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Ambush at the Border


More Americans than ever before are traveling abroad this summer. Yet few people realize the rude surprises they could face upon returning to America. The Customs Service has become one of the nation’s most intrusive, abusive agencies and the average traveler is at the feds’ mercy.

You might think that you need not worry about invasive searches because you are obviously not a drug smuggler. However, a Customs handbook suggests that people can be targeted for invasive searches on the basis of such factors as appearing nervous, wearing baggy clothes, appearing sick, or being unusually polite or argumentative. These categories are broad enough to sweep into suspicion almost anyone an agent chooses to target.

And a search can be far more than a simple pawing through your luggage. If a Customs agent suspects you have swallowed heroin in condoms as a means of smuggling, you can be detained for up to 24 hours – until you have a bowel movement that government agents can properly inspect. A federal court ruled in 1997 that Customs inspectors were justified in forcing a woman to undergo a “stool search” in part because inspectors found a small container of Vaseline in her suitcase – which they claimed could have been used to help insert drugs into her body.

For decades, the Customs Service has denied that its agents racially target certain people for intrusive drug searches. However, a General Accounting Office report released earlier this year found that black women who were U.S. citizens were 900 percent more likely to be searched for drugs than were white women. The Customs Service is promising to fix this problem. However, since Customs has promised for decades not to rely on racial targeting, many people are skeptical of the latest promise.

And new indignities are on the way. The Customs Service is now deploying new BodySearch equipment that uses X-rays to see through the clothes of designated lucky travelers. The American Civil Liberty Union’s Gregory Nojeim warned that the new body scanners could show “underneath clothing and with clarity, breasts or a penis, and the relative dimensions of each. The system has a joystick-driven zoom option that allows the operator to enlarge portions of the image.” The BodySearch system has the capacity to save images of what it views – so travelers may now look forward to a new kind of trip souvenir: a picture of their private parts on file at some government agency.

There are also perils in the endless declaration forms that citizens must fill out. If you make a list of the products you are bringing back from abroad – and intentionally leave one item out – you could be prosecuted for making a false statement to a federal official, which carries a three-year prison penalty. Though the Customs Service very rarely uses such authority, it is another sword of Damocles hanging over citizens’ heads.

One of the most frequent items that Americans smuggle is Cuban cigars. The Customs Service seized 90,000 smuggled Cuban cigars in 1997. If someone is caught with a sufficient number of cigars, the feds could prosecute under the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act and the person could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

You can also face federal charges if you don’t tell Customs agents that you are taking more than $10,000 in or out of the United States. In 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government wrongfully confiscated $357,144 from a Syrian-American at Los Angeles Airport merely because he did not fill out a Customs form declaring that he was taking his honestly acquired money out of the country.

The Customs Service responded to the Supreme Court defeat by sharply increasing its efforts to confiscate travelers’ cash. In 1999 testimony to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, Customs chief Ray Kelly declared, “Outbound currency seizures experienced a 59 percent increase in the amount of currency seized compared to the same time period in Fiscal Year 1997.”

At Houston International Airport, 100,813 passengers were searched in 1998, but Customs inspectors were able to find pretexts to strip only eight people of their cash, including a Mexican mother with a baby and $18,924. Customs’s crackdown is known as Operation Buckstop. The Wall Street Journal reported in December 1999 that “each passenger [must] walk past a checkpoint of agents empowered to search bags, open mail and, sometimes, remove a suspect from a flight.” Los Angeles immigration attorney Andres Bustamante observed that it is “common” for Customs agents to “approach Mexicans at the airport” during the holiday season “and take their money. They get a receipt and go on their way.” The National Council of La Raza denounced Operation Buckstop as “racial profiling.”

There are so many laws on the books that Customs agents can harass whomever they please. Americans must realize the high price they are paying for the power they have allowed the federal government to commandeer.

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    James Bovard is a policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a USA Today columnist and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader’s Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of Public Policy Hooligan (2012); Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book’s Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.