Apparently, I may be a terrorist. I say this because I’m treated this way almost every time I return to the United States from a solo international trip. I know, I know – hundreds, even thousands of Americans travel alone internationally without a single issue with the US Customs and Boarder Protection – just not me. For me, it’s extra security checks, questions and pat-downs. There are a number of variables in play during the re-entry process that determines whether “additional screening” is necessary, including (but not limited to) the experience level of the Customs Agent, you and your appearance, the countries you’ve visited, the purpose of your travel and whether you are traveling alone.
The last variable – plus “What do you do for a living” are the two questions that always seem to land me in detention. Over the last year, I’ve traveled to South Africa, Belgium, Panama, Costa Rica and Thailand solo. Except for the Belgium trip, I was pulled over for additional screening on every single one of these trips. The process played out exactly the same on every re-entry like this:
Customs Agent: Where did you visit?
CA: Was this business or personal?
CA: Who did you travel with?
Me: No one, by myself.
CA: What kind of work do you do?
Me: I’m not working right now
CA: So how can you afford a trip to [insert_country]?
Me: ??? I saved money
CA: One moment please (starts typing into the computer)
From there, I either get the Red folder for immediate escort to the locked administrative area or some code circled on the Blue re-entry form so that further screening can be performed once I’ve collected my bags.
The Interrogation Process
The administrative area (that’s what I’m calling it) is an area you are escorted to on orders of the first line customs agent. The doors literally lock behind you; you can walk in – but you have to be buzzed out by an armed customs agent to leave. Nice. Once locked in, you wait for a CBP agent to call your name to take you to the back for an interview. I won’t waste space (or give any real terrorist a heads-up) here detailing all of the questions – but they ranged from the repetitive/absurd to very detailed/necessary. This is the area where the ole ‘Full Cavity’ searches take place. At a minimum, expect to empty your pockets and any carry-on luggage.
If you have any checked bags, they let you out of prison to get your belongings – only to be handed a Blue folder so that your checked baggage can be x-rayed and searched by hand – along with more of the same questions asked in the admin area. To add insult to injury, when they were done – I was never told ‘why’ I was singled out, just a generic “Thank you – you are free to go”. All told, I spent anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour going through these additional security screenings.
This additional screening apparently wasn’t necessary for any of my non-solo trips in the last year. The only thing that was different was me answering “not alone” to the “who did you travel with” question. These trips included Australia, Brazil/Argentina, Mexico and Cuba. I repeat – Cuba for Pete’s sake. Of all the places additional screening would come into play, you’d think Cuba would be right near the top of the list. I guess only if you travel alone. Through the news, it is implied CBP uses sophisticated tools to weed out suspicious travelers, such as tickets purchased with cash, or one way tickets, no baggage – none of which prevented the alleged Christmas Day Bomber from boarding a plane. But round-trip tickets purchased by a US citizen who happens to be unemployed – well call the FBI, we’ve caught a Terrorist. I feel safer already.
Of course I could lie and say I’m a Minister, computer tech or the middleweight kickboxing champion of the world – but why should I have to?
Can this be avoided?
Sorta, but I’m not sure it’s worthwhile. The last time I went through this song and dance with Customs I asked why is this always happening to me. The agent took this as an opportunity to push the CBP’s Global Entry Program. The Global Entry program is Custom’s attempt to get “low-risk” citizens through the re-entry process as quickly as possible. To be accepted to the program, applicants will have to go through a very in-depth background check, provide biometric information (fingerprints), submit to an in-person interview and fork over the non-refundable $100 application fee. Assuming you are approved (and it’s far from sure thing you will be) – the membership is valid for 5 years.
I have a few problems with the Global Entry Trusted Traveler program;
- There are only 21 locations in which you can do the mandatory in-person interview. If you live in San Diego – you’ll need to brave the I5 traffic to Los Angeles. Live in New Orleans – guess you’ll have to hop on a flight to Atlanta or Houston. Perhaps someone should introduce Skype to these folks.
- You have to trust the government and its affiliates with your very personal information. Remember the Clear Program? This was another attempt at helping ‘low-risk’ travelers at the airport – but this was the security boarding process not re-entry. Anyway, personal information on 33,000 members of the Clear program where left exposed. While the US government is managing the Global Entry program and not a private company – there are still contractors, human errors and the inevitable breaches in security. Are you willing to put this level of detail (life history, biometrics, passport/SSN, etc.) in a single database managed by the outfit that took 4 years to figure out how to manage common names on the No-Fly-List? Not me.
- According to the CBP’s own website – you might be stopped for additional screening anyway. After all of the interviews, the turnover of personal information and money – the kiosk may still flag you if you are unemployed and travel alone. So much for low risk.
For me, the Global Entry program is just too much trouble for not enough benefit. To be honest, while these additional screenings are somewhat time consuming – I didn’t have any connecting flights to miss and nowhere really to be so I just took it in stride. I can’t say this post will do much to help prevent others from going this this, I just needed to vent.
Oh….I am not a Terrorist!!!