I left the Dominican Republic on Sunday with the expectation that my trip home to D.C. was going to be uneventful. An agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protection who was working at Miami International Airport ensured that it was not.
Here is what happened.
American Airlines Flight 1481 took off from Las Américas International Airport in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo shortly after 3:45 p.m. It landed in Miami less than two hours later without incident.
Marisa Hutchinson, an LGBT activist from Barbados, and José Angel Santoro, a Spanish man who is the secretary general of Rainbow Rose, the LGBT network of the Party of European Socialists, were also on my flight. We and more than 300 other people from across Latin America and the Caribbean attended a conference in Santo Domingo that the Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute co-sponsored with Diversidad Dominicana, an advocacy group in the Dominican Republic, and Caribe Afirmativo, an LGBT rights organization that works in northern Colombia.
José Angel waited for me on the jetway. Marisa was behind us as we walked into the terminal.
The two CBP agents who were standing near the end of the jetway allowed José Angel and I to walk past them without incident. We stopped near a moving walkway and saw that one of the agents was questioning Marisa.
The agent — a man who was in his late 30s or early 40s — had taken Marisa’s passport and was increasingly aggressive as he asked her about why she was in the Dominican Republic and what she did as an LGBT activist. José Angel and I watched this increasingly uncomfortable spectacle unfold for several minutes before we approached the agent and asked him what was wrong.
The agent told us Marisa could not provide him the specific name of the conference — which was in Spanish — the three of us had just attended. José Angel told the agent it focused on LGBT rights and political participation. The agent asked us what LGBT means, so José Angel and I explained it to him.
I then asked the agent whether CBP had recently implemented a new policy that allows him to interrogate passengers who arrive in the U.S. on international flights.
“Since 1983,” he smugly said.
The agent then told us people who don’t travel internationally very often don’t typically realize the policy exists.
I travel internationally regularly and I have never seen CBP agents approach anyone who had just arrived on an international flight and interrogate them before they enter customs. A source from Miami who also travels regularly on Monday said CBP agents at Miami International Airport “never” question passengers on international flights as soon as they leave the jetway.
The agent who was interrogating Marisa asked José Angel and I for our passports after we approached him. The agent than asked me what I do for a living.
“I’m a journalist,” I told him indignantly while holding my iPhone in my hand.
Marisa, José Angel and I began to walk towards customs a couple of minutes later. We were angry about what had just happened, but we soon realized that we did not ask the agent for his name. I also apologized to Marisa for the way the agent — who works on behalf of my country — treated her.
I wrote about what had happened on my Facebook page before I passed through customs.
All travelers entering U.S. ‘subject to CBP inspection’
I asked CBP on Monday to provide me with information on whether agents have the expressed authority to question passengers who arrive in the U.S. on international flights before they enter customs. I also asked for specific information about the 1983 law to which the agent referred and whether there are guidelines about how CBP instructs its personnel to treat those with whom they interact.
A spokesperson emailed me a statement.
“U.S. Customs and Border Protection realizes the importance of international travel to the U.S. economy and we strive to process arriving travelers as efficiently and securely as possible while ensuring compliance with laws and regulations governing the international arrival process,” it reads. “All travelers arriving to the U.S. are subject to CBP inspection.”
The statement said there are “many reasons” that agents “decide to examine someone.”
“Some referrals for additional screening are for reasons other than information in law enforcement databases, such as the individual’s circumstances of travel or random selection,” it says. “CBP does not assume that travelers have done anything wrong — because very few travelers actually violate the law. As part of an inspection, travelers may be asked questions regarding citizenship, the nature of their trip, and anything the traveler may be bringing back to the United States that was not in their possession when they departed.”
The spokesperson did not respond to my question about the 1983 law to which the agent referred when I asked him about whether passenger interrogations are a new policy. The spokesperson also did not respond to my question about whether the type of interrogation that Marisa experienced on Sunday has become more common since President Trump took office.
“Everyone who arrives at a U.S. port of entry is subject to inspection,” says CBP on its website. “We do not assume that you have done anything wrong.”
The website notes agents may ask those who seek to enter the U.S. questions about their citizenship, reasons for traveling to the country and whether they are bringing anything they did not have when they left. CBP also points out that agents have “the legal authority” to examine a traveler’s luggage, electronic equipment and car.
“Supreme Court decisions have upheld the doctrine that CBP’s search authority is unique and does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures,” it points out on its website. “However, with this authority, CBP expects all of its officers to conduct their duties in a professional manner, and treat each traveler respectfully.”
The agent who interrogated Marisa was anything but professional. He certainly did not treat her with the respect that CBP policy outlines.