What It’s Like to Be Deported
I posted all over social media last night a harrowing, yet vague tale of how I was deported from Brazil and despite having spent the past month in Argentina, was really surprised that this one thing in particular was what people found most interesting. Lots of friends, people I hadn’t even talked to recently, were reaching out to me asking questions. And therein it hit me: The details behind a deportation are often vague and confusing, so I decided to share my story (with no pictures, because obviously when you are being deported you can’t take pictures of anything).
Last month, I booked a round trip flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina. On both trips, the flight was routed through Guarulhos International Airport in São Paulo, Brazil. Brazil is one of a handful of countries that requires Americans to have a tourist visa to enter. You can’t get that visa at entry. You have to apply for it in advance. The more interesting thing here is that Brazil only requires citizens of 3 countries to have these tourist visas: United States, Canada, and Australia. And the reasoning behind that is highly bureaucratic in nature–it’s in response to the fact that these countries require foreigners to have transit visas to even pass through their airports. This is why U.S. airports are not typically used for layovers between other countries… it’s a mess.
When I booked my flight, I assumed my lack of a Brazilian visa was a non-issue. I wasn’t leaving the airport, afterall, and the country doesn’t issue transit visas, so who cares?
But it’s so complicated.
On my first trip, I was a constant worrywort. In the U.S., all the airline employees for United were asking to see my visa and acted like it was impossible to transit through without one. Some people were claiming I’d need to pass through immigrations at GRU to retrieve my bag and check it back in (which would require a visa). It seemed like no one in the U.S. knew anything about how Brazilian visas worked and after looking things up on a computer, would suddenly be placated with what they found and pass me on to the next step.
Getting to Argentina via São Paulo proved to be a non-issue. In fact, it was a very clean and seamless process, with lots of signage pointing me where to go and what to do.
Returning was a different story.
First, on the flight from Ezeiza (Buenos Aires) to Guarulhos, a flight crew member announced that people with connecting flights would need to recheck their bags. As the flight landed, we were herded off the plane via plane stairs onto a shuttle bus that took us to a baggage claim area that, other than the sign denoting it was a baggage claim, had no other signage indicating where transit passengers needed to go. There was a lone woman in a security uniform who was able to communicate to me (with my fortunate ability to understand elementary-level Portuguese) that I needed to skip the baggage and take the elevator upstairs.
However, when I got upstairs, it was like a maze, with many different hallways ending at various security checkpoints that were not attended to by anyone. Somehow I was able to figure out where I needed to go to connect to the right terminal through trial and error.
I then spent the next 12 hours in GRU. I arrived at 9AM. My outgoing flight was scheduled for 9PM. This is where things start to get really weird. Although Brazil does not offer transit visas, they do have weird regulations on a case-by-case basis of how long a foreigner can remain in the airport. I think the general understanding is that you can’t stay overnight, but if I had been at Rio, they might have said 12 hours was too long.
Around 8PM, I got my actual boarding pass, but I sensed something was amiss because the United staff at the counter seemed flustered, and about 20 minutes later, a gate attendant announced that the plane was still being maintenanced. No one really seemed concerned by this, however. Most of the other passengers at the gate were chatting and laughing still. But then about 10 minutes before the flight was supposed to depart, the gate attendant announced that the captain had decided to cancel the flight, that everyone would be automatically rebooked to a new flight the next day at noon, and that everyone would be put up in a hotel for the night.
This was the first time while traveling that I’ve ever felt really scared and completely unsure of what my fate might be. Sure, people might warn you about getting mugged in certain cities or getting dangerously ill, but there’s nothing really quite as frightening as the idea of being trapped somewhere. And the thing about GRU is, unlike many other airports, there seem to be very few employees anywhere to be found.
At first, I said to the gate attendant in a panic, “I can’t stay here overnight. I’m a US citizen.” It didn’t occur to me that I wasn’t really communicating what the problem was and that instead, I just sounded like some entitled bitch trying to get out of the country. The guy assured me that everything was fine and walked away. On second pass, I flagged him down again, “So do I need to just stay in the airport for the night then or what?” He replied, “Why would you do that?” And suddenly, the mic drop: “I don’t have a visa. I am a transit passenger.”
Suddenly, the attitude changed. My passport was quickly grabbed from my hand, my information was verified on a computer, and the United employee was commanding me to follow him, not telling me where we were going. First, he took me to another United gate for a flight to Newark, which had just departed. He was obviously trying to just switch me to another flight to avoid the drama. Because if I get stuck there, the airline gets heavily fined as part of my deportation for not preventing it.
As we continued walking, he angrily but calmly (perhaps compassionately because he could see it in my face how upset I was, I think a few tears had come out at this point) asked me why I didn’t mention from the start that I was without a visa. I explained, “I’m so sorry, I was panicking.” He replied, “It’s okay, but now, so am I!”
I was then led to another man, who I was handed off to. This guy led me to a dark room, its purpose I’m not exactly sure of. A detaining room, I’d guess. A lot of Portuguese was being passed around, no English. I speak just enough Portuguese to know that they were talking about all the specifics of deporting me.
Fortunately, within 30 minutes, it was explained to me that I would be removed from the airport on another US-bound flight, which fortunately was leaving in the next hour, supposedly if I had stayed past midnight, I really would have been in huge trouble, because they count the rollover of the clock as an additional day. Either way, I was not legally allowed to be in GRU and I was being deported.
They placed me on an extremely full flight in which other people were battling to get onto. The man who was in charge of escorting me (who seemed to be like the equivalent of an airport security marshall) had to explain to all the angry passengers at the gate that I had priority over them because they were legally required to remove me from the country–this got me all sorts of negative attention, lots of angry gossiping, pointing at me, sneers… it was crazy… it kind of felt like 1/1000 of what it must have felt like to be Hitler.
As I walked on to the jet bridge, I was also selected for a full security search. I’m not sure if this was really random. It might have been just the weirdest coincidence ever, but my entire bag was looted through, hands and stomach swabbed, and I was firmly groped in a few choice places. This didn’t personally bother me, but I can easily understand why people get so upset over this.
Once on the plane, nothing was really any different from any other flight. I was just like any other passenger. I only “paid” for the flight in the sense that I had already paid for my first flight. They just transferred me to the new flight. If I hadn’t had the other flight, I would have had to pay for my own deportation at whatever the cost of the ticket was.
Yes, the irony is that they were deporting me to the United States as I was trying to leave to the United States. I’m honestly not sure if they would have deported me elsewhere if no other U.S. flight were available. I also don’t know yet what the legal ramifications are of my deportation. Because of enormous language barriers, very little was communicated to me. I felt like a lab rat being passed around. I’m pretty sure there are no long-term consequences. People are denied entry to countries due to visa issues all the time, but the deportation isn’t like a red flag. One time, when I was living in Portland and was on a flight to France, a woman at the airport threatened me with a “warning” on my passport. 27 countries later, and said mark has yet to affect any of my travels.
My checked luggage departed on a separate flight and supposedly will meet me at my final destination, making passing through customs at O’Hare sans bag a very awkward experience: “How can you declare wine without having wine?” “Well, it’s on this other flight…”
All in all, it’s an interesting story for its face value, but the intricacies of it are inanely boring and wholly uninteresting, so I’m sorry for that.
I won’t outright say it’s dumb to book a layover in Brazil if you don’t have the visa, but you should probably not book a red-eye flight as your layover flight from Brazil if you’re in these circumstances, because any delay or cancellation will put you in this really horrible position.
Edit for people that don’t know how to read: You can transit through Brazil without a visa. I did not get deported because I was simply transiting without a visa. I got deported because you have to transit within a certain time period–something that usually isn’t a problem, otherwise airlines wouldn’t let you book flights through Brazil in the first place.