As travel season reaches its highpoint, more and more American travelers to international destinations are concerned with acquiring proper vaccinations, obtaining the right visas, and, not surprisingly, the potential for being "harassed" at the airport upon arrival back into the States. Many travelers have recently complained of their encounters with agents or officers as soon as they leave the aircraft, and who have to sit through an hour or more of questioning by agents and have their luggage rummaged through.
The following is a breakdown of why people are targeted for this extra questioning when entering the US at the airport or the border, what your rights are if you are selected, and what to do to help to make it a smoother process and avoid secondary security checks in the future. Please note that the following does not apply to checking-in for flights or boarding aircraft within the United States or when leaving the country.
In order to enter or re-enter the United States, travelers must go through two processes at U.S. ports of entry: immigration and customs. Customs and Border Protection officers, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, handle both aspects at the border.
All air travelers must provide to CBP a valid passport, proper immigration paperwork if they are seeking admission into the US, and follow CBP regulations on prohibited items.
CBP officers have the statutory right and responsibility to verify the identification of travelers, their admissibility to the United States, and that travelers have not been engaged in illicit activity that poses a threat to national security.
CBP is also granted the statutory authority to search all persons, baggage, and merchandise arriving into the United States. Interestingly, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that a search of a traveler’s laptop files at LAX was neither an illegal search nor seizure, and instead was similar to routine luggage inspection.
Now here’s where secondary questioning and inspection comes in. In addition to selecting someone because of "individualized behavior" patterns, because a person has arrived from a "high-risk" country, or because of a "completely random referral," CBP relies on the Interagency Border Inspection System to determine which travelers will be targeted for secondary examination. IBIS is a system used by 20-plus governmental agencies to track people involved in actual or suspected criminal or terrorist activities.
Information in the IBIS system is derived from various sources, including the Terrorist Screening Center consolidated watchlist.
You may have heard of the "no-fly list." The "no-fly list" is essentially the highest terrorist-related classification of names derived from the TSC database. Those people whose names are on the "no-fly list" are prohibited from flying.
The next classification is "selectee," and if you face repeated delays at ports of entry, you may be classified as a selectee, or your name may be similar to that of someone classified as such. (MORE)
Ameena Mirza Qazi is a staff attorney for the Greater Los Angeles-area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.