Welcome to Customs… and Bullying, Intimidation, and False Accusation

Some might consider a young woman traveling alone independent and adventurous. Some might consider her bilingualism an asset. Apparently, though, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers consider both of these suspicious. And if the young woman fits the physical profile of a Latina, then that’s a problem, too.

My older daughter has her father’s fair skin. Her dark eyes and dark hair are my Filipino and Mexican contributions. She’s been assumed to be Italian, Russian, Greek, Persian, and Arab. But most often and especially where she lives in Los Angeles, people speak to her in Spanish assuming that it is her native language. It’s a language she’s acquired, having studied it in secondary school and gained fluency in during a college study abroad program in Spain.

When her sister bought her a round-trip plane ticket to Costa Rica as a birthday gift, Natalie decided to devote most of her nine-day vacation to learning how to surf in the small coastal resort town of Jacó. This was a generous gift born of empathy and compassion. Her sister knew how much Natalie needed a break, and Natalie gratefully took the opportunity to strive to embody the word tattooed between her shoulders: Volaré. Despite a trauma she has suffered and obstacles that complicated her recovery, Natalie’s goal is to soar above it, to find release and freedom through actions that affirm her strength. The exhilaration of riding a wave still buoyed her when her plane touched down in Ft. Lauderdale for a layover where she was to meet up with an old friend.

Natalie has crossed borders before. She has visited Spain, England, Ireland, Italy, Morocco, Canada and Mexico. There was no reason to believe that returning to the U.S. from Costa Rica wasn’t just another customs check.

To keep our borders secure, we must inspect everyone who arrives at a U.S. port of entry, says the CBP website. Perfectly reasonable.

Natalie entered the line for Americans in the immigration area. After scanning her passport and getting her picture taken she was directed by an officer to another line. When she asked for clarification, the officer informed her that everyone in that line was there for a reason—a reason he felt it unnecessary to disclose. She noticed that other people, mostly white couples, were being directed to a shorter line where they were being asked few questions and were quickly passed through to baggage claim and customs.

When she arrived at the window, she greeted the officer in English. He greeted her back in Spanish and asked her where she had been traveling. She responded in English. He continued to question her in Spanish. Realizing this was a conversation he was determined to conduct in Spanish, she accommodated his preference.

It was weird because we obviously both spoke English and I had a hard time understanding him at times because he spoke Cuban Spanish, which I’m not used to.Natalie

While travelers at the adjacent windows were being passed through quickly, Natalie was delayed as the officer scrutinized her passport and consulted his computer. Finally, the officer let her go and she proceeded to baggage claim. By that time, the baggage from her flight had been taken off the carousel. After locating her bag, she got in the long line for customs. Natalie did not suspect that the “Welcome to Customs” sign might as well have read “Beware of Bullying and Intimidation.”

As she waited, an officer and drug-sniffing dog walked past her without incident. When she reached the kiosk, she showed her bag of souvenirs—small items such as key chains, earrings, and a small jar of coconut oil skin moisturizer. The officer asked about food and she showed him some granola bars she had. While most people were being passed through to the rest of the airport, she was told to go to line B.

In the room where line B was located, there were about ten people in front of her—one white couple and the rest people of color.

It is illegal for law enforcement officers to perform any stops, searches, detentions or removals based solely on your race, national origin, religion, sex or ethnicity.ACLU

The line was slow because people were being questioned at length. When Natalie’s turn came, she handed the officer her passport and customs form. He asked her if she was traveling alone. She said yes, and he told her to come around to the other side and put all her things on the table. He asked her if she knew why she was there.

“No,” she said.

“You really don’t know.”


At this point, the officer’s demeanor changed. He got more aggressive, more authoritative. “This isn’t normal to be here,” he said. “Most passengers don’t end up here.” Her being there was not an accident, he told her.

We do not assume that you have done anything wrong—because very few travelers actually violate the law.CBP

Yet, he wouldn’t tell Natalie why she was there. He alluded to her rights, but warned they would change after a certain point. Something was definitely wrong, Natalie knew. Someone was definitely wrong. The fact that it wasn’t her didn’t curb her unease.

“Why are you nervous if you haven’t done anything wrong?” the officer taunted.

“Because you just said this wasn’t normal—being here,” she told him, trying to control her anxiety about being detained for no apparent reason. “And you won’t tell me why I’m being treated this way.”

He asked her if she had a medical condition. She told him she took Zoloft for anxiety, and he asked to see her meds.

“If it’s Zoloft why does the bottle say Sertaline?”

Natalie explained that Sertaline was the generic name for Zoloft. “It’s written on the label,” she told him.

He told her to go ahead and take her meds right then. She told him she wasn’t supposed to. He took the Zoloft bottle to the computer to look it up. When he returned, he asked her why she was traveling alone, whether she had been alone the entire time, and where she had traveled. When she tried to answer each question, he cut her off and demanded that she let him finish, even though she hadn’t interrupted him.

We pledge to treat you courteously and professionally.CBP

He told her he had been doing this work long enough to know when someone had drugs. If he couldn’t find them in her bag, she would be taken away. They would strip search her and look inside of her.

A strip search at the border is not a routine search and must be supported by “reasonable suspicion,” and must be done in a private area.ACLU

She was terrified now. She told him again she hadn’t done anything wrong and didn’t understand why this was happening. He started going through her things and told her that this was the time to come clean about drugs and just say she made a mistake. He said that when people do that they walk out the exit door. He said it happened the day before with a girl coming from Costa Rica.

We do not assume that you have done anything wrong—because very few travelers actually violate the law.CPB

He told her she was being detained and would be there at least a few hours. She told him her friend was waiting for her and she had a flight to catch and a job to return to the next day. Drugs were the issue of concern, he told her, not her friend or her flight.

I told him I don’t do drugs. He said he wasn’t accusing me of doing drugs. That’s different than trafficking drugs, he said.Natalie

He picked up her journal and began reading it. She asked him not to. “You really need to learn your rights,” he told her. He asked if she wrote in her journal daily and what she wrote about. She didn’t answer.

I told him this wasn’t normal what he was doing. “Well, most people don’t traffic drugs,” he responded.Natalie

He told her to put everything back in her backpack. He then opened her suitcase. He asked what her highest level of education was and what she did for a living. When she told him, he wondered why, if she had a university education, she was working as a waitress.

People who had been behind her in line were being passed through quickly while the officer emptied Natalie’s suitcase and unzipped the lining. Then he told her to pack her suitcase and pointed her toward the exit and walked away without saying a word.

Integrity is our cornerstone. We are guided by the highest ethical and moral principles. Our actions bring honor to ourselves and our agency.CBP

It was only then, feeling totally alone, bullied, and humiliated as she packed up her things, that she allowed herself to cry.

Other passengers and officers just stared as I cried.Natalie

Natalie’s trip to Costa Rica, her first vacation in a long time, was a gift from her sister. It ended with bullying and intimidation, including racial profiling, accusations of drug trafficking, and threats of detention and a body search, when she returned to her own county. Natalie was raped in college so the threat of a body search had terrified her. She’s being treated for PTSD as a result of the assault and is recovering from an eating disorder. This is why she keeps a journal, why she’s not on a career path at the moment, and why she’s on meds for anxiety. It’s why she and others like her are especially vulnerable to harsh and questionable CBP tactics.

How many others have been subjected to a bullying, smug CBP officer who leveled false accusations and tried to induce a false confession? How many of them have been sexual assault victims who are pushed to the brink of reliving their trauma when threatened with a body search? CBP officers play a dangerous game with the health and well-being of innocent travelers.

Unfortunately, there seems to be little accountability within this agency. A complaint filed with the CBP returned a nicely bureaucratic response that it would take action against anyone accused of wrongdoing.

In fact, CBP has a poor record when it comes to responding to complaints of abuse, even those far more egregious, so there’s little expectation that this case will receive the action it is due. Complaints have also been filed for the record with the ALCU SoCal and Miami, and selected lawmakers, including Barbara Boxer of California and Jim McDermott of Washington.

So, safe travels out there. But more importantly, safe passage through Immigration and Customs on your return.