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Trump effect? Italian teen sent back after detention at O’Hare

Paolo Amoruso was stopped at O'Hare International Airport after flying into the United States. He was supposed to stay with a great-aunt in Iowa for awhile, and had a return ticket. | Provided photo

A pasta dinner and his mama’s warm embrace awaited Paolo Amoruso on Friday after the teen — making his first solo trip to America — was detained at O’Hare International Airport this week then promptly sent back home to Italy’s Adriatic Coast.

“It is my dream to come in USA,” Amoruso, 19, said in broken English during a telephone interview Friday morning. “I don’t come back because I don’t want to come in the airplane for 20 hours.”

Amoruso might have been waking up to deer roaming across his great-aunt’s Washington, Iowa, acreage, but not after U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents accused him of coming to America to work illegally — an accusation he suspects may be tied to President Donald Trump’s beefed-up immigration policies.

“The first time I come in USA, I don’t have this problem,” he said, referring to a trip to New York City with his parents four years ago.

Paolo Amoroso’s passport. He was denied entry into the U.S. | Provided photo
Paolo Amoroso’s passport. He was denied entry into the U.S. | Provided photo

Amoruso said he was supposed to spend the next three months living with his great-aunt, Lorraine Williams, at her home in rural Iowa, where he’d hoped to improve his English.

He tried to tell that to a customs official when he was pulled aside at O’Hare, before boarding an airplane to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where his great-aunt was waiting for him.

“He asked me, ‘Are you going to the USA to work?’ I answer, ‘absolutely not,’” Amoruso said.

Officials seized the teen’s cell phone and apparently found a text in which Amoruso told a friend he planned to work in America.

Amoruso’s great-aunt provided the Chicago Sun-Times with a transcript of what appears to be his U.S. Department of Homeland Security administrative hearing at O’Hare. Federal officials could not be reached to confirm the transcript’s authenticity — but a deportation expert said the document appeared valid.

“On your phone, you [have] text messages stating that you are going to come to the U.S. to work and study,” according to the transcript. “How do you explain that?”

Amoruso explained that the message was old and that he had no intention of working in America. At one point, Amoruso becomes desperate: “I beg you to let me in.”

Instead, he said, he was led to a room with a mattress and a toilet. He had to remove his shoelaces and his belt, he said. He was offered some dried fruit, other snacks and other food he couldn’t identify.

“I drink only water,” he said.

About 24 hours later, he was escorted to a Lufthansa flight and sent back to Italy, via Germany, with a “Refused” stamp in his Italian passport. He arrived in Bari, in southern Italy, Friday morning Chicago time.

One local deportation expert said it doesn’t surprise her that Amoruso was searched and sent back home, although she didn’t know how often it happens to Europeans coming to America.

Jacqueline Stevens — a professor of political science and legal studies at Northwestern University, and the director of the Deportation Research Clinic — said the legal bar to entry for visa holders is “very low” and that searches are common.

“They don’t have to tell you why, they can just say, ‘We want to look at your laptop or your cell phone,’ and if you don’t agree, they can confiscate it if you’re in Illinois,” Stevens said.

She also said there’s some legal debate about whether customs officials can require a visitor to hand over a computer or cell phone password. But ultimately, a traveler has very few options if they’re stopped.

“You can say, ‘Well, screw you, I’m going back to Italy,’” she said. “That’s your only option.”

Steven said Amoruso could just have easily been sent back under former President Barack Obama’s administration, too.

“There’s nothing about what you’re telling me that would surprise me if it happened last year,” she said.

Though his mother — who’d worried about sending her son off to a big, wide-open foreign country — was delighted to see him back home, his great-aunt who was set to host him in America was horrified at his treatment.

“They looked through his phone and iPad as though he were a criminal,” said Williams, who lived in Italy off and on between 1976 and 2002, and was at one time married to Amoruso’s great-uncle.

Williams, who owns an Italian restaurant and café, said there was never any intention to have the teen work.

“I told him he had to mow the yard,” she said. “Those are interesting cultural experiences.”

Williams, too, suspects the Trump factor in Amoruso’s detention and expulsion.

“They probably have a quota [to be able to say], ‘We sent so many people back. We are much safer today,’” Williams said.

Repeated efforts to reach Customs and Border Protection officials in the Midwest and in Washington, D.C., were unsuccessful Thursday and Friday.

Despite his ordeal, Amoruso wants to come back to America at some point, perhaps to study, but he said, in Italian, that he has “a little fear” of any future trip.