Jenner Rivas wanted to go home.
After seven years of living in the country illegally, the 28-year-old from Honduras said he could no longer live in fear of being discriminated against or deported. He no longer felt welcome.
So his mother wired him $400 to buy a plane ticket. He packed his bag and on May 15 had his pastor drive him to Charlotte/Douglas International Airport.
After retrieving his boarding pass, he walked to security. He handed the agent his temporary passport. The agent asked him to step aside and wait.
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After a roughly two-hour interview, he said officials ripped up his boarding pass and told him he would not be able to fly.
For all the talk of enforcing the nation's immigration laws, the country seems to be doing a better job keeping some illegal immigrants in the country than keeping them out.
“If so many people hate us in this country, why do they stop us when we try to leave?” Rivas said. Transportation Security Administration spokesman Jon Allen said security officers have to verify that passengers are really who they say they are. He said only certain forms of ID are acceptable, such as federal- or state-issued photo ID or foreign government-issued passports.
Officers said Rivas did not present an acceptable form of ID. As a result, they attempted to verify Rivas' identity through TSA's national operations center and various public databases.
“The officers spent nearly an hour attempting to verify this passenger's identity,” Allen said in an e-mail, “but because they were unable to do so, he was not able to proceed through the screening process.”
Rivas presented a “provisional passport” issued by the Honduran consulate specifically for nationals traveling back to Honduras. It includes Rivas' date of birth, gender, photo, fingerprint and multiple stamps issued by the Honduran government.
Jorge Medina, president of the advocacy group Hondureños Unidos in Charlotte, said the matter should be reviewed. He said U.S. officials should meet with the Honduran representatives to clear up confusion over travel documents in these cases.
“If they were investigating if he was a fugitive, that'd be fine. But if it's a normal person who presents an official document and shows that he's leaving because he no longer wants to be in the United States, then it's not fair to hold him,” Medina said.
Latino advocates in Charlotte said cases like Rivas' are common.
Angeles Ortega-Moore, executive director of the Latin American Coalition, said many undocumented immigrants want to leave the country but find themselves stuck in paperwork.
Getting the appropriate travel documents from a person's home country can take months. It can be also be expensive if they have to drive to Atlanta or Miami to visit a consulate.
If a couple have children, they'll need to compile documents such as marriage licenses, birth certificates and hospital bills to establish dual citizenship for children born in the United States. It can take even longer if one of the spouses has been arrested and is being processed for deportation.
“People think that you can just walk out,” Ortega-Moore said. “But we've heard of people who are still here after five, six, eight months of trying to leave. In the meantime, you have to eat and pay your bills.”
According to the pastor, Rivas was able to leave last Sunday by flying out of Atlanta. His paperwork was accepted there; it cost him an additional $200 to change his ticket.
Roy Crisanto, Rivas' pastor, said Rivas should never have been stopped in Charlotte. Crisanto described the interview with security officers, which he interpreted, as aggressive and inappropriate. He said guards asked questions such as “‘Where did he live? Where did he work? How did he get into the country? Tell me the truth.'”
Allen, the TSA spokesman, would not discuss the type of questions officers ask for security reasons, but he said they're questions that a passenger should be able to answer so officers can verify their identity. He added that Rivas's answers were evasive, which led to a longer interview.
“He was trying to leave,” Crisanto said. “It's just so frustrating. He had a valid ID from his country. They want to deport all these people, but when someone wants to leave on their own, they don't let them.”