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British Author's Visa Ordeal Is One for the Books

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2004; Page A06

Ian McEwan began a speech in Seattle by thanking Homeland Security "for protecting the American public from British novelists."

SEATTLE, April 1 -- Halted en route to a West Coast lecture tour, Ian McEwan, an acclaimed British novelist who lunched last fall with first lady Laura Bush, was denied entry into the United States for 36 hours this week.

McEwan, who has won nearly every major British literary prize and whose best-selling novel "Atonement" won a National Book Critics Circle Award, finally landed in Seattle on Wednesday evening, just 90 minutes before he was scheduled to address 2,500 people packed into a downtown auditorium.

Looking relieved and exhausted, he began his speech by thanking the Department of Homeland Security "for protecting the American public from British novelists."

He also detailed the literary expertise that Homeland Security officials brought to the three interrogations they put him through. McEwan said one official wanted to know: "What kind of novels do you write: fiction or nonfiction?"

Later, in an interview, McEwan blamed his predicament on wariness growing out of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. During his third session on Wednesday with Homeland Security officials, after word had spread to British and U.S. newspapers about his situation, McEwan said his interrogators told him: "We still don't want to let you in, but this is attracting a lot of unfavorable publicity."

McEwan, who was asked by the British government to lunch in London last November with the first lady because she is an admirer of his work, was initially denied entry to the United States on Tuesday morning at the airport in Vancouver, B.C. That is where U.S. Customs processes foreigners flying into Seattle.

As he had on many previous occasions when traveling to the United States to give speeches, McEwan said, he presented his British passport expecting a visa waiver. The waiver has long been standard procedure for citizens from the United Kingdom and 26 other Western countries who travel in this country for business or pleasure.

When officials asked what he would be doing in the United States, he told them he would be lecturing and getting paid for it. That turned out to be the wrong answer. "They said I was coming to the U.S. to earn money to practice my lifestyle," he said.

His passport was then stamped "Refused Admittance," at which point McEwan embarked on a marathon of phone calls to influential people he hoped would be able to cancel the refusal.

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security said that when McEwan presented his passport in the Vancouver airport he did not have the proper visa for a foreigner coming to the United States to give lectures for money.

"McEwan was inadmissible because he did not have a B-1 visa, for business purposes, or an O visa, which is specifically for journalists," said Jim Michie, the spokesman. McEwan's problem was not unique, he said, adding that business people and journalists often do not know what is required of them.

Michie said immigration officials are far more attentive to these rules than they used to be. "We have got to be vigilant so that we don't have another 9/11," he said.

With the intercession of the British Consulate in Vancouver, the State Department, an immigration lawyer in Portland, two members of Congress from Washington state and many desperate phone calls by officials from three lecture organizations in Washington, Oregon and California that had sold thousands of tickets to McEwan speeches, the writer was finally issued a business visa on Wednesday afternoon at the U.S. Consulate in Vancouver.

McEwan said he does not blame anyone for his "immensely frustrating" ordeal. But he is worried about future travel to this country.

"I now bear a kind of stigmata," he said. "I am in the computer as having been denied entry to the United States and that is really bad news. They can put things into that computer, but they never take them out."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company