Raising Cane

Rob Perez

Immigration hassles
show foreign visitors
little aloha

Hawaii pays millions of dollars annually to nurture its image as a welcoming paradise for visitors from around the world.

But some tourists are receiving not-so-friendly welcomes before they even step outside Honolulu Airport.

And as anecdotal evidence trickles in, more people are wondering whether Hawaii's tourism industry is getting a black eye because of major hassles some foreign visitors endure in trying to clear immigration and customs at the airport.

Oahu resident Les Christopher has a classic example.

On Aug. 22 Christopher went to the airport to pick up his wife, daughter and mother-in-law, all of whom were flying from Japan, where his mother-in-law lives.

His wife, Etsuko Christopher, 34, and their daughter, Mariah, 7, had no problems clearing immigration and customs. But his mother-in-law, Toyoko Masui, 65, a regular visitor to Hawaii for the past decade, was detained for about four hours, according to her family.

She had her passport and return ticket confiscated, she was fingerprinted and interrogated, and her mug shot was taken. She was ordered to return to Japan in five days, forcing her to cut short a month-long planned visit. She also was stripped of her permanent visa-waiver status.

When Masui, who doesn't speak or read English, finally left the airport's immigration area that afternoon of Aug. 22, she was trembling and in tears, according to Les Christopher.

"She got treated like a criminal," he said. "It took me several days to calm her down."

Her infraction?

In 1996 she had unknowingly stayed in Hawaii a day over her authorized 90-day limit; her departure date had been set by a Japan travel agency that makes her trip arrangements to Hawaii.

On her ensuing visits to Honolulu, no one from the government mentioned the 1996 trip.

Then in August, seven years after the fact, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection lowered the boom on Toyoko Masui for staying that extra day.

One measly day. Seven years ago. I'm surprised the feds didn't summon a SWAT team.

Christopher called to tell me about his mother-in-law's experience after he read my recent column about how immigration officers treated an elderly Japanese woman who flew to Hawaii last month to visit her daughter.

Because Yoshiko Mitamura, 69, a frequent Hawaii visitor, didn't have the proper clearance, the agency immediately sent her back to Japan without allowing her to call her daughter. The daughter, awaiting her mother's arrival in Hilo, filed a missing person's report with local police when Mitamura didn't show up as scheduled. Only after the woman arrived in Japan and called her daughter was the search canceled.

That column struck a nerve with readers, who called or e-mailed to tell me about similarly unpleasant experiences that they or their visitors have gone through at Honolulu Airport.

Sumi Dilsaver, a Japanese national married to a Hawaii resident, recalled being detained for several hours because immigration officers suspected she might have a bogus green card.

Dilsaver had trimmed by a fraction of an inch the laminated plastic corners of her green card -- not altering the actual card -- so she could easily slip it into a holder attached to her passport.

Those tiny cuts caught the attention of immigration inspectors, and the woman was detained until authorities determined the green card was authentic.

Dilsaver said she has traveled to more than 70 countries and considers Hawaii's entry processing of foreign residents, especially in customs, among the most intimidating she has encountered.

"This is one of the worst entry ports," she said.

Others echoed Dilsaver's sentiments and told me about foreign friends or relatives who no longer consider visiting Hawaii largely because of the airport hassles.

"It's a major problem, not just for Hawaii," said attorney Ronald Oldenburg, who specializes in immigration issues. "We've made rules and regulations so restrictive that it's hurting tourism for the U.S., and Hawaii probably will be one of the worst hit."

The rules covering who can and can't come into the United States and under what circumstances have understandably been tightened since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

But even before that, the immigration service has been upgrading its data system so that even minor infractions from decades ago -- information that previously wouldn't have been easily accessible -- can now pop up on airport computer terminals.

With that upgraded system, the number of foreign residents denied entry at the state's airports has increased dramatically since the terrorist attacks. Masui's 1996 violation was flagged by the improved system.

Even though Masui was traumatized by her experience, she was treated professionally and courteously by immigration employees, and the bottom line was that she had violated terms of the visa-waiver program, according to Mike Milne, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman.

As such, Milne said, immigrations officers could have sent her back to Japan on the next flight, but they used their discretion to allow her to visit her family for five days.

"We believe discretion was exercised judiciously," he said.

Immigration records show that once Masui was identified as an immigration violator, she was processed in about an hour, according to Milne.

The fact that the system was able to flag her violation from seven years ago indicates the system was working as it should, he added. "We see that as a success story. I'm sure the family of Ms. Masui didn't see it that way."

I don't see it that way, either.

Masui certainly was no terrorist threat, and her 7-year-old violation -- a minor administrative infraction, not a criminal one -- was unintentional and, when you get right down to it, not even her fault.

What harm would have resulted by allowing her to stay the full month?

The concern for Hawaii's tourism industry is that incidents such as this one will become more commonplace, especially now that immigration officials have a beefed-up data system.

And as word spreads of such incidents, Hawaii's reputation as a friendly and welcoming tropical paradise will be tarnished, not something the industry needs as it struggles to attract foreign visitors to pre-September 2001 levels.

"I would look at it as a red flag," said Fredrick Collison, professor of transportation and marketing at the University of Hawaii's School of Travel Industry Management. "Clearly, the level of security has to be higher than it once was. But to me, it's a matter of how you treat people."

That's precisely the point.

If you think Masui and Mitamura, the two elderly Japanese women, were treated fairly, then no big deal. But if you think they were treated unfairly, it is a big deal.

From the two women's perspective -- and that's what matters for the tourism industry -- it was indeed a big deal. The frequent Hawaii visitors were so traumatized by their airport ordeals that they may never come back, their families say.

Anyone think we don't have a problem?

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Star-Bulletin columnist Rob Perez writes on issues
and events affecting Hawaii. Fax 529-4750, or write to
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu 96813. He can also be reached
by e-mail at:


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