Earlier this week, we looked at some of the complaints filed with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) about the treatment of travellers at the US border. People regularly have their electronic devices searched, often for no good reason at all, leading to an invasive and violating experience. And today we have more horror stories from the front lines.
File photo of the US-Canada border in 2011 near Blaine, Washington (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
AU Editor’s Note: Warning — the final story in this article involves a written depiction of alleged sexual assault. — Cam
Much like the stories we shared before, these were obtained after a year and a half of waiting for CBP to release the records. Gizmodo filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request back in April of 2016 and just recently received the 163 pages of documents the contain complaints from 2014 to 2016.
Some minor formatting and spelling errors have been changed for readability. The emphasis in the stories below is mine to highlight the part of each story that involves the search of electronic devices. And sensitive readers should be aware that the last story involves what can only be described as an alleged sexual assault.
Buffalo, New York — August 2015
We were crossing the Canada/USA border. I had my camera out because I wanted to take a video of the sign of the border, but he took my camera, deleted the video and looked through all of my pictures all the way up to 2013. That is my privacy and he had no right to do it. Upon request for his badge number he quickly rushed us through and refused to give it. As a lawful, legal citizen of the U.S., I will not condone this behaviour. There were no signs saying I can’t have my camera out to take pictures or videos. If that is the law, then you should clearly display it in big bold letters. He was such an arsehole. I DO NOT WISH TO EXPERIENCE THIS ONCE MORE. THIS TYPE OF MISTREATMENT IS UNACCEPTABLE.
Calgary Preclearance — June 2015
The officers were highly intimidating and aggressive and searched through all of my baggage, item by item, quizzing me specifically on items that would embarrass or demean me. They then read all of the messages on my phone, and quizzed me about my personal life. By the end I felt less than human.
Miami International Airport — October 2015
I was referred to secondary screening at the airport. [Redacted] was one of the officers sitting at the counters inside the inspection room. He repeatedly went through the purple and blue folders with passports and took none. I saw several passengers enter and depart and it was almost 2 hours before I was called.
[Redacted] was very unprofessional from the beginning. He asked some of the routine questions such as “purpose of trip, length of stay, occupation, etc”
I explained to [redacted], in response to his questions, that I was an employee of American Airlines and I was travelling for 1 day to collect some articles that my sister and I had purchased online. He asked why I was only travelling for 1 day and I explained that I had to return to work 2 days later. He enquired as to why I didn’t ship it, even though I had previously explained that as an airline employee, I have free flights on American.
From my passport, and also from his records, [redacted] was able to verify that I was a frequent traveller, but mostly in-transit and most of my trips to the US are quite short. [Redacted] asked to see my work ID, which I presented to him. He asked to see my Driver’s licence which I again produced. He then proceeded to ask for the name and telephone number of my aunt, which I provided to him. He then asked for my address in Trinidad, my telephone number. Although I didn’t see the relevance, I provided them as per request.
[Redacted] continued the interrogation with a dozen other questions. He even made very rude and demeaning remarks, which at the time I just ignored, but they were clearly an abuse of his power as a CBP officer. I think the final straw was when he turned to the officer sitting next to him and tried to ask in Spanish whether he could go through my phone. She said she didn’t think so. He then asked to see my phone and started going through my phone. I asked whether this was legal and he then asserted his authority with another derogatory remark.
It was then that I observed that his actions were purely motivated by something else, maybe racial but I said nothing at the time. I admit that most CBP officers are generally pleasant but this was the worst treatment I have ever received in my life by a CBP officer. I felt like a criminal. I was on the verge of tears. After almost an hour of interrogation, he then stamped my customs form and then wrote a big “S” on it, signalling me to be further screened, even though he knew that I had a connecting flight which was probably already gone.
On my way out of the secondary screening room, I asked to speak to a manager or supervisor. I waited for an additional 10-15 minutes and then [redacted] came and said that the manager was busy and if I preferred to speak to him. I explained to him the situation and he took my email address. To date, I have NOT received any feedback and I am concerned.
I have upcoming trips to the US for training at work and in-transit to other countries.
1.) Should I expect this same sort of treatment?
2.) Can CBP officers just go through the cell phones of travellers without probably cause? especially when there are signs posted everywhere to switch off cameras and cell phones?
3.) When do officers draw the line between professional questions and personal questions ? (the types of questions asked made me feel like I was on a date)
4.) What recourse do I have when officers abuse their power?
Thank you for taking the time to read this and looking forward to a favourable response.
Houston, Texas — August 2015
I was returning home , from my trip to Belize. I understand the importance of security and check points. For whatever reason I kept being pulled aside and asked multiple questions concerning my flight, stay, where I am currently working , how I payed for my flight and all. My biggest issue was when they pulled me aside after having rvr written on my ticket, they searched my bag. I happen to be texting someone while my phone in my pocket as they searched my bag. The security told me I can’t be using my phone so I put it away. Then he asks for my phone. After they searched my bag , they asked me for my password for my phone to look thru it. I feel that is however an invasion of privacy. And unnecessary especially as a U.S. Citizen I have my rights.
Newark Airport — August 2015
I arrived into EWR last night from LHR, I was taken to Secondary Security where I was made to wait for 1.5 hours with no explanation of why I was there. I was then told that I had previously over stayed by one day – months prior, this I now realise to be incorrect as I am on an ESTA which allows 90 days and I arrived 5th Jan 2015 and left 3rd April 2015 meaning that was under 90 days.
I then got repeatedly questioned saying I can’t keep coming back and forth and I have the incorrect paperwork – I have a valid ESTA, I don’t stay for more than 90 days and I go back to London for 90 days after each trip, I don’t work illegally or get paid by a U.S. company, I only attend client and sales meetings which under ESTA laws are permitted. She told me I’d need a proper visa to return which I don’t understand?
The worst part of this all is that the CBP officer took my personal cell phone and proceeded to go through all of my personal pictures looking at them all and asking me personal questions unrelated to why we were there, she then went through and read all of my text messages! My private conversations with loved ones and friends. I’m pretty sure this isn’t legal when I haven’t been suspected of anything dangerous??
I feel seriously angry and violated by this infringement on my human rights.
Sweetgrass Area Port, Montana — October 2015
[Redacted] was driving from Banff national park and going back home in Montana. When I was going through the checkpoint there were no other vehicles and I proceeded to go to the checkpoint. The officer told me there was a stop sign that I was supposed to stop and I didn’t. I apologised and told him that I thought I could just continue to the checkpoint because there were no other vehicles and the stop sign said to proceed when lane is clear. I understand I made a mistake so I apologised. I handed my passport to the officer that asked me standard questions. He asked me how long I was in Canada for and I answered Only one day. He said: You only went for one day?? In a rude way. I said yes I went hiking and have to get back to work. Then he said: is there something in your vehicle you don’t want us to find? I said no. He asked me to pull over to the left and come into the immigration building. I did so, and he made me fill out a customs declaration form. I did that. Then he said they will search my vehicle and I have to wait inside the building while they do so. I waited there for 15-20 minutes. Him and another officer came back. He left my passport on the counter and said I could go. I was treated with disrespect, rudeness, and no courtesy. When I went back to my vehicle they had disorganized all my clothes and personal belongings. My phone had been searched and personal images and videos were open. My privacy was violated.
I arrived Aug 13 2015 from Air Swiss was questioned .After I went through Customs. I was questioned beyond belief . My privacy was invaded. They went through my phone they called my friend from my German phone used all my minutes. Because he called my friend and asked her why I was coming to America. This is an invasion of privacy. If you treat all the passengers this way it is wrong. My phone was searched. He looked through my pictures asked who certain contacts were.
Houston, Texas — September 2015
CBPO checked their documents and everything was fine. But, then one officer asked him to come to a room. CBPO asked him to see his cell phone; the CBPO flipped it and saw all photos and emails. Then a female CBPO asked about the type of phone; and the settings. CBPO handed the telephone to the female CBPO who went ahead and wrote down the imtt settings number. He is concerned for his private information and if it is going to be cloned. He needs to know if this is a practice by CBPO to check items and write things down from personal cells. He is very concerned. He wants to know what they are looking for. He said it is not a complaint, but he is concerned and needs someone to get back to him with an explanation.
Port Everglades/Fort Lauderdale — September 2015
Warning: This story involves alleged sexual assault.
I came in on a flight from Jamaica I was cleared upstairs everything was fine until I got downstairs the officer took my passport send me into a line that stated line B. However I was greeted by [redacted]. He asked me what’s my purpose of travel I told him I went to my grandmothers funeral he then stated why I’m travelling back and forth to Jamaica so often I said my parents still live there he said my last travel I went to a funeral also I said no my last travelled I went to a family union he asked me about a trip from 2010 he stated if I know someone by the [redacted] I said no officer I’ve never travelled with anyone by that name. He said he’s looking at the video. I reply by saying I don’t know what you’re talking about. He then asked me what kind of job I do I told him what kind of job I do. He asked me where I work I told him where I worked. He then asked me if I know where on the body drugs is stored I replied by saying no officer I don’t know. He asked me the question again I said no officer I don’t know. He then went through my personal cell phone. He went through my messages, the last phone call that I received and made he asked me who paid for my trip. I told him who paid for my trip he then told me to have a seat.
SHIT about to get real serious I have a seat he then went for two female officers one by the [redacted] I asked if I could please used the bathroom they told me I have to wait. It took me about 10 minutes to use the bathroom. I went in use the bathroom I was locked in the bathroom. I had to push a button so someone could open the door when I was finished using the bathroom the two female officers took me into a room and locked the door behind me one was standing at the door and the other told me to put my hands on the wall she then kick my feet apart she start feeling on me she told me to squat and cough I asked what’s the purpose of this check. [Redacted] stated it was standard procedure. I replied by saying no this is not standard procedure this is not my first time travelling. She then asked me to take four steps backwards she asked me to squat again and cough. While I’m coughing the officer put her fingers literally inside my butt hole. She asked me how many days now I’m having my period. Excuse me she said yes just answer the question I felt so violated the officer literally stripped me down naked. When I asked why am I going through this, why am I being checked like this it’s standard procedure. This officer hands and fingers was almost inside my vagina I shoved her off, she said she’s going to handcuff me. I told her I’d rather you handcuffed me then to be feeling on me like this. What are you looking for, I got no reply, I was treated like an animal. I asked to speak with a supervisor. No one came to speak with me ask for a comment card I got none I felt traumatized. I was held for several hours with no probable cause, no explanation as to why I’m here. I need answers, I need someone to reach out to me and if I can’t get anywhere with this email that I’m sending I’m going to take it further because I’m a person who abides by the rules of the United States and shouldn’t be treated that way.