Why is my friend stuck in Paris?
September 1, 2016 8:40 AM   Subscribe

A friend is attempting to travel from Germany to Paris to the US on Air France. He was allowed to travel the first flight in to Paris, but was pulled off the flight with a handful of others before the Paris flight left for the US.

He's been a German citizen his entire life. He's in his 20s and non-religious, white, which may be relevant if there is any religious/racial profiling happening in Europe right now? I am unaware of the current state of that in Europe.
He doesn't have a criminal history, he doesn't travel much. (Maybe he's inexperienced with applying for the visa and messed it up?)

He is currently with the French immigration police with the other passengers that were pulled. The French officials speak English and German, so we do not have a language barrier. He did reach the Embassy via telephone. Not sure which country Embassy, he just said "Embassy." His text about that conversation said:
My ESTA (visa) status has changed and they will not give me any more info. I will receive a postal letter in 3-4 weeks from America. They are going to send me back to Germany now. I'm not allowed to apply for another visitor visa.

They are trying to put him on a flight back to Germany, but he plans to try to stay in Paris to sort out the situation. He is third in line to use the phones to try to talk to officials.

My questions are:
- Why is he stuck there? Does this sound familiar to anyone?
- Can friends in the US help here? Is this likely a European issue or is it a US issue?
- If it is a US issue, who should I call? Is this an INS thing, a congressperson thing, an Embassy thing?
- Even if he can get this sorted out, is Air France likely to allow him to get a new seat on a new flight?

Things we have in our toolbox:
- He is texting us copies of all of his documents
- Multiple language fluency
- Good friend that is a (non-immigration) attorney can help right now, and with a couple calls I could call in a favor from an immigration attorney friend but not sure she deals with lots of this kind of thing
- If I needed to work my network I could probably have a good line to my congress people today
- We have time here in the US to work on this, I could show up in person at some government agencies if that would help
- No one is related by blood or marriage

I can update more as I learn more.
posted by littlewater to Law & Government (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is this likely a European issue or is it a US issue?

ESTA is related to the US, so if they say it's because of his ESTA (and assuming that's true) it's a US thing.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:45 AM on September 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

If I had to hazard a guess, they think he's travelling to the US for a different reason than stated in his visa. The most common situation would be someone claiming personal travel but actually going for work reasons, or claiming a work-related visit but actually coming to attend a job interview or in an attempt to seek a position.

That might explain the reason for the stop, but doesn't give you much in the way of a troubleshooting strategy.
posted by mikeh at 8:49 AM on September 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

How long is he coming to the US for, and for what purpose?

A German citizen coming to the US for a vacation (under 90 days for the purposes of leisure) doesn't require a visa. If he's being denied entry to the US despite trying to enter legitimately through the Visa Waiver Program (what it's called if you're just coming on a vacation), that's real fucked up. Though my first question is whether maybe he overstayed in the past or used to do regular visa waiver runs back and forth a lot. You WILL get denied if they think you're trying to illegally immigrate through the Visa Waiver Program.

If he is not coming to the US on vacation and had to apply for a visa, there could be any of a million reasons his visa was denied. There doesn't have to be a reason. They can just not give you the visa for any or no particular reason.

US immigration generally doesn't care what race or religion you are. They do care if they think you're trying to stealth immigrate into the country. (And visas are a whole other ball of wax.)
posted by Sara C. at 8:52 AM on September 1, 2016

He is traveling to visit a friend in the US. His US friend is a J-1 visa holder, also a German citizen, that is living in the US under the J-1.
He is not traveling for work or education, only as vacation travel.
He was planning to be in the US for 15 days or so.
posted by littlewater at 8:53 AM on September 1, 2016

A Danish relative of a former employer of mine had a similar visa problem when he was trying to return to the US after a visit home. He had been working for my boss (his uncle) and staying in his home on a tourist visa. When he tried to return he was stopped by authorities in New York and sent back to Denmark, and was also told that any future visa applications from him would be denied.
posted by contraption at 8:54 AM on September 1, 2016

I'm not allowed to apply for another visitor visa.

I'm slightly confused by this wording. Germans don't need a visa to visit America - they can enter under the visa waiver programme, in almost all cases.

Unless by 'visa' he means 'ESTA' (which is the electronic waiver for citizens of certain countries, not a visa). Or he means apply for a visa instead of travelling on a visa waiver (for example, people with bad immigration histories or people who fit these categories may need to apply for a visa rather than coming in under the visa waiver scheme) - maybe a language thing?

'-another- visitor visa' implies he already applied for a visa, which German citizens don't normally need to do, except for example the exceptions above.
posted by plep at 8:55 AM on September 1, 2016

but was pulled off the flight with a handful of others

This is fairly remarkable in itself, to me. That's unusual to have multiple people taken off an airplane after boarding, for visa issues.

I will receive a postal letter in 3-4 weeks from America.

I would extrapolate this as meaning his entry into the US was denied by the US. All this information taken together suggests that a number of people got caught up in some kind of processing issue or rules change, or an electronic systems failure.

The ESTA is administered by the Department of Homeland Security, which among other things means they do what they want and you may want to be careful about pushback.

But according to the FAQ, reapplication following a denial (though I think that means initial denial of the ESTA) refers applicants to the State Department. That suggests he might contact the US Embassy in Paris. If this was a technology failure of some sort, they might be able to offer an alternate visa or visa waiver.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:55 AM on September 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Did he try to apply for some kind of visa? If so, that's why. You don't have to do that in his case, and it probably raised all kinds of red flags. Especially because any visa he filled out trying to visit the US for 15 for leisure purposes would have been filled out incorrectly.
posted by Sara C. at 8:55 AM on September 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

And agreed, this is on the US side. ESTA is the US electronic thingo for visa waiver nationals. He's been pulled off the flight at the behest of the US authorities in some way.

If he had a failed visa application in the past (e.g. for work) this could be why as well - per the wording '-another- visa'.
posted by plep at 8:57 AM on September 1, 2016

Can you check the status of his ESTA application on here?
posted by I-baLL at 9:01 AM on September 1, 2016

I used to work for the US Gov on immigration stuff. We don't really have enough info to do anything beyond speculate, however I think a key piece of information here is whether he has ever been to the United States before. If so: how long, and how many times? In my experience, ESTA revocation/denial issues are often related to past travel history.

Also, did he even apply for ESTA (the online form that visa waiver nationals fill out in advance of traveling to the U.S.)? Under U.S. law, foreign airlines are financially responsible for managing the return travel of anyone they let onto their aircraft who turns out to not have a valid visa. Same with ESTA. But usually airlines are tapped into the electronic ESTA system at the point of embarkation (in your friend's case, Germany), and are able to determine before issuing your boarding pass that you're clear to go, so it's odd that he was allowed to board the first flight but not the second one.
posted by GorgeousPorridge at 9:09 AM on September 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

Based solely on what he said, and ignoring some of the speculation in this thread, this is an ESTA problem. ESTA is pre-clearance for people who do not need a visa. ESTA is not a visa. He seems to think it is, or be unclear about the language used to describe it. I don't think he's actually applied for a visa in the true sense of the word. He didn't need to. But he did need an ESTA.

- Why is he stuck there? Does this sound familiar to anyone?

He forgot to apply for an ESTA, his ESTA has been revoked for mysterious reasons that you will not discover any time soon (but we can speculate with more information about his US travel history), or his ESTA has expired. It's valid for two years. Perhaps it simply expired? This is the simplest explanation.

- Can friends in the US help here? Is this likely a European issue or is it a US issue?

It's a US thing. Generally speaking, the US will not fix visitor visa problems inside the US. This is something he will have to sort out in Germany. He may now be ineligible for the VWP, and need to apply for a visitor (B) visa. This will involve some application fees and may involve a trip to a local US embassy or consulate for interview.

- If it is a US issue, who should I call? Is this an INS thing, a congressperson thing, an Embassy thing?

I don't think you can help for now. If this turns out to be something complicated and political then by all means write your congressman, but Occam's razor says it's something simple, and it's almost certainly more quickly solved with a B visa.

- Even if he can get this sorted out, is Air France likely to allow him to get a new seat on a new flight?

Airlines are responsible for getting passengers who reach the US border and are denied entry out of the US. He's not at the US border, so they're probably not responsible for anything.

By the way, Sara C, people entitled to the VWP apply for B visas for the purpose of visiting the US all the time. Among other advantages, it enables a longer stay. Having a visitor visa while being from a VWP country is not a red flag per se.
posted by caek at 9:16 AM on September 1, 2016 [6 favorites]

The traveler is getting on a plane home to Germany. He updated our friend the J-1 holder via text and said this:

He's on the airplane back home to Germany. He called and they couldn't really tell him anything, they just said he would get postal mail and said something about social media. He doesn't do anything on facebook and that's all he has. He has never been in the US.
He's not giving up but going back home was easier than staying in Paris since he doesn't speak French. He cannot do anything. They won't let him get on a plane to the US so sending him home was the only thing they could do. The ESTA Embassy or whoever he talked to could not give him any information so we don't really know what to do.

Thanks so much for everyone's help here. It sounds like he will struggle with this tomorrow when he is home in Germany. Hopefully it will be more clear for him then.
posted by littlewater at 9:32 AM on September 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Could be the biometric passport thing linked above. ESTAs also get denied if you've travelled to any Middle East or North African country in the last ten years - I know this as friends who enjoy diving in the Red Sea have had problems. Maybe that shopping trip to Dubai has got him blacklisted as a terrorist. My friend who worked in Palestine for MSF is no longer eligible for an ESTA as a result. Getting into the US is a complete lottery these days, even if you're European.

He may be able to get it sorted out for future travel, but he will have to apply for a full visa in future if he is no longer eligible for an ESTA.
posted by tinkletown at 9:46 AM on September 1, 2016

Adding to caek's list: perhaps he got a new passport and tried to use an existing ESTA. Even if his old ESTA still is valid, he would have had to apply for a new one linked to the new passport.
posted by Namlit at 10:08 AM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Tinkletown: I have just been granted an ESTA. I am an Australian/British dual national who works in Qatar and holds a Qatari residence permit. I declared all of that on the ESTA application (even to my Qatari national ID number). The ESTA was granted without any issues. All being well I will be entering the US on that ESTA next Saturday. I have entered the US twice since I started to work in Qatar in 2011, each time with a Qatari residence permit in my passport.
In other words, I doubt if a shopping trip to Dubai was the source of the problem.
posted by Logophiliac at 10:37 AM on September 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I didn't say it made sense! My diving and charity worker friends are hardly terrorists either, but they can't get ESTAs as a result.
posted by tinkletown at 12:43 PM on September 1, 2016

For the frequent travelers here it would be nice to know how this was solved. Is there an update?
posted by Namlit at 10:14 AM on September 11, 2016

The traveler had to stay in Germany and could not travel to the US. The traveler cannot get any answers via phone or embassy. He has been instructed to wait 3-4 weeks for a letter telling him why he was turned away.
Here are a few more details:
- He's in his 20s and has not lived outside Germany or traveled outside the EU
- A very squeaky clean person with no criminal or political history
- Uses social media very little but once said something mild like "Trump is an idiot" on Facebook. The officials turning him away did mention something about social media but that shouldn't keep him out of the country.
- Has an unusual (German) name so it's unlikely he's mixed up with someone of the same name
- When he got on the plane n Germany the ESTA was valid but it was revoked while he was in the air to Paris
- When he originally applied for the ESTA there was a snafu and he had to travel to the Embassy in Frankfurt to sort it out - it was approved when he boarded the first flight
- No idea what happened to the other passengers that were pulled
- He's lost money on this and it's unknown if he will get any refunds. The US leg on another airline is lost money.

At this point we are just waiting to see what the official letter will say. No officials will speak of it on the phone.

I'll update this with what the letter says when that arrives
posted by littlewater at 11:36 AM on September 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

To follow up, the traveler never got any further contact from the US authorities, despite being told in Paris that a letter would follow in a few weeks to describe the reason why he was not allowed to travel to the US. No letter ever arrived. He has no idea why he was not allowed to travel to the US.

The traveler did hire a German attorney, and I am not clear on how the attorney was interfacing (if at all) with the US, but the traveler did recover part of the amount he paid to Air France for the flight he did not take from Paris to the US. He did not recover any amounts that he had paid for flights within the US.

I don't have a lot more info, because the traveler is a friend of a friend, but this is all I know. The traveler is still upset, with good reason in my opinion.
posted by littlewater at 3:18 PM on January 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

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