Going through customs can be unnerving and problematic for everyone. You've got to deal with long lines, uncertainty over what's considered a contraband item, and the possibility of being denied entry to the country you're visiting. But it can be even worse for ex-cons. Just ask the so-called Hot Felon, Jeremy Meeks. He was reportedly denied entry into the UK last month, even though he'd secured a work permit, was scheduled for a series of magazine shoots, and had permission from his parole officer to travel.
Before a recent trip I took to Ireland, I was sweating it. I'd heard all types of stories about ex-cons getting denied entry to foreign countries. Most of the chatter centered on Canada, Great Britain, America, and Australia. All the talk had me searching online forums. But the information provided was confusing, vague, and open ended.
I had my passport, had served my time, and was even off probation. But due to the unavailability of any concrete info on the subject, I was expecting the worst. I'd gone to Jamaica the year before—my first trip out of the country since getting off probation—and despite being flagged and detained at customs when I came back into the US, getting into Jamaica went off without a hitch. I was praying that my Ireland trip would proceed the same way.
Since 9/11, it's become much harder… My experience with Australia and the US has taught me never to admit to having a criminal conviction on my entry documents.—Greg Newbold
Rules vary from country to country, but, generally, certain convictions—especially international drug trafficking and sex-tourism charges—will preclude a person from getting a US passport. Anyone still on probation, under court supervision, or facing a new charge usually cannot leave the country. Most countries have rules in place that state ex-cons need to obtain a special waiver in advance of arrival, but countries whose only requirement for admission is a passport usually do not screen for criminal records. It can be difficult to get any clear information for specific countries, because laws are generally enforced at the discretion of border agents. While one ex-con might enter a country without a hitch, another could be denied entry.
"Everybody is nervous about customs." Dr. Stephen Richards, the founder of the Convict Criminology, a group of ex-con professors, told me. "The difference with ex-cons or people with felony convictions is that we've [heard about] these experiences where different people have been denied entry to different countries." Dr. Richards is an ex-con who served almost a decade in federal prison in the 80s for weed and became a criminology professor when he got out.
"We had an ex-con professor from New Zealand who flew into Los Angeles and was denied entry. They put him on a plane and flew him back. We had another member of our group from the United States that wasn't allowed into Japan. He didn't get out of the airport and was locked up in a jail cell in the Tokyo airport and put on the next plane back to the US. They denied him for a drug conviction that was 30 years old."
Most of the people in the group haven't experienced these problems, but just because its not an issue on one trip, doesn't preclude a problem in the future.
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"Coming out of prison, I was worried I wouldn't be able to get a passport. Researching this issue, I couldn't find any info at all," Grant Tietjen, who served two years for drugs in the early 2000s and is now an assistant professor at St. Ambrose University, told me. "I got my passport in 2008 because I was going on a trip to Denmark and Sweden for a conference related to my studies. I had the same fear and anxiety as other ex-cons. They asked me what my purpose was, I stated business, and that was that."
"They are super strict up here in Canada, if you have a criminal history that's where most people are getting denied," Matt Hendler, a consultant with FW Canada, a law firm specializing in Canadian immigration, told me. "The most common offense that results in denial to Canada is a DUI."
Canadian law says someone can enter the country ten years after the completion of their sentence, as long as that's the only thing on their record. But the time limit doesn't apply to all crimes.
"Lets say someone committed a sexual crime or violence or a fraud charge or financial offense for a large sum," Handler says. "Those people, the offense just doesn't go away. You're going to have to go through a formal application to resolve it." Since I was thinking about a trip to Vancouver, I asked Hendler about my case. Would a first-time, nonviolent drug offender be allowed into Canada? "In your case, you'd have to go through with an application." Hendler answered. "Time would not play a part in your case. You'd have to file something called Criminal Rehabilitation, an application to resolve your inadmissibility." Which seems like a lot of red tape, especially given that some ex-cons enter without complications.
"I first traveled to the US in 1989," Greg Newbold, a professor of social science at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand who served time for a drug charge in his country as a young man, told me. "Prior to that, I had little knowledge about problems people face traveling overseas with convictions. It wasn't such a big deal in the 1980s. You could get around any problems by not disclosing that you had convictions on your arrival card.
"But since 9/11, it's become much harder. The only problems I've had is with the US and Australia. The mounting problem of terrorism and refugees has caused Australia to tighten its procedures recently, and I'm not sure how easy or difficult it will be henceforth. My experience with Australia and the US has taught me never to admit to having a criminal conviction on my entry documents." I called the Irish Consulate in Chicago before my trip to get some clarification on whether or not I'd be allowed in as an ex-con. The consulate said something to the effect, "If your country issued you a passport to travel, then who are we to deny you entry." That got rid of some of my jitters, and upon arrival, I was allowed into Ireland without a second glance.
"The length of time from the conviction probably has something to do with it," Tietjen said. "But its kind of random the experiences that people have. There is no method to it. Someone will get flagged or hit. But the rest of the time, no one does." With ex-cons still a marginalized—if growing—group, it seems arbitrariness will continue to rule the day.
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