On May 5 and 6, 2015, Ryan Hutton and Rafael Henry from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Headquarters invited a group of AILA members to attend a southern border tour in Texas. On the first day, we visited the land border crossing at the Hidalgo Port of Entry, and on the second day we visited the Brownsville Port of Entry, which includes land, rail and sea crossings. The personnel at both ports were extremely welcoming and spent several hours demonstrating the use of their inspection procedures and equipment. We witnessed not only immigration inspections but also screenings for contraband, Customs violations, and agricultural pests.
As we walked through the ports, we were able to speak with various specialists. For example, an X-ray scanner showed us images of truck cargo and pointed out instances in which drugs were concealed within various compartments of vehicles. (These were about as easy for the untrained eye to spot as babies’ organs on an ultrasound image: not very). We also witnessed the wanton destruction of several luscious mangoes by a skilled agricultural inspector checking for insect larvae. He told us he had chopped up so many mangoes in his career that he can no longer eat them (a travesty).
As the tours progressed, a theme began to emerge. Regardless of which type of specialist we spoke to, each one expressed an awareness that the vast majority of travelers and/or cargo screened were compliant with federal regulations for admission. Each specialist was trained to look for the proverbial needle in the haystack—the one traveler (or poor, sweet mango) that was not compliant. As attorneys who deal exclusively with the immigration piece of border issues, it is helpful to be aware of this pervasive mindset. Inspectors at the border have a mental construct of a “good” case or applicant and when questioning a traveler, they are looking for something out of the ordinary, something that doesn’t sit right, doesn’t fit the mold, seems to be concealing something.
A twin theme was a layered approach to screening. Travelers and cargo are first given a cursory inspection at the primary inspection booth. Officers typically clear each vehicle in under 1 minute. Their job is to quickly clear travelers who do not raise any red flags while referring questionable vehicles or individuals to secondary inspection. All of the screening equipment reflects this two tiered approach. For example, each officer at primary inspection wears a small device on his belt that detects radiation. These devices will go off in the vicinity of any radioactive material, but they cannot detect which radioactive isotope set off the alarm. That is not the role at primary: they just say “whoop-whoop-whoop- PROBLEM!” and send the person inside. Then inside, CBP has more specialized equipment that is capable of determining the exact radioactive isotope and whether it is the result of medical imaging or a nuclear weapon. Again, there is a parallel in this procedure to the screening of applicants for immigration benefits. That is, officers at primary inspection are trained to ask cursory questions to determine whether someone needs to spend more time with an officer. If someone is coming in to buy groceries, and there are no red flags, they likely will be admitted very quickly. But anyone who needs an I-94 will be sent to secondary, as will anyone who cannot immediately be cleared.
It is extremely helpful to us as attorneys to understand this law enforcement mindset, and the way officers are trained to issue spot. It helps us to better prepare our clients for the inspection process and to understand how to present themselves at the port of entry when seeking immigration benefits. It is also beneficial to understand how this process fits within CBP’s wider law enforcement mission.
Written by Danielle Rizzo, Vice Chair, AILA CBP Liaison Committee