It was Avionne Longware’s first time in a foreign country, he says.
“And I’m watching everybody go, like, get their passports since it’s my first time travelling,” says Longware. “I’m listening, trying to make sure I have everything ready.”
He re-checked that all of his documents were in order. He wanted to be sure to give the right information, he says.
When he reached the top of the queue at the border at Dublin airport, he was questioned by border-control officers – then had his phone seized, was threatened with jail, and was put on a flight back to the United States.
“They put me right on a turnaround flight, like right after I landed, I had to fly back. You don’t realise how much that hurts, man,” he says.
In 2019, the last normal year of figures, almost 7,500 people were refused entry at Ireland’s borders, up 55 percent from the roughly 4,800 who were refused the year before.
And those people, like Longware – who was travelling more recently, on 16 May of this year – have no immediate and simple route for appeal.
Stephen Kirwan, an associate solicitor at the law firm KOD Lyons, says that airport immigration officers have broad and unchecked powers. If they make unfair decisions, there is no one else there to appeal to, says Kirwan.
It’s not to say that officers are routinely abusing their power but there’s a lack of supervision, he says. “And people are wrongfully detained or returned without proper due process.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that ever decision made by a member of border management to refuse somebody leave to land is approved by a higher-grade officer. That’s “to ensure that all decisions to refuse a person are in line with the legislation and appropriate”, they said.
Before he was put on an outbound flight, an immigration officer got Longware a letter telling him why he had been refused entry.
“The non-national is not in a position to support himself or herself and any accompanying dependents,” it said.
“There is reason to believe that the non-national intends to enter the State for purposes other than those expressed by the non-national,” it also said.
Of the nearly 7,500 travellers refused at the country’s border in 2019, 95 were refused because the immigration officer thought they couldn’t support themselves.
Meanwhile, 149 border-crossers were refused because the immigration officer thought they intended to get a job but didn’t have a work permit.
Longware had travelled to stay with his friends for three months, he says. United States citizens are allowed to come for 90 days visa-free as tourists.
Longware is a Black American hip-hop musician, and at the border, an immigation officer had asked him if he was planning to work, says Longware.
Longware said he’d told them about his plans to write music with a friend on the same label as him, not seeing it as something that needed a work permit. “Like it’s not a job that’s gonna pay me.”
“I didn’t travel 16 hours to work in a country I don’t have citizenship of, I know you need a work permit for that,” says Longware.
His friends’ mum had funded the trip and were going to host him at their home, says Longware.
He tried to call his friends’ mother, Mary Helen Hensley, so that she could tell the officers how she was funding his stay but they took his phone away, he says.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice says that a person refused leave to land may have their belongings, and phone, taken away from them.
Depending on the circumstances, “an Immigration Officer may allow a passenger use of their phone in order to assist them in establishing their reason for seeking entry to the state”, they said.
Says Longware: “I felt powerless because I know how the story goes when a Black man doesn’t have his phone in a situation when they threatened me with jail.”
Hensley says no one from the airport contacted her to see if Longware’s story checked out. She contacted them later and they were dismissive of her, she says.
“I have the call logs. You can see that the first call is at 10:38, where I’ve gotten a frantic phone call from Avionne, who is going on the jetway,” says Hensley.
Longware only got his phone back to call Hensley after he agreed to fly out of the country. He had to pick between flying back and prison, he says.
Hensley didn’t mind funding Longware’s trip because he comes from a low-income family from Los Angeles’s “housing projects” and couldn’t afford it, she says.
Longware had a negative Covid test and a mandatory hotel quarantine booking, paid for by Hensley, she says.
Hensley said she called the airport immigration but they said they couldn’t speak to her because she was a third party.
She objected to being called the third-party when she was paying for everything and should have been called so she could do something, she says. “He was just so rude.”
Under Section 7 of the Immigration Act 2004, immigration officers can search someone’s possessions for security or immigration compliance without a warrant.
The law covers digital devices because the information on them can be converted into other tangible forms, including documents, photographs, videos, and written matter.
Failure to comply is an offence under those regulations.
In February 2020, Tracy Yeung was heavily scrutinised by border-control officers because there were texts on her phone that they found questionable, she says.
“I felt like he thought I was lying from the start, that I had something to hide so therefore, whatever, I was saying, I felt like it didn’t matter,” she says.
Yeung had lived in Dublin on a two-year working-holiday visa and left the country in November 2019, a few months before her residence permit expired, she says.
Two weeks before departure, she’d met a man who she thought could be a potential boyfriend, but left regardless.
“A few months later, I decided to come back to see if that could work out because life’s funny like that,” she says.
She arrived at the airport, painfully jetlagged and disorientated, she says. Yeung told a border control officer that she was coming to stay for three months as a tourist – which were her true intention, she says.
She had booked a few days in a hostel for accommodation because her friend was looking to rent her a place, but she says the officer was not satisfied with that arrangement.
The agent then took her phone and went through it while she sat waiting for “what felt like 20 to 25 minutes”, Yeung says.
Finally, the officer called her and asked what her job in Canada was.
Yeung was unemployed then, she says. “I guess that was a huge thing for them like nothing connects you back to home, kind of thing.”
Also, on her phone there were texts to a friend, venting frustrations about having to move back in with her mother, which may have raised suspicions that she was looking for a new life here, she says.
The officer had checked all the texts and was convinced that her love interest was an official boyfriend because they had stayed in touch, she says.
The man she was supposed to meet had suggested in one text that she could perhaps work in Dublin and get paid in cash during her stay.
Yeung says she hadn’t said anything in agreement. She had texted back, though, something like, “maybe I could do some tutoring”, she says.
Because she was out of sorts due to jet lag, the questioning doubly stressed her and she began to shake, she says.
The officer pointed out that she was shaking, she says, and seemed to take it as a sign she was nervous.
The officer let her in for a week in the end, rather than for three months. They said she would be deported otherwise, says Yeung, who has a government job in Canada now.
Yeung barely did anything that week, she says. “I was walking around the city thinking, I’m not welcome here, and I don’t want to be back anytime soon.”
The thorough phone inspection felt especially intrusive because she had private photos and videos on the device, she says.
Treated “Like a Criminal”
While border control officers have a weighty responsibility to protect the borders, searching travellers’ possessions should be conducted in a non-intrusive manner, says a spokesperson for the Immigrant Council of Ireland.
The council is concerned about the “undue intrusiveness into the personal belongings of a person seeking to enter the State and the wide-ranging powers that immigration officers have, often based on individual discretion”, they said.
Border control officers’ search powers are a subject of an ongoing lawsuit against the Justice Department, says Kirwan, the solicitor at KOD Lyons.
Akram V. Minister for Justice involves a Pakistani man with a holiday visa, who wasn’t let in based on text conversations on his phone that officers said proved he was planning to marry someone for Irish residency.
While still in custody, Akram tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain an injunction against his deportation.
“He maintained that irrelevant considerations were taken into account. He also had a complaint about his detention at Cloverhill Prison,” says Kirwan.
While acknowledging that being sent to prison was not pleasant, a judge dismissed the case, but it is currently before the court of appeal, Kirwan says.
Kirwan says that “Sending immigration detainees to Cloverhill prison and treating them like a criminal or a suspected criminal is wrong”.
“I just don’t see how it’s compliant with the European Convention of Human Rights,” he says.
People stopped at the border should be held in detention centres inside the airport, he said.
In 2019, ex-Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan, the Fine Gael TD,told the Dáil that the Gardaí were refurbishing existing buildings at Dublin Airport to open a Garda station and detention facilities in May that year.
Last Friday, a spokesperson for An Garda Síochána said that “The Dublin Airport Garda Station has custody facilities but these facilities are not yet operational.”
“An Garda Síochána does not have a dedicated immigration centre,” they said.
People like Longware – and Akram and Yeung – have no recourse to appeal the decision to an independent body at the airport, says Kirwan, the solicitor at KOD Lyons.
That’s where most problems arise, as it leaves people feeling misjudged or mistreated, he says. “There is a lack of independent oversight.”
“Garda officers or immigration officers do a very tough job, and this is not to criticise them for doing their job, but the lack of oversight is a problem,” says Kirwan.
Kirwan thinks a statutory office should supervise the work of border-control officers: an entity similar to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC), which independently reviews decisions made by the Gardaí, he says.
“What is important is that the body is quasi judicial and fully independent,” he said, like the Social Welfare Appeals Office or GSOC.
Lack of oversight can lead to abuse of power with no consequences, he says. “Unfair decisions being made without any accord to principles of natural and constitutional justice.”
“Also a lack of legal certainty and transparency which are key in any society based on the rule of law,” says Kirwan.
Hensley, the woman who had funded Longware’s stay, says she had spoken to independent TD Denis Naughten about his case, and he has been in contact with the Minister for Justice.
They told him, she says, that things were “totally at the discretion of the immigration officer”.
Naughten said in an email that he had tried to get the Justice Department’s greenlight for Longware’s hassle-free return. “Such assurance could not be provided,” he said.
Hensley bought another ticket for Longware to fly back on Wednesday 26 May.
She emailed the border control unit in advance with all the information this time.
They emailed back, saying they will pass on the information to the officer on duty that day and may phone her if needed.
Longware is convinced that he was a victim of racial profiling on Sunday 16 May.
“Most definitely. I was the only Black man in the airport. I’m like, why aren’t you helping me, just like you helped the six other White people in front of me?”
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that while the department does not comment on individual cases, it rejects the allegation that racial profiling has any part to play in cosnidering if a person can enter the state.
“Each case is considered on its own merits in line with the legislation that is in place,” they said.
[UPDATE: This article was updated on 26 May at 8.10pm to include further responses from the Department of Justice.]