Dubliner’s warning of 24 hours in Orlando jail, as immigration made him “feel like a criminal” having overstayed holiday visa in 1996.
An Irish father of three has been jailed during a family vacation to Disneyland, Florida, for overstaying his visa 22 years ago, in 1996.
The Dubliner, named only as Darren, was stopped by immigration and arrested. He had traveled to Florida, via London Gatwick, on March 22, with his wife Linda and three children nine, 11, and 15. They were en route to Disneyland for a family vacation.
When he arrived at immigration in Florida he was quizzed about his previous trips to the United States. He said, “We went through a place called Primary Inspection and we spoke to a border agent and everything seemed fine, we gave another set of fingerprints and then suddenly his attitude and line of questioning changed, and all the attention was focused on me.
"He asked when was the first time I was in the United States and I kind of hesitated and fumbled my line because of a long flight and said 2002, my wife Linda nudged me and said it was 1996.
"He asked how long I stayed for and I said three months, he took my passport and separated it from the rest, he said they would need to look into it and asked me to follow him."
Darren told the immigration officer he had first visited the United States in 1996 and had stayed for three months. The officer then said they needed “to look into things”.
Shortly afterward Darren was separated from his family and questioned for two hours, he told Joe Duffy’s RTE radio show, Liveline.
He explained “This lady was a supervisor and she said to me, ‘I’ll tell you what’s going to happen now. You’re not entering the United States today’.”
Darren explained to the officer that since 1996 he had visited the United States four times and had no issue with immigration. Her response was that he had been “lucky”. He admitted he had overstayed his holiday visa in 1996.
He said, “I've been there four times since and I gave her the years as best as I could remember, I asked how I got in all of those times and they said I had just been lucky."
When Linda, his wife, broke down crying the officers allowed Darren to speak with her and give her cash and credit cards.
While Darren spoke to his wife the immigration officers quested their 15-year-old daughter on where they were staying. Darren described this as “disgusting behavior”.
"The kids saw their mam crying and they started crying, my wife tried to reason with the agent and she was threatened that she would be arrested.
"I managed to calm Linda down, I went along each of the kids and tried to reassure them it would be okay and to go enjoy their holiday, it wasn't how we planned it, but it is how it is, the kids were bawling.
"Linda said she wouldn't stay without me and the border agent said that was entirely her choice, but she would have to foot the bill herself for her and the children to fly home," Darren said.
Darren’s wife questioned the immigration officer’s decision. He said, “she was threatened she would be arrested” and he told his family to “go and have your holiday”.
The father of three was then handcuffed and moved via prison van to an Orlando correctional facility. He was forced to share a cell with up to 20 “hardened criminals”. Darren said some of these men had been locked up for offenses such as having a loaded weapon and assault and battery.
The Dubliner said he “zoned out” and “curled-up” during that horrific 24-hours.
He said “They made me feel like a criminal...
"There were upwards of 20 people in my cell that night, I stood out like a sore thumb, they were hardened criminals.
"Listening to some of the criminals it wasn't just stealing a pint of milk from a shop but things like being caught with a load of weapons, assault, and battery and domestic assaults, they were openly discussing it almost like a badge of honor.
"I just wanted to curl up and be left alone.
"One man in his 50s kind of befriended me, for want of a better word, he could tell I was distressed and that I wasn't the type of person you would usually in that environment.
"So, he was asking me was I okay, that was a small bit of comfort I suppose, he didn't look like someone you would want to meet on the street usually, but he was the best of a bad lot.
"The room we were in was massive, with about ten bunk beds and the air conditioning was on a constant cold setting, I felt threatened."
He was then released from prison and escorted to a plane in handcuffs.
"I was escorted to the plane by two armed guards in full view of the passengers I was going to be on the plane with, I was in handcuffs until we reached the departures area,” Darren explained.
"I was getting some funny stares when I was sitting at the departures gate, I didn't know how it would be on the plane, but it was okay, to be honest, I was just relieved to be leaving the country," the father-of-three said.
He arrived back in Dublin the following day.
His family remains in the United States trying to make the best of their family vacation, without Darren.
Darren warned, “I just want to use my story to help make people aware of what they could potentially be dealing with if they do decide to go the US and were involved in a minor thing such as staying longer than your allotted time.”
The United States Embassy representative told the Irish Mirror they could not comment on an individual case.