Like other sophomores returning to GW at the end of the summer, Branden Thompson was preoccupied with worries like moving into his residence hall and meeting his new roommate.
But unlike most of his classmates, he also had to find a lawyer to represent him in an impending Aug. 31 deportation hearing with the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Arlington, Va.
Thompson flew to San Francisco Aug. 19 from his home in Manila, Philippines, en route to GW, unaware of the ordeal that awaited him on the ground.
The events that would unfold over the next few hours would culminate in an investigation into the validity of his citizenship.
Thompson said his troubles began earlier in the summer when he was traveling with a friend in Europe. The two met in Frankfurt, Germany, and embarked on a one-month tour of Europe, stopping in Berlin, Munich, Venice, and finally, Barcelona. That’s where his problems began.
As they walked down Las Ramblas in Barcelona, Thompson said he and his friend were approached by a strange man.
“He came up to us, and offered to teach me the `Spanish soccer victory dance,'” Thompson said. “And so we danced and shouted, `Ole!, Ole!, Ole!’ and then we walked off.”
Five minutes later, as they were heading into a disco, Thompson reached into his pocket and found it empty. Missing was his wallet, which contained a $100 traveler’s check, a 5,000 peseta note, his GWorld Card, a Maryland driver’s license, a Citibank Visa card, an ATM card and his Social Security card.
Thompson’s troubles were far from over, however. The next morning his luggage was stolen in a train station.
“I sat down with my luggage, which was all within reach,” he said. “I checked the train schedule to see if there were any changes, and when I turned around 30 seconds later, my bags were gone.”
At 7:15 p.m. Aug. 19, Thompson’s plane arrived in San Francisco. He reached into his pocket to reassure himself that his passport was in its usual place – it was. He had carried it around for about a year and it was tarnished from wear and tear, its laminated cover was peeling.
He approached the baggage carousel and picked up his new luggage. After getting his bags, Thompson walked to the U.S. customs desk designated for U.S. citizens only.
A customs officer at the desk asked for his name and passport, Thompson said. The customs officer then asked him how long he had been a citizen of the United States.
Born in Manila, Thompson was deemed Filipino, but his American father had registered him at the U.S. consul as a citizen. When he turned 18, Thompson declared himself an American citizen.
After filling out a customs declaration form, Thompson said he waited for the officer to stamp the form and the passport.
Instead he marked the form with a big “I,” meaning “immigrant.” The passport and the form were placed in a yellow plastic pouch and Thompson was told to go to the immigration desk.
Thompson, a frequent traveler, said he knew something was wrong. At the immigration desk, Thompson gave the pouch to an INS officer, who then took into the back of the office.
“I’ll be right out,” the officer said politely.
But moments later, the officer returned, storming into the room where Thompson was waiting.
Holding up Thompson’s passport he yelled, “OK, now tell me your real name!”
Thompson was shocked.
“I’d only heard that kind of stuff in movies,” he said. But that was only the beginning of the officer’s interrogation.
“Look buster, the game’s up! You tell me your real name,” he said. “See this document? You forged it! Now you tell me your real name!”
When Thompson finally regained his ability to speak, he told the officer his name – “Branden Thompson.”
Thompson said the officer refused to believe him and the heated exchange went on for five minutes.
Citing the worn passport as proof, the officer accused Thompson of forging the document. Thompson said he tried to explain that it had become worn from being carried around for so long and that his explanation had been sufficient for many customs officials at other locations in the past.
The officer was not convinced.
“I’m trying to help you,” Thompson recalled the officer saying. “I’m trying to send you home so we don’t have to jail you here.”
Thompson had no other way of proving his citizenship – he had not had time to replace the IDs that were stolen with his wallet in Spain.
The officer repeatedly ordered Thompson to “confess,” threatening him with a night in jail – possibly much longer – if he was found guilty of tampering with federal documents.
“This isn’t just crossing the border,” Thompson remembers the officer saying.
Thompson, who had never been in trouble with the law before, said he was even more shocked when he was handcuffed to a bench as several officers frisked him and began an extensive line of questioning. Thompson’s pockets were emptied and his bags were searched.
“I was so shocked that I couldn’t protest,” Thompson said. “I was just amazed that I was handcuffed and so I meekly asked if I could make a phone call, apparently a basic right. They said, `No, absolutely not. You get your phone call tonight in jail, when we’re through with you.’ “
He described one security officer who stood in front of him, covering his holster with one hand. “Your accomplice called,” the officer said. “The game’s up. Why don’t you just confess now?”
Finally, after five hours of interrogation, Thompson said the officers gave up on him.
At midnight, they took the cuffs off and let him catch his 12:20 a.m. flight. But they kept his passport, “deferring” him to Washington for a hearing.
Though relieved, Thompson knew the hearing would only prolong his present predicament and be an added pressure during his first two weeks of school.
Through a lawyer friend of his father, Thompson was referred to immigration law specialist Gordon Lee. Together, they gathered the necessary documents for the Aug. 31 hearing, including Thompson’s parents’ original birth certificates and his school records dating back to ninth grade.
“I really felt like I was walking around with no identity, no citizenship, no nothing, with the possibility of either being deported to a strange, foreign land or a prison sentence for tampering with federal documents if I were convicted,” Thompson said.
Thompson reported to the INS building in Arlington with his attorney Aug. 31.
After a 15-minute hearing, the senior INS official said, “Although we cannot apologize or account for the actions of our officers in San Francisco, you have sufficiently proven to us your identity, and I am admitting you into the United States as a citizen on this day, Aug. 31, 1998.”
She stamped Thompson’s court order, stamped his passport, handed it back to him and said, “Welcome home, Mr. Thompson.”