Domenico Salerno, a 35-year-old Italian lawyer, comes to Virginia several times a year to visit his American girlfriend, Caitlin Cooper, a 23-year-old copy editor he met a couple of years ago in Rome. Evidently that travel pattern triggered the suspicions of a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent, who stopped him from entering the country when he arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport on April 29. Although visitors from Italy do not need visas, CBP agents have the discretion to deny them entry—and exit. Instead of being sent back to Rome, Salerno was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which shipped him off to a jail in Virginia, where he was detained for 10 days, still officially not in the United States and therefore without legal recourse. The CBP agent claimed he thought Salerno would turn out to be an asylum seeker because he expressed a fear of being killed if he returned to Italy. Salerno, whose English is spotty, told Cooper he never said anything of the kind. ICE kept Salerno on ice despite the intervention of Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and the efforts of two former immigration prosecutors hired by Cooper's family. After Cooper contacted The New York Times, he was finally released and driven to Dulles, where he caught a flight back to Rome on Friday. Cooper is thinking of following him there, and staying.
Salerno had the benefit of affluent, well-connected American friends. Other visitors who are arbitrarily detained are not so lucky:
"We have a lot of government people here and lobbyists and lawyers and very educated, very savvy Washingtonians," said Jim Cooper, Ms. Cooper's father, a businessman, describing the reaction in his neighborhood, the Wessynton subdivision of Alexandria. "They were pretty shocked that the government could do this sort of thing, because it doesn't happen that often, except to people you never hear about, like Haitians and Guatemalans."