How I got back into the Netherlands
After a sleepless night at Schiphol International, followed by nearly 24-hours spent in planes and airport terminals, I arrived back on the west coast with a single goal in mind - I would return to the Netherlands, ASAP. I had been been given the boot but now it was time to start kicking back.
The life I began here last winter with my girlfriend Marie was now on indefinite hold. Prior to my departure, a customs agent at Schiphol told me I could return on June 28th, the 181st day following my initial arrival in the Netherlands in December. Operating under this assumption, I booked a one-way ticket back to Amsterdam, planning to apply for permanent residency upon my return.
But could I really trust him?
After Marie and I, now 5.000 miles apart, spent hours trying to make sense of various government websites, we sought the advice of other expats who had found themselves in similar circumstances. One guy, an American, told me a story about being detained at Schiphol for overstaying his visa in 2009.
Unlike me, he worked up enough moxie and contempt for the airport’s customs agents that he snuck back into the queue at Passport Control afterwards. Luck was on his side. An agent neglected to fully look over his documents and he was let back in.
Other expats told me tales of their exploits and successes in "working the system" to their advantage - sneaking in and out of the Netherlands, almost at will, by exploiting various cracks. One fellow I contacted has managed to live in Holland for nearly a decade without obtaining a proper residence permit.
If you did not already know, the country’s system for controlling the coming and going of foreigners is far from perfect. Despite the huffing and puffing of notoriously xenophobic Dutch politicians like Geert Wilders and their efforts to close loopholes, many expats have managed to live under the radar of the government for years. Regardless, I wanted to return to the Netherlands and stay there legally.
After I contacted the Dutch consulate in Washington DC and received little in the way of helpful information, Marie contacted an attorney in Leiden. He suggested we speak with both the Immigration and Naturalisation Service and the customs office at Schiphol.
After getting an official "c'mon on back and apply for residency, you're cool" from the IND, the response we received from customs hit us like a ton of bricks. The agent she spoke with pulled my file from the Schengen Information System, a database that keeps tabs on "persons of interest" (creepy, no?) He told her there would "likely be a problem" if I returned. "Your boyfriend will probably be detained again, given what happened to him last time," he said.
The agent offered no further advice or information, eager to get her off the phone as quickly as possible. Customs had struck again! Marie contacted the attorney. I would need to put in an official request to the Dienst IPOL (an agency that serves as an intermediary between citizens / travellers and Dutch law enforcement agencies), via mail, to find out what exactly was in this mysterious "file" at the airport.
He also suggested that I immediately apply for an MVV (Machtiging tot Voorlopig Verblijf), a temporary residence permit usually required for immigrants from third world countries.
Ultimately, there was no telling if any of this would do me any good. Based on what we were later told by the IND, and the DC consulate, the gatekeepers at Schiphol could keep me from entering the Netherlands for any reason they deemed fit. If they did not like my t-shirt they could, technically, send me home.
After weeks of fretting, Marie and I realised that my return hinged entirely on the whims of this agency and there was nothing anyone could do about it. She called customs again and received a different answer this time around. "No," a second agent said. "I don’t see a problem. He should be able to return."
These mixed-messages were becoming downright infuriating. A few days before I was scheduled to fly to Amsterdam, I received a response to my inquiry. The first agent had, apparently, lied to Marie. There was nothing in the file that suggested that I had any sort of "black mark" against me.
Regardless, my heart was beating faster than a hummingbird’s as I headed down the same hall at Schiphol where I had been detained for hours in April. I tried to hide my anxiety as I handed over my passport to a pair of customs agents. After a few questions, I was back in.
All those weeks of anxiety and worry. All those inquiries and consultations. It had all been pointless. Marie was waiting for me on the other side of baggage claim.
Needless to say, my resentment and scorn for customs at Schiphol has not faded. Granted, they have a tough job to do but, based on my experiences, a review of their policies and procedures is desperately needed. But all of this is, hopefully, behind me now. As I work towards establishing residency, I plan to keep myself on the straight and narrow, lest I find myself back at the mercy of one of the country’s most muddled and flawed bureaucracies.