25 February 2006

French National Police Bar Possible Terrorist Entry To St. Barths!

A young woman's effort to gain entry to St. Barths without proper travel documents was thwarted by alert agents of the French National Police yesterday. The attractive female alien was apprehended, kept in custody for two hours, and then escorted by Gendarmes to a waiting Air Caraibe airplane and deported to St. Maarten (Netherlands), her port of embarkation. The deportation occurred despite the efforts of a so-called renowned international lawyer.

Twenty four hours later, the poorly documented alien, one Jillian London, was permitted to make a lawful entry to St. Barths after the intervention of the "Head of State" in St. Martin (France).

Here are the facts:

Once upon a time, entry to most Caribbean islands was possible for U.S. citizens presenting a valid driver's license. That is still true is some places, but not in the French West Indies. For those, a valid U.S. passport is now necessary. U.S. passports issued to children have only a five year duration instead of the ten years for adults, and prior to December 31, 2005, the French islands (St. Barths, St. Martin, Martinique, and Guadalupe) would admit a child accompanied by a properly documented parent, if the child presented an otherwise regular passport that had expired within the preceding five years.

So when Jesse and Freda prepared to come down here, they checked the kids passports, found both had expired the year before, and called Continental Airlines, their carrier, to confirm the five year grace rule. Continental so confirmed it. For reasons irrelevant to this tale, Jesse came down with Zachary on Monday. At Newark airport, the desk agent at Continental spied the expired passport, made a call, and confirmed Zach was okay for another four years. Jesse and he flew to St. Maarten, thence to St. Barths, and Zach was admitted without incident.

But when Freda and Jillian arrived on the same flight a day later, Jillian was detained in St. Barths.

Here's the scene at the St. Barths airport: The single landing strip runs east-west, and the two-story terminal building is on the south edge of the strip. Arriving passengers are guided by signs to an entrance area at the east end of the building. In the arrival area, baggage rotates on a single small carousel to the left, and the passengers are guided by a metal railing to a window on the right, where one or two Gendarmes are on duty to check in arriving passengers. The Gendarmes work in a 12 foot square room, nicely lighted, air conditioned, equipped with phones, faxes, etc. The sliding glass window at which passports are presented is on the eastern wall of their room. The northern wall is a plate glass window looking out onto the runway, and the western wall, which bears the entry door, is glassed so that the gendarmes can observe the departure lounge.

Jess had gone down to meet the plane. When he saw what was happening, he got involved in the discussion with the Gendarmes refusing entry to Jillian. He made no more progress than Freda had, and Jess came back to the house to get an overnight bag so he could accompany Jillian back to St. Maarten. He told me the story, and I joined him in the trip back to the airport, which is about six minutes from my house.

When we went into the Gendarmes' room—yes, they let me in—three people were crying: Freda, Jillian, and a woman of a certain age, with a boot cast on her recently-broken right foot, who was also being detained because of an expired U.S. passport. She had arrived two hours before Freda and had also made no progress with Moe and Curly.

The three stoical London men were grim but calm. Zach, (who, by the way, is a dead ringer for the "Flying Tomato" of Olympic snowboading fame) did no talking, just a lot of barefoot pacing dressed in his board shorts and t shirt. He was no less effective than his father and grandfather.

On our way into the Gendarmes' room, Jesse and I had been warned by sympathetic airline personnel and the yellow-shirted guys from St. Barts Services, that once these gendarmes say "No," it's "No." They do not ever change their minds, and could not reverse themselves if they wanted to. They have zero discretion.

In internal discussions, we referred to the Gendarmes as Moe and Curly. Moe is 6'2' and hits the scales at a good 240 pounds. This was not a Dunkin Donuts 240-- Moe did not have an ounce of fat that I could see. His uniform was immaculate at the end of a long day, and the gun on his hip looked very large. Curly, about 5'9' was equally spiffy, and similarly armed. Because he is considerably smaller than his partner, his gun looked considerably larger. He was the "bad guy" here and the consensus is that Moe would probably have made believe he did not see what he saw but for Curly's presence. Entirely a guess. Oh, yeah, Curly had stripes on his sleeve.

There are two armed police forces on this island. The Gendarmes are the French National Police. They are responsible for immigration and other national type issues. What those issues might be I have no idea. They drive huge dark blue Land Rovers, way too large for these roads, with the word "Gendarmes" in conspicuous white letters. I am guessing the motor transport purchasing agent in Paris must have confused this island with French Equatorial Africa. The St. Barths Municipal Police (their vehicles say "Police") deal with traffic and more local stuff. Their uniforms are also blue, but they wear shorts, baseball caps, and knit shirts, while the gendarmes look more like NY State Troopers, except for the hat. Both forces are armed. The Gendarmes have a lock-up ( I asked). I don't know if the Police have one too. I would guess so. Maybe they borrow.

Back to the story: While Moe and Curly were firm and never waivered, I must say they were never abusive. They were never physical, never touched anyone (except I did see Curly tap broken-foot lady on the elbow when she was leaving and he wanted her to stay. More on that later) and were never sarcastic or otherwise snotty. Of course, that is only an educated guess because at least in our presence they both spoke only French and effected a total lack of English, which, at least in Curly's case, was highly exaggerated.

In the end, it became crystal clear the undocumented aliens were to be deported and that is precisely what happened. After a fruitless 90 minutes of agita, at 5:45 PM, Jess flew back to back to St. Maarten with Jilly.

The Air Caraibe people were very sympathetic. Jillian's return flight was no charge. They say they never picked up Jesse's return ticket, tho he cannot find it. The immigration lady at the St. Maarten airport was very sweet, helped the kids get a nice room at a good hotel, and Jesse reports that he and Jillian had lots of Margheritas and a lovely dinner in an upscale beachside restaurant,-- music, tablecloths, the whole deal.

Jess had no working cell phone, and in a logistical error, refused the loan of mine. As a result, telephone communication with him in St. Maarten the following day was extremely difficult.

His real work started at 8:30 AM the following morning. Jess had three strings working:

First, my lawyer in St. Barths had tried to reach a contact of hers in St. Maarten who had helped with this kind of problem in the past. The contact was out of the country, but Jesse got in touch with his assistant. She made some calls on his behalf, but at 11 AM reported to Jesse that it was hopeless, and there was no way they were going to let Jillian in.

The second string Jess was working was the French sous-prefecture in St. Martin. (Not sure I can describe what that is. Best I can tell, it is sort of a district headquarters, but in a country that does not have districts with such political power as exists in our Union of States.) That too was a quick strike-out. Mind you, Jess, with no cell phone, is tied to his hotel room, one phone line, and he has such trouble making outside calls, he must use the hotel switchboard for everything. I think they were very happy to see him check out.

By 11 AM, there is one string left. The previous evening, Jesse had consulted the telephone book, and found, under "Government Services", a Dutch official (he was in the Netherlands, after all) with a title indicating he had something to do with tourists. At 10 am, after hearing the story, the Dutch guy said it was hopeless and suggested that, as a last resort, Jess should call the French Office of Tourism. But even though they share the same island, the French phone system is different from the Dutch system and Jess was unable to reach the French side by phone. At 10:30, he called the Dutch official again, pleaded his case once more, was rejected once more, and when the guy was about to hang up, Jess said "Look, I cannot seem to connect with the French Tourism Office by phone. Would you at least tell me how to call them?" Dutch guy said, "Sure. I will do better than that, I'll conference you in." and did so.

Jess then made his pitch to an English-speaking French lady by the name of Colette Duchene, who will immediately go into the London Family Hall of Fame. Mme. Duchene listened, asked intelligent questions, and the Dutch guy, who got hooked by the story upon its re-telling, did likewise, made helpful comments, and they were off. Mme. Duchene and Jess spoke on the phone two more times during the next half hour.

At 11 AM, when the second of Jesse's two other strings was broken, there was no longer any need to hang by the hotel room phone. The aliens checked out of the hotel, and set out to make the 20 minute trip across town to the French side in order to meet with Mme. Duchene before noon, when her office closed for a two-hour lunch period. It was not an uneventful journey. They lost ten minutes checking out of the hotel, another ten minutes getting a taxi, and another ten when the cab driver got lost. They arrived at 11:50 AM.

The French Office du Tourisme is located in Marigot, the largest port city on the French side. It is modern, air conditioned, nicely furnished, and staffed by well-dressed polite people. (Men wear white shirts and ties, women wear pants and nice tops, etc). Mme. Colette Duchene is the "Chef d'Accuiel" (She was the highest ranking person in attendance. There is one person above her in that office, and he was on vacation.) She is in her 30's, 5'7", attractive, dressed like the professional business woman she is, and speaks excellent French-accented English.

By the time Jess arrived at the Tourism office, Mme Duchene told them she had made some progress. She asked more questions, made another telephone call, and at noon told Jess the matter was now on the desk of the "Head of State." Jesse was thunderstuck: "The Head of State, really?" She laughed, "Well, it doesn't mean quite the same thing here as it does in the United States, but he's got the power, and he is the man. It is up to him."

The office closed at noon, Jesse and Jillian returned at two. Mme. Duchene had offered to let them stay in the closed office, she offered them coffee, water, magazines, etc., but she said nothing was going to happen for the next two hours and they might as well go out for lunch. They did, and returned at 2 PM, paced and worried until three, when Mme. Duchene came out of her office and said, "You are in. The officers at St. Barths have been notified to admit Jillian. Get back there at once."

Jesse said he really would like to have the entrance approval on a piece of paper when he faced Moe and Curly again. Mme Duchene said, "No paper, they have been informed. They know you are coming. The file has been faxed to them. Just go, and hurry."

Jesse almost surrendered when faced with the daunting task of making phone calls back to the Dutch side to see if Winair or Air Caraibe had two open seats that day. Mme. Duchene said, "Give me your credit card, I will try to get you on a 4 PM 'St. Barts Commuter' flight from a local airport here on the French side." And she did. Jess asked if she could help him call a cab. She did that too, and when she could not get one, said, "My car is right outside. We must be there at 3:30 or they will give away your seat. I'll drive you there. I hope you don't mind the mess in the back seat. I have a five year old."

Traffic at that hour was awful, and Mme. Duchene took a short-cut. They arrived at the airport at 3:27. Four cars behind them, traffic was stopped for ten minutes by two bulls who decided to meander onto the road. Mme. Duchene, known to and greeted warmly by all at the airport, accompanied Jesse and Jillian right up to the security line. Jillian hugged her, Jesse hugged her, Jillian cried. (Jilly says she saw tears in Jesse's eyes too. Jesse neither admits nor denies.) The wandering Londons made the plane back to St. Barths.

At some point in the drama, Jesse felt the need to give Mme. Duchene a gift. He had nothing but cash, which he offered and which she politely but firmly refused. "It is my job to do this. Please have a good time on the rest of your family vacation."

Needless to say, Jesse runs out of adjectives describing Mme. Duchene. "Charming, intelligent, sympathetic, kind, supportive, effective, diligent, focused, caring", etc, etc, etc. Indeed he has nice things to say about almost everyone in drama, --the immigration lady who got him a hotel room, the Dutch guy who helped with the call, and the other bit players in the drama.

At the immigration line at the St. Barths airport, Moe and Curly saw them coming. Jess says he was at the end of the line and he saw Curly looking at him. As they approached the window, Jess could see Jillian's picture atop a file on the Gendarmes' desk. The following dialogue ensued, in English, of course:

Curly: One Day. You stay for one day.
Jesse: No, till Sunday. We go home on Sunday, not before.
Curly: No, one day.
Jesse: No, till Sunday.
Curly: Okay, till Sunday. Give me your address where you are staying.
Jesse: I don't know the address. It is in Corossol.
Curly: Hotel or villa?
Jesse: Villa.
Curly: What is the name of the villa?
Jesse: I do not know.
Curly: Okay. Go.

When I asked Jesse how he could have been so confident in this conversation with Curly, Jesse said he knew that Mme. Duchene was going to be at her desk till 5:30 PM and with her on his team, Curly was toast.

All this occurs in radio silence, while I sit here at the house, cell phone in the right pocket of my shorts, cordless phone in the left. The last call I had with Jess was prior to his decision to leave the hotel. When he got the 11 AM message that only string three, i.e., Mme. Duchene at the the Tourism Office, was viable, he scrambled, and assumed we would figure out that he was working the problem and would either show up here at day's end, or call and let us know he had checked back into a hotel and would return to New York the following day. Our first signal that he had succeeded was the sound of Jillian's carry-on wheels as she rolled her suitcase up the roughened concrete driveway.

Btw, on the previous day, the broken-foot lady, who was also deported, had started to board the plane with Jess and Jillian on the Air Caraibe flight back to St. Maarten. As she moved out the departure lounge door to the plane, Curly tapped her on the elbow, and told her (via a yellow-shirted St. Barts Services employee who's client she was) that she was required to wait for a Winair flight, because that was the carrier that brought her to the island. On hearing this, she broke down again. I spoke with her briefly while she waited for a Winair flight, and offered any assistance I could give. She thanked me but there was nothing I could do for her. The yellow shirts said they would try to help her in St. Martin, but I did not get the sense they had any confidence they could accomplish anything. Jess never saw her at Mme. Duchene's office, and said he thought her case was not as hopeful as ours, because it seemed to him that the real winning argument in Jillian's case was the fact that she 12, and was just trying to join her family who were visiting her grandfather and granny who lived in St. Barths.

So this trip was a short one for Jillian. Long enough for days at Saline Beach, visiting friends at the Guanahani while Jesse, Zachary, Mark, and I went fishing, lunches at Cocoloba Beach and L'Esprite de Saline, dinners at Masaii and Do Brasil, and tonight Bertrand will cook dinner for eight at here at the villa, and we'll dine under the stars . Not so bad, huh?

A bientot.

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