Pair without valid visas ‘treated like terrorists’ in US

24 December 2004
By John Breslin

ONE of two cousins detained in the United States for two months after being caught without a valid visa described how they were transported by plane, shackled and surrounded by armed guards.
“It was like something out of Con Air. You’d swear we were terrorists,” said Alan Whelan after he and cousin Cliff, both 23, returned home to Waterford yesterday.

The pair were detained after being arrested by border guards in Montana. They overstayed their three-month holiday visas and after being arrested were held in a number of detention centres.

They arrived back in Ireland at 8am off a flight from Chicago.

Speaking from his home in Ballybeg in the city, Alan Whelan said he was delighted to be home to spend Christmas with his family. He was met at the front door by his father Pat, sister Mandy, cousins and friends. His mother Anne had gone to do shopping for his dinner.

He described how the two were caught. “When we were on the train, the border guards came on and asked if we were citizens. I thought that if I was honest they’d let us through and I said we weren’t citizens,” said Alan.

“He asked for our passports and then they took us off the train and into jail.

“Being in jail and in the detention centres was a nightmare. We were transported from one to another and had to spend 15 hours in a bus, handcuffed, and then 30 of us had to sleep on the detention centre floor.

“The next day we were all put on a plane, with 50 US marshals pointing guns.”

Local TD John Deasy raised the case with the US Ambassador James Kenny and there were even calls for him to appear before an Oireachtas committee.

The pair had been told they could expect to remain in detention for 90 days, so they were delighted to hear they were to return home earlier and in time for Christmas.

Alan said: “I didn’t think we’d be out for Christmas. We met some people who were detained for four years, mainly South Americans and people from the Middle East. We were told the minimum we’d probably be held would be 90 days so it’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant, to be home.”

Alan explained how they were caught. “When we were in Boston, the other Irish people said there should be no trouble with visas unless you got into trouble. We were going by train to Seattle but the Irish in Boston said that even though it would be close to the border, they didn’t think there would be trouble and that the border guards never get on the train. But they do every day.

“Don’t get on a train in Montana!

“Seriously, they don’t seem to bother people in the cities but if you travel around, especially by train, you could get caught. I can’t go back for 10 years but I don’t think I’ll go back anyway. I’m really looking forward to a few drinks and some nice Christmas food. The food in the cells was like chicken feed. And you’d be wrecked trying to get to sleep, it was like a nightmare thinking we wouldn’t be home for Christmas, but now we are and it’s brilliant.” [

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