The Nervous Immigrant's Guide to Getting Through Customs

"When you’re in that moment the fear takes over.”

by Cole Kazdin
15 May 2017, 7:26pm

Photo illustration by Lia Kantrowitz from a photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Whenever Harman Boparai travels abroad now, he has a contingency plan in place. The Indian-born physician, working in the US on a visa, arranges for a backup doctor to be on standby at the hospital to attend to his patients if he's detained by border patrol.

"My practice has been to have one of my colleagues cover me in case I get held at the airport and can't make it in time to the operating room," he told me.

Boparai has been abroad three times this year and hasn't had problems re-entering the country, but even though he's here legally, he wants to prepare for the worst. "Ever since the travel ban, my inclination is to be cautious," he said, "even though I don't belong to the Islamic faith or the countries under the ban."

Federal courts are currently hearing arguments on the constitutionality of Donald Trump's revised travel ban, which suspends all refugee admissions and all travel from six Muslim-majority countries. But whatever judges decide in that case, the administration's anti-immigration rhetoric has created an atmosphere of fear for many immigrants and foreign workers. When the initial travel ban went into effect in January, US residents from affected countries were detained in airports; in February, a Nigerian software engineer was challenged by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officials who apparently didn't believe he was a software engineer; in March, a pair of doctors had to fight to remain in the country even though they were longtime legal US residents.

Horror stories like that give foreigners living in the US cause for concern, especially when they're re-entering the country. Get the wrong CBP official—or act or look any way that could be interpreted as suspicious—and a routine process can turn into an ordeal that can be both infuriating and terrifying. Customs can take as little as a few minutes, but it can also mean being detained for hours; it probably makes sense for Boparai and others to make plans for unexpected delays.

For advice on how to avoid those fraught encounters, I spoke to attorneys, immigration experts, and foreign workers for recommendations on getting though customs as smoothly as possibly and what border agents can and can't do. Here's what they told me:

Treat Immigration as if It Were a Job Interview

Bianca Consunji, a video producer who came to the US from the Philippines six years ago, skipped a friend's wedding in Mexico in February on the advice of her lawyer.

"I didn't want to take the risk that I would possibly not be let into the country," she said. Even though she had a work visa at the time, her lawyer told her that immigration officials "have power to do something that's not legal, like the travel ban." Now Consunji has a green card (granting her legal residency) and feels more secure, but she still dresses more formally and conservatively than usual when she travels in hopes she won't get pulled aside by CBP. (Last year she was detained for an hour after returning from a trip to Portugal.)

"The association with Filipinos is there are a lot of mail-order brides," she told me. She prints out her paperwork and her itinerary in a folder, so she doesn't have to fumble around for it in her phone. She's also exceedingly polite with the agents.

"Look as bright-eyed and cheerful as possible, even if you're bleary-eyed and stepping off a plane," was her advice to others in her situation. "I treat it as if it were a job interview."

Watch Eddie Huang's speech on immigrants and "no coupons":

Border Agents Have a Wide Scope of Authority

Unfortunately, there's little one can do to prevent getting stopped, pulled aside, or hassled. Since January, it seems to be happening more. The ACLU has been fielding more reports of CBP officers questioning people's valid documents, searching electronic devices, and treating people with suspicion.

"It does seem from our perspective that there has been a spike in this kind of aggressive treatment of travelers," said Hugh Handeyside, an attorney with the ACLU's National Security Project. "CBP bills itself as the nation's largest police force, but unlike police out in American communities, they're subject to very few limits," he says. "They are essentially accountability-free."

Answer Questions—to a Point

Hassan Shibly, executive director of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has made a series of videos on Facebook on what to do if are detained by CBP. His advice: Be polite, answer questions about your immigration status and your travels, don't answer questions about your religion or ethnicity.

"The minute they get into personal questions, ask to speak to a supervisor and refuse to answer any further questions until they let you out," Shibly said.

If asked, hand over your cell phone—but not the password

CBP has the authority to search a cell phone or laptop but not to force someone to turn over their password or unlock the device.

CBP did not respond to VICE's request for comment, but so far in fiscal year 2017, they have searched the electronic devices of 14,993 international travelers, according to an April 11 press release. (There were 19,033 searches of devices in all of 2016.) Last month, in a Border Security and Public Safety hearing, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly likened a cell phone search to a luggage search. "In general, just like an American citizen coming in and having his bags searched at the port of entry, generally speaking it's done for a reason," he said.

"For non-citizen visa holders, the risk is not only that their device can be taken against their will, but that they can be denied entry because of that," Handeyside said. For this reason, civil right attorneys recommend that travelers set strong passwords, encrypt their devices, or travel with a burner phone.

Stay Calm

But it's one thing to know your rights; it's quite another when you're actually detained.

"Civil rights groups try to prepare you," said Muhammad Sattaur, who was detained in April after returning from a vacation in Egypt. "But I can tell you based on firsthand experience, when you're in that moment the fear takes over."

Sattaur, an American citizen, runs a tour business with his family that takes groups to Mecca. He travels a lot and had never been pulled aside before.

"If you're a US citizen, you can't be denied entry," said Handeyside. CBP may still take your device, and even hold onto it, but they have to let you in. Sattaur's wife, whom he was traveling with, held onto his phone and bags while he was detained.

After nearly four hours of questioning—he was asked where he went to college, about every place he's traveled in his life, and for stats about his company—Sattaur said the officer looked at the clock, made a comment about his shift ending, and let Sattaur go.

Sattaur and many other travelers told me the most important things one can do are to stay calm, and answer questions as succinctly as possible.

Longer answers "can lead to other lines of inquiry and potentially waste time," says Sarah Pierce, an analyst with the US Immigration Program.

Conz Preti, an Argentinian journalist who has been working in the US for six years, sticks to two-word answers. (Why did you go to Brazil? For work.) She's been harassed by officers at the border in the past. "Once I had one ask me how long I was going to be taking money from the US," she said.

Preti is Mexico now, and worries about getting back. "Of all countries (bad hombres)," she wrote in an email. "I'm expecting for it to be more complicated… I have my lawyer's number on speed dial."

However you carry yourself, whatever papers you have, there's not much you can do if a CBP officer decides to question you, other than endure it.

"I've been stopped by customs over 20 times since I was 18 years old, put in handcuffs, asked what I think about Moses and Jesus and just the most ridiculous things about my private religious practice," Shibly said. "I've spoken with countless clients who have all been through the same thing. The only way you can win is by standing up and asserting your rights."

Cole Kazdin is a writer living in Los Angeles.

airport security
travel ban