Olivane and Evan, two students from Brittany in western France, had arranged to spend two months volunteering on a horse ranch near Buffalo in the north eastern corner of the US,” France 3 reported.
They had organised with the owners of the ranch to work in exchange for food and lodgings, a practice known as “wwoofing” which is popular among students world-wide.
The problem is the practice is illegal in the United States if, like the French students, you are travelling on a tourist visa, because it is considered “undeclared labour” (travaille dissimulé).
And even with a valid visa, websites warn that strict immigration rules in the US can spell problems for those foreign nationals wanting to volunteer on farms.
When the French students arrived in Philadelphia on June 28 ready for their “dream” summer, US border authorities quickly put a stop to their plans after becoming suspicious about their motives of travel.
“Homeland Security services found it strange that we were going to stay two months in the same place,” 21-year-old Olivane (pic below – left) told Ouest France newspaper.
— Ouest-France (@OuestFrance) July 4, 2017
She said the pair were separated and questioned for several hours separately.
“They told me I didn’t have the right to enter American territory because for them I was going to carry out undeclared labour,” said Olivane.
Being barred from her dream summer job was a setback but what really shocked the young students was what happened next.
Olivane and Evan (see pic below right) said their hands were tied behind their backs before they had to suffer the “humiliation” of being walked through the airport terminal in front of other passengers and then taken off to a cell in a detention centre.
“I felt terrible. I wanted to tell people that we were not criminals and that it was just a problem with the Visa,” she said.
— France 3 Bretagne (@france3Bretagne) July 3, 2017
“We were placed in the back of a police vehicle, with security screens everywhere like in the movies,” she added.
The pair were told to “prepare psychologically” to be locked up in the detention centre.
“They said we would be safe, but it's going to be a bad moment,” said Olivane.
They said they were subject to full body searches, forced to strip almost naked, and then detained in various cells for 12 hours – Evan in a male unit and Olivane in a centre for women.
“We were treated like criminals,” she said.
They both claim they were injected with some kind of substance but had no idea what it was.
“Was it a vaccination or something to calm us?” said Olivane, who added both planned to visit a doctor to try to determine what the substance was.
The following day they were both put on a flight back to Paris. Meanwhile their worried families were frantically calling the French embassy in Washington as well as the country’s foreign ministry in Paris.
“The anguish only disappeared when we set foot back in France,” Olivane said.
The pair will no longer be able to return to the United States on a simple tourist visa and will have to go through a stricter process.
But they have no guarantee of being able to return to the US in the future, if they wanted to, that is.
While wwoofing might not be recognised in the US, judging by internet advice forums it’s clear it is still an experience that many young French people seek to undertake.
Much of the advice around wwoofing in the US on French internet sites concerns how to avoid raising suspicions of Homeland Security when you arrive in the country.
But anyone who wants to do it is urged to get a work visa.