‘Have you recently had an abortion?’ Australian transiting through US questioned then deported | US immigration


An Australian woman who planned to house-sit in Canada during a holiday has said she was detained, fingerprinted, interrogated about her abortion history and quickly deported during a stopover in the US.

Madolline Gourley, a Brisbane resident, says she was treated like a criminal during her transit through Los Angeles on 30 June, where she was detained at the border due to suspicions about her intention to house- and cat-sit in exchange for accommodation while holidaying in Canada.

Gourley was held in a detention room, interrogated twice, patted down, fingerprinted and photographed.

At one point a US border official asked Gourley, who was wearing a loose-fitting dress, whether she was pregnant. The same question was repeated as she was moved between rooms. When she again told the US officials she was not pregnant, Gourley was asked whether she had had an abortion.

“She was walking me from one room to the next, and she asked the pregnancy question again,” Gourley told Guardian Australia. “I don’t know if she had forgotten, or she wanted to work out if I was lying or something. “I said no, and she looked at me again and said, ‘Have you recently had an abortion?’

“I don’t know the thought process behind that … I just thought, ‘What’s the relevance of that to my situation?’”

Gourley was told she would not be granted entry to the US and would be deported on the next flight back to Brisbane, five hours after arriving, because she had breached the conditions of the visa waiver program, which applies to citizens of Australia and many other countries making short visits to the US for business or tourism, but not regular employment.

A spokesperson for US Customs and Border Protection confirmed that the visa waiver program prohibited applicants from engaging “in any type of employment or get compensation for services rendered”. The rule, which appears to prohibit house-sitting for free accommodation, took Gourley completely by surprise and she said she now wanted to warn other Australians of the consequences of volunteering to house-sit or pet-sit in the US or neighbouring countries.

Asked about Gourley’s treatment, the CBP spokesperson said it took “allegations of unprofessional behaviour seriously”.

“CBP regrets any inconvenience or unpleasantness a passenger may have experienced during his/her CBP processing,” the spokesperson said. “We take allegations of unprofessional behavior seriously. CBP has standard procedures for handling allegations of misconduct. If we confirm employee misconduct, we will take firm and appropriate action to correct the situation.”

Madolline Gourley
Gourley was on her way from Australia to Canada to volunteer through the house- and cat-sitting website TrustedHouseSitters

Gourley’s is the latest horror story to emerge from Australians who have briefly transited through the US on their way to neighbouring countries.

Last month the Guardian reported that Jack Dunn, a Victorian student, had been denied entry to the US, cavity searched, sent to prison alongside criminals and then deported. He had breached a little-known rule requiring those entering on the visa waiver to have booked either a return flight or onward travel to a country that does not border the US.

Gourley has previously travelled through the US while volunteering through the same house- and cat-sitting service, TrustedHousesitters, without any problem.

She said she was initially quizzed about why she was returning so soon after spending two and a half months in the US between January and April, travel that fitted well within the 90-day window allowed for each visit.

Travellers granted entry to the US under the program may move on to neighbouring countries (Canada, Mexico and nearby islands) and then return to the US, as long as the whole trip does not exceed 90 days, the advice on the US State Department website says.

Sign up to receive an email with the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning

Anyone wishing to visit the US under the program must first obtain an Esta (electronic system for travel authorization), which entitles them to board a flight to the US, but does not guarantee entry on arrival.

Gourley said officials seemed to be suspicious that boarding passes for her connecting flights, to Philadelphia and Montreal, had not been printed when she checked in in Australia.

She said she was asked to hand over bank statements, which she did. She also showed officials the house-sitting website she was using to prove she wasn’t being paid.

Gourley also told them she intended to come back to the US after a month in Canada, well within the 90-day window. She also had a return ticket to Australia.

She has complained to the US embassy and US homeland security, and has sent messages to her local MP, Libby Watson-Brown, and the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong.

“Navigating the government here is difficult, but navigating the government there is 10 times harder,” she said, adding: “I wouldn’t be the only traveller on an Esta visiting the States on a holiday/vacation who would be house-and pet-sitting through websites like TrustedHousesitters to cut accommodation costs,” she said.

Watson-Brown said the Australian government needed to do more to provide clear and accurate information to Australians about visa waiver schemes of this type to ensure they were aware of the risks associated with transiting through places like the US. But she said, regardless of the rules, Gourley’s treatment was unacceptable.

“Regardless of the USA’s particular regulations regarding pet-sitting, Madolline Gourley was subjected to completely unacceptable behaviour from US border agents,” she said.

“Madolline Gourley deserves an apology from US Customs and Border Protection, and clarification on how this impacts her future travel to the US.”

Information on the Australian government’s Smartraveller website warns citizens in general terms that US authorities “have broad powers when deciding if you’re eligible to enter”.

Travellers must provide an onward or return ticket and show they have enough money to support themselves, it says, and should be prepared to answer questions about the purpose of the visit, how long they plan to stay, where they will stay and their ties to Australia.

“If you provide false information, or can’t satisfy the officials you’re visiting for a valid reason, you can be refused entry,” the advice says.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *