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Cancer Survivor Accidentally Labels Self "Terrorist," Triggers US Visa Lockdown

Sept. 29, 2018
4 min read
Cancer Survivor Accidentally Labels Self "Terrorist," Triggers US Visa Lockdown
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A British cancer survivor has discovered the hard way that "America is completely unforgiving" when it comes to travel errors involving the word "terrorist."

Mandie Stevenson, 29, was given a devastating life sentence in 2015 when she was diagnosed as one of the world's youngest terminal breast cancer patients at the age of 25. Trying to make the best of an unthinkable situation, Stevenson drew up a bucket list of once-in-a-lifetime adventures she wanted to experience before passing, which included sailing under the Sydney Harbor Bridge, dining at Michelin-star restaurants and buying a red Mini Cooper with racing stripes.

Stevenson managed to knock off most of the items on her checklist before remarkably beating her cancer into remission. Exhilarated by her newfound health, she soldiered on through the list, which included visiting Los Angeles and New York, and seeing Maroon 5 live.

During the travel planning process, Stevenson had to fill out her ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) form – a document which allows UK citizens to forego a full-blown US visa application. Like many modern travelers on-the-go, Stevenson tried to complete her travel documents on her tablet, which crashed halfway through the process. So the next day, Stevenson tried again from her work computer. This time, she accidentally selected "yes" on a crucial question: "Are you involved in terrorist activities or genocide?"

"At first I thought it was a bad dream, and then I realized what I had done," Stevenson told the BBC.

Since the electronic application involves a series of mouse clicks and checkboxes, Stevenson didn't even notice her own error. It wasn't until her application was denied two days later – just days before she was due to depart for the US – that Stevenson became aware of what she had done.

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"I think when I’ve scrolled through the web page it has clicked yes by mistake," she told The Sun, "and on that question, which is the worst of all."

Of all possible destinations, Stevenson was hoping to visit New York – arguably the most security-conscious city in the world after the infamous 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. She and her boyfriend, Ross Malcolm, had already purchased all of their tickets and accommodations as well as tickets to a New York Rangers ice hockey game, all of which looked likely to be forfeited because of Stevenson's slip-up. And because her unique health circumstances required special travel insurance, she was unable to submit a claim for the additional fees.

All told, Stevenson spent more than $1,000 in out-of-pocket costs to rectify her error, frantically rebooking her travel plans last-minute and paying more than $400 to go up to London and apply for a full US visa in person at the embassy. After a couple of in-depth interviews, she was finally granted the visa – only be told that it would take three to five days to receive the stamped visa.

"I live in 12-week cycles because I get scanned [for signs of recurring cancer cells] every 12 weeks," Stevenson told the BBC. "I book my holidays in very specific times, and this New York trip was going to be before I get another set of scan results, so I was really looking forward to it." The whole experience "was stress that I didn't need. I thought, because it was a genuine error, it would be quite an easy fix, but I was quite wrong."

Stevenson's nightmare is a good life lesson in triple-checking everything, she said. But Simon Calder, travel editor of UK publication The Independent, pointed out the "completely pointless" nature of this all-important question on the ESTA application form. "Nobody who was engaged in terrorism, espionage or genocide would ever tick 'yes'," he said. "I don't imagine that anybody has ever deliberately ticked this box. But... America is completely unforgiving. If that box gets ticked for whatever reason, immediately it's as though the alarms go off, the shutters go down and you are into a spiral of despair. Once you are on that [terrorist] list, you are never going to get off it."

All photos courtesy of Mandie Stevenson.