I’d be seeing before I got back on the airplane.
As we trundled into Manchester I tried my best to look around at the shops and streetlife we passed, wondering where our Manchester shows had been booked, which streets we would have walked down.
We stopped at a Manchester police station, or prison perhaps, judging by the gates we passed through. It was hard to believe this was merely a precinct house.
The van door opened and there was Becky standing in front of me. She sat down beside me on the van’s bench seat and she absolutely reeked of body odor. Her stench was ungodly and when I made a face indicating as such, she shouted “I’ve been in solitary confinement!”
Her experience made me feel like I’d just returned from Club Med (or rather, Club Ahmed). She told me that her room contained nothing but a slot for food to be shoved through, a toilet and a sleeping mat that may as well have been the floor.
No shower, no toiletry kit, no cafeteria, no visitors and no shoelaces. They made her take the shoelaces out of her sneakers, and after all that wasn’t even allowed to wear her shoes inside the cell.
We arrived back at Terminal 2 and were greeted with more good news, that our transference from the van to the airport would require Becky and I to be wearing handcuffs, so we got shackled and led into the airport area just as the sun was coming up.
The cuffs only lasted for our short walk back to Terminal 2’s detainee lounge, after which we were given another pat-down and once again let back behind the plexiglass to our break-room holding quarters, although the television was now mercifully switched off.
Becky and I had both grown somewhat accustomed to our incarceration by this point and thought nothing of cheekily demanding ham and egg-salad sandwiches, along with orange squash and cocoa from the drink dispenser.
I guess we figured that $750 apiece ought to at least buy us some hors d’ouevres.
And so we waited, scheming our way towards re-entry. We figured if we could nab two more round-trip tickets and then fly into a London airport, we might stand a chance of only missing two shows on the tour, provided we could fly back in on the 28th or sooner.
Thanksgiving would likely make air travel a bit tricky, but if the denial couldn’t be held against us, we weren’t gonna be beaten that easily.
We napped on the hard, lumpy benches and were awoken for boarding a little after 9 a.m. Unsurprisingly, another pat-down frisking commenced, another X-ray scan of our pathetic luggage. The British staff at American Airlines seemed to be regarding us a bit warily, although it was nice to hear one of our security handlers stand up for us and correct the airline staff, saying that “we weren’t being deported,” because that would have required actually being allowed IN the country first.
Our flight departed at 10:30 a.m., and we were glumly heading back to America. Becky and I didn’t have much to say to each other, besides comparing my considerably better treatment (all things considered) to hers.
Upon arriving in Chicago, it quickly became obvious that we were, in fact, going to be haunted by this incident. Upon seeing the mark of denial upon our passports, now it seemed we would be subjected to body searches and baggage checks along every step of the way back INTO America.
Due to this heightened scrutiny, we were the very last passengers to board our flight to Atlanta (considering that getting to our appropriate terminal required a tram ride, I feared that if we hadn’t jogged through the airport terminal we may have very likely missed our flight).
Now, every appointed security checkpoint person in America was giving us a hard time, which required us having to distill our story into the briefest possible recounting.
And that was that. Our plane arrived back in Atlanta and the whole experience was already beginning to wash away from us, a weird distant nightmare that was already fading.
Calling a trusted friend for a ride, my feelings were mostly shame and embarrassment. I was supposed to return a conqueror, an international hero, but instead I just felt like a schmuck who should have had his ducks in a row before embarking on an overseas voyage.
Hindsight is definitely 20/20, and I am confident that a valuable lesson was learned. At present, I have no idea when or if I will return to Britain, but I’m worried that this ordeal may tarnish future interactions with British Immigration. All I can say to those in bands who may be considering overseas touring: Make damn sure you have your shit straight before you get on that plane!