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July 06, 2017

Stopped at Philly airport, French students tell of full body searches, mysterious injections

Report: Young travelers came to United States to volunteer on organic farm, but were sent home

Two French students who came to the United States in June hoping to spend the summer working on a farm are describing a harrowing ordeal that unfolded after they landed in Philadelphia.

The students, identified only as Olivane and Evan, told French media they arrived at Philadelphia International Airport on June 28 and were allegedly interrogated, detained and injected with an unknown substance before they were sent home on a flight to Paris.

The students were headed to do volunteer work at a Buffalo-area horse ranch, according to a report from The Local, an English-language website covering French news.

Olivane and Evan intended to follow the global trend of "wwoofing," short for "willing workers on organic farms," to gain valuable experience on an American farm in exchange for lodging rather than compensation. They did not realize, however, that without a proper work permission visa, the practice is prohibited in the United States, because it is considered "undeclared labor" or "concealed work."

The students, hailing from Brittany in western France, immediately ran into problems with border authorities in Philadelphia, according to their own accounts in Ouest France and France 3. Despite obtaining signed training agreements between their university and the unidentified ranch, Olivane, seen just below, and Evan, in the second tweet, were flagged for possessing only tourist visas.

Olivane explained that officials from the Department of Homeland Security became suspicious of the students' plan to remain at the same location in Buffalo for two months.

The students claim they were separated and questioned for hours. In handcuffs, they were led through the airport terminal and eventually transported to a detention center where they were told to "prepare psychologically" to be locked up.

Both students said they were given full body searches, forced to strip almost naked and held  for 12 hours in a series of detention center cells. Both claim they were injected with an unknown substance that they speculate may have been a sedative.

“Was it a vaccination or something to calm us?” Olivane wondered, adding that she and Evan both planned to visit a doctor to see if the substance can be identified, the Local reported.

Stephen Sapp, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said CBP does not comment on specific cases. But he stressed that CBP does not administer injections.

"I can confirm with absolute certainty that we don't do it here," Sapp said.

But when detainees are held at detention centers outside the airport – as the French students claim they were – those centers' policies may subject them to injections.

Because DHS does not run a 24-hour holding facility at the Philadelphia airport, detainees who cannot be placed quickly on a return flight are held at Delaware County Correctional Facility in Thornbury Township.

The students were held at the correctional facility for about 12 hours on June 29, confirmed prison solicitor Robert DiOrio, who provided an account that differed somewhat from the students'. 

Upon arriving at 12:30 a.m., DiOrio said they were subjected to the prison's standard intake procedure – given to anyone being held at the prison, including those transported from the airport by CBP.

"They were treated respectfully, just like any other person who came into our jail would be treated," DiOrio said. "Nothing was done different."

The intake procedure includes a full mental health and physical examination, DiOrio said. Based on their responses, they were each administered a tuberculosis screening. But DiOrio said nothing was injected into their bodies.

"It's a patch that's put on the skin," DiOrio said. "If the skin gets red, it's an allergic reaction. It's not an injection."

"We get people who have TB," DiOrio added. "We have to make sure that they're not reactive. That's why we did a screening for the TB."

The students were not subjected to a "strip search," DiOrio said. But they were asked to remove all of their clothing, including their underwear, so correctional officers could search it for drugs and contraband. This was conducted in private by same-sex officers.

The students then received prison garments and eventually were placed in separate intake cells, determined by sex, until they were returned to CBP officials at 1 p.m., DiOrio said.

"That's all standard," DiOrio said. "That's done to all of our inmates."

Strict U.S. labor and immigration regulations make wwoofing a serious risk even if travelers obtain a valid work visa. Typically, wwoofers enter the country under the Visa Waiver Program, administered through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, or on a B2 visitor visa. Neither program permits work, volunteer or the exchange of time for labor, according to WWOOF USA, a membership organization that coordinates programs with more than 2,000 organic farms and gardens across the country.

"Members from outside the United States utilizing the WWOOF-USA network are encouraged to avoid misunderstandings with immigration officials by explaining that you will be visiting a variety of places in the USA to learn more about the United States and its various sustainability movements," the organization explains at its website.

Olivane and Evan will not be guaranteed entry into the United States in the future if they seek to return at some point. Their experience in Philadelphia suggests they may never be interested again.

"We were treated like criminals," Olivane told the Local. "The anguish only disappeared when we set foot back in France."