Kiwi journalist Lisa Scott tells of the reality of US border security and how she and her partner were detained, denied a phone call and deprived of their passports.

Jail time courtesy of Homeland Security was not on journalist Lisa Scott's radar as she and her partner travelled to the United States. Both of them had problems securing a visa but those inconveniences were nothing compared with the reality of US border security. From the safety of a plane home, Lisa recounts the full story.

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Yes, a very orange man with the world's stupidest comb-over could well be the next president of the United States. But if you think that's ridiculous, you ain't heard nothing yet.

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Both myself and my partner had great difficulties trying to get a J-1 visa for his sabbatical.

We decided to get a quick and easy $14 three-month electronic system for travel authorisation (ESTA) visa waiver. No worries!

Childishly excited, dreaming of beer and bicycling around Lake Michigan, we flew from Frankfurt (upgraded to premium economy, a harbinger of good times to come, said my partner), finally making it to Chicago last Monday.

As we entered the arrivals hall, a loudspeaker broadcast an announcement about measures to prevent the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

''Have you been to a bed and breakfast, near livestock? Please see your nearest agricultural officer. We appreciate your co-operation.''

''Hello!'' we said with enormous smiles to the heavy-set lady manning passport control.

''Come with me,'' she said grimly.

It was the beginning of two days of hell at the hands of Homeland Security.

Starting off a pair of cheerful, carefree Kiwis, we'd be gradually de-humanised, turned into wee trembling beasties.

By the time we left, 33 hours later, we were both shaking and traumatised.

Even now, I feel like we only just got out alive.

Sounds ridiculous, I know, but I think it will take me a long time to get over it.

First, we were detained, denied a phone call and deprived of our passports.

Next, hours and hours in the waiting room of the damned: wailing babies, crying women, men being led off in handcuffs, lots of shouting, Alsatian-mouthed guards.

The increased demand for Homeland Security staff meant those normally pushing a broom were now toting a Glock, and didn't they love lording it over the PhD students of the world.

Everyone in the room had come off an international flight, meaning they were already tired and emotional.

An air conditioner deliberately set in the minuses exacerbated this: bones ached, people shivered in summer clothes.

Why didn't you wait and try harder for your J-1? asked our interrogators, armed with guns, mace and rubber gloves.

To begin with, we rolled our eyes, who would think us a threat?

New Zealanders, babes in the world, harmless.

Surely, this was some kind of mistake?

Nope.

Applying for an ESTA after starting with a J-1 was illegal (nice of the US visa website to let us know) and we were being refused entry.

In a state of shock for a couple of hours, it just didn't seem possible that something like this could happen.

Looking back, I made a few mistakes.

I should have said yes to the phone call to the New Zealand consulate: even if they couldn't actually do anything, at least someone would know where I was.

I wasn't in America, I wasn't anywhere.

I had no legal rights: the very act of applying for an ESTA had waived my right to petition the verdict.

Finger-printed, our pictures were taken, then we were left to ponder our fate until midnight, at which point we had been awake for close to 24 hours.

Told we wouldn't leave until the following evening and that we'd be spending that night in a jail cell, I started crying and I never really stopped.

Stupidly, it didn't occur to me that the economist and I would be separated, wrenched apart for one of the few times in our 15 years together: he into the men's cell, me into the ladies' holding pen.

I wept and wept, worrying that someone was hurting him and he was doing the same.

I had been in such a state when they locked me in, he feared for my sanity.

Have you ever been in jail?

The lights stay on all night and there is a lot of noise.

In my American jail, it was caused by speakers set in the ceiling, broadcasting that same foot-and-mouth public message every 30 minutes.

''Have you been to a bed and breakfast, spent time around livestock?''

After a while it stopped making sense and became a strange garbled poetry.

''Spence time lipstick.''

Lying on top of the vinyl-covered mattress, I began to hallucinate.

Shadows lengthened and changed and I thought I heard the officers outside laughing about one of their colleague's good-cop routine: no, that was real.

Time goes very slowly when you lose your liberty and autonomy.

The very fact that I couldn't get out of that bare concrete room filled me with fear.

In addition I didn't know if the person I loved was safe, or even if I was: the only thing to see outside the cell window was a poster advertising a hotline number to report detainee rape or abuse.

Unfortunately, all our cellphones had been taken off us.

Humiliation, sleep deprivation and other Guantanamo themes abounded.

Most of all, though, the isolation: no phones, no email, no idea what was going on.

Driven to the plane in a prison truck with mesh windows, we are flying back to New Zealand in search of a safe place and cuddles, on a wave of Lufthansa love: whose staff recognise fascism when they see it and gasped in horror at our tale.

Well they might, Lufthansa has to pay the fare as the carrier who brought us to America without recognising us for the reprobates we are.

The plane's chief officer rubbed my arm: ''What can you expect from that country?''

Ironic, as the behaviour we'd been subjected to reminded me of something out of Germany in 1941.

The crafting of appealing untruths: It wasn't a jail cell, it was a comfortable room to lie down in.

''I'm so sorry'', they said insincerely as they sent people who'd lived in America for six years back to China to arrange the removal of their possessions from there. It was the brute rule of law without compassion.

Which is why we were so moved to find out later that friends and colleagues-not-to-be at Northwestern were distraught, and hearing of our plight, they tried everything, went to the airport to petition the supervising officer, even called friends in Washington to try to change her mind.

She remained intractable.

Just like the Americans we never got to meet, we detainees were immeasurably kind to each other, sharing gum, food and tissues.

Hugs were freely given.

We were all in this together.

When those twin towers came down, in its grief and rage America lost some of its humanity, its decency.

These weren't good people, shouting and ruining the lives of the poor, tired huddled masses - although I'm sure in their own minds they were protecting their country.

From an economist and a lifestyle columnist, mind.

All this for something that filling out a form would have fixed.

Terrorising to fight terrorism, this is how hate is made.

You have to admit, Osama won.

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