The plight of the illegal immigrant through the eyes of an illegal tourist

Czech embassy

When I was getting ready to apply for my visa to live and work in the Czech Republic, I had already spent almost two months in the Schengen Zone. My immigration lady assured me that plenty of people overstay their 90-day tourist visa while waiting for their residence permit. But I didn’t want to take the chance. So I applied for my Czech visa at the end of July and flew back home to Miami for a month to avoid overstaying. I came back expecting to get notified any minute that my visa was ready.

It wasn’t.

One morning I woke up in Prague and looked through my Google calendar and did some math and to my surprise and dismay, I realized I had just reached the 90th day of my tourist visa.

I had half a day of panic. I considered leaving immediately and not returning until my visa was ready. But I had nowhere to go and no plan. Plus, I had already planned some trips out of Prague, and I’ll be damned if anything is going to come between me and my vacations, even immigration laws.

So I decided to overstay my tourist visa while I waited for my residence permit to be approved. Before I go on, I should probably say that this is not an endorsement of this behavior. It was a huge and unnecessary risk that I don’t recommend.

There are a lot of things you have to think about when you’ve overstayed your visa. For one, what are the penalties of being an illegal immigrant?

I can be a very anxious person and I like to be as informed as possible, even though information usually makes my anxiety worse instead of better. So I looked up countless horror stories. Evidently, the penalty for getting caught overstaying your visa ranges from a hefty ($1000+) fine to deportation. They don’t even deport you to your home country; they send you back to wherever you came from. So if they catch you overstaying after you’ve just returned from a vacation in Russia, they will ship your ass back to Russia on your own dime.

And as luck would have it, I was heading to some of the strictest countries in the Schengen Zone immediately after making this decision.

First, I went to Germany for Oktoberfest. I went by car and though I knew there wouldn’t be border control, I was pretty nervous. I packed everything I owned while we crossed the border in the event that I got deported while I was drunk out of my mind in Munich. Nothing happened.

Then I had a trip planned to Scandinavia with my friends from home. I flew into Copenhagen, and once again, I knew I wouldn’t have to go through passport control since the Czech Republic, Denmark, and Sweden are all in Schengen Zone. Once you’ve crossed the border into one of the countries, there is no reason to look at your passport until you are leaving the Schengen Zone.

Sure enough, I hopped on a plane in Prague and didn’t have to show my passport in any official capacity. I arrived in Denmark, ecstatic, both to see my friends and because I had just arrived in my 3rd European country without getting caught. (It’s the little things.)

Then while walking through the main train station in Copenhagen, I was greeted with the sign that would change that.

“All people traveling to Sweden must have a valid passport to be allowed in the country.”

Some background, for those of you that are not from around here and are living under a rock. There is a civil war going on in Syria. Many innocent people are fleeing to other countries to escape the threat of harm or death. Unfortunately for the refugees, many of whom I’ve seen out in the streets with their families in Germany and France not hurting anyone, terrorists are also infiltrating Europe and wreaking a lot of havoc.

Dusseldorf kids
But these kids are not terrorists. They just want to play ball somewhere they are safe.

So some European countries have become a little skittish about their borders. And in what threatens the whole idea of the Schengen Zone, which hinges on borderless travel within the countries in the zone, Sweden put up a temporary border. Their border control applies only to passengers traveling across the Øresund Bridge, which is less than 5 miles long and connects Denmark and Sweden in less than 30 minutes.

As a result of this development, which I became aware of only when I was already in Denmark, I had to make some last minute adjustments. I decided to fly to Stockholm instead of taking the train into Malmo that I intended to take with my friends. The last minute flight cost me $78, which is not including the $60 I lost on the flight from Malmo to Stockholm that I had booked in advance and did not end up taking.

But at the end of the day, I made it through my 10-day Scandinavian vacation and I didn’t get deported, which were my two primary goals.

And from what I was told, the checks on the other side of the Swedish border were not that serious. They just verified their identities and did not even stamp the passports.

Meanwhile, I made it in and out of Sweden without anyone so much as looking at my passport. The fact that Sweden enacted these checks is a huge inconvenience to locals and tourists who have to face border scrutiny for no reason, and in the end, it’s not that effective. Because if someone wants to get into your country without proper documentation, they can just take a one-hour flight instead of a 30-minute train, like I did.

I understand the fear, and I understand the financial burden and potential dangers that refugees can pose for any nation. That’s why I understand why people would support calls for a border wall between Mexico and the United States, for instance.

The problem is the practical cost versus the effectiveness. To avoid having someone scrutinize my passport stamps too closely, I spent an extra $78, but I got into and out of Sweden without a problem. Meanwhile, the border checks on the Øresund Bridge cost Swedish taxpayers an estimated $1 million a day. And let’s be honest, if I had chanced it and taken the train anyway, I probably still would have gotten in.

Because to quote Jeff Goldblum, “Life finds a way.” And so do refugees; unlike me, they have no other option.

The difference is that when an asshole like me gets caught sneaking into your country, the penalty is that I get shipped back to the US. To my family, my friends, my home. If a Syrian mother and her 4-year-old son get caught sneaking in, they get sent back to this:

Syrian Refugees
Image from TECS International.

And therein lies the ethical costs of such measures. People in privileged nations are spending a ridiculous amount of money and resources to not help people who need help. Even the Afghan refugee famously photographed by Steve McCurry is currently facing up to 14 years in prison for using a false identity to try to obtain Pakistani residency. How fucking sad that we will pay money to see her captivating face in an art gallery, but we wouldn’t offer her and her family refuge from truly hopeless living conditions.

Her name is Sharbat Gula.
Her name is Sharbat Gula.

And I’m not oblivious to my good fortune. Because when I was 7 years old, I was a helpless child escaping a country where I would forever be oppressed by a communist government. Where the only thing I had to eat was the weekly ration of milk and cornmeal that we had to pick worms out of, and if I was lucky, a little bit of ham that my mom was able to barter to get for me.

So when I was getting my Czech visa (what I like to call my one-year European tourist visa) affixed to my passport, I felt just like I did when I got my American citizenship in college. Fortunate and grateful for the welcome.

I strongly believe that choice determines how far you go in life. But fate determines where you start.

The only thing separating a stylish Swedish immigration officer or a middle class American who wants to ban Muslims from entering the US from a poor migrant trying to escape a war-torn country is luck. If you’re reading this, you’re probably fortunate that you are not that desperate migrant. But don’t forget that you could be. And if you were, you’d probably want people to have a little compassion.