“Say Please” or Bullies at the Border

Last week a member of the CBP committee forwarded an article about a Canadian national, Desiderio Fortunato, who refused to turn his car engine off at a border crossing point east of Vancouver, until and unless the CBP officer said “Please.”

Apparently both parties dug their heels in, with the CBP officer continuing to tell the Canadian to turn his engine off–omitting the magic words–and Mr. Fortunato insisting on a modicum of courtesy. Instead, he received a face full of pepper spray, a three-hour interrogation and a request (OK, maybe the word “request” isn’t quite the right word here) to return home.

I have been thinking about the scene for the last week. First I wondered why it wasn’t featured on that hit show “Homeland Security”–maybe it could have saved that wonderful concept from cancellation! Then I imagined the call from the CBP Officer’s mother after she read about her son in the paper: “I’m truly appalled at your behavior, dear. Didn’t I raise you better than that?” Finally I decided that Mr. Fortunato is my new hero.

Clearly, CBP Officers have a vital, and often difficult task. Their jobs call for a balance between quick decision-making and sound judgment, as well as a vast knowledge of both immigration and customs laws. The ultimate goal is to protect our country from threats to national security while allowing access to the U.S. by those who have legitimate reasons to enter.

Most of the time, the reports I hear about encounters with CBP relate to a lack of knowledge of the immigration laws. Some recent examples: A client’s employee, entering in Miami, had her L-2 visa cancelled because she also had an advance parole. She was instructed to use the advance parole only. Yet another employee was threatened at the U.S.- Canada border for using his H-1B while he had an adjustment pending, and told that he would not be permitted to enter the next time. There have been numerous cases in which CBP officers have bullied LPR’s into giving up their green cards after a long absence abroad, notwithstanding re-entry permits and/or significant ties to the U.S. A client of an AILA colleague had an O visa readjudicated at entry–apparently notwithstanding the judgment of a CIS Service Center and a consulate, the individual was simply not that extraordinary, in the eyes of the CBP. My personal favorite from the last few weeks, from my home-town airport–Dulles–was a former F-1 student entering with an immigrant visa after consular processing. The student had a period of unauthorized employment in the U.S. before departing to obtain the immigrant visa. CBP detained him at Dulles, and then put him in proceedings, claiming (and this is after consultation with a supervising CBP officer) that he was subject to the 10 year bar.

These anecdotes are of course, just a sampling, and they are deeply disturbing, both in their seeming arbitrainess, and the lack of solid legal ground evidenced in these decisions. I confess that I am losing patience with the standard response, “It’s a training issue.” At this point, I would offer to train CBP myself, at no cost to the government, and I’m sure I would have an army of willing volunteers from AILA. However, I can even understand that CBP officers can’t know all the rules all the time—as long as they are able to politely excuse themselves to look things up or check with a colleague. But I’m right there with Mr. Fortunato–there is absolutely no place for rudeness at the border.

DHS has to understand that CBP is essentially our face to the outside world. The way anyone is welcomed at a port of entry may well form that individual’s impression of our culture. We are welcoming visitors who want to explore beautiful landmarks (and spend money here) as well as business people who want to explore new investments (and spend money here!) We are welcoming professionals who lend their talents to U.S. enterprises, fiances of U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents who have chosen our country as their new home. By extending common courtesy on a daily basis to those who come across our borders, CBP could be a symbol of the words of President Obama in his inauguration speech: “Know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity.”

That is not to say that we should fling open our doors and let all through who wish to enter. But any person who has read a parenting book or dealt with a toddler tantrum can tell you that it is possible to say “no” firmly and politely. And CBP Officers have more tools at their disposal to deal with uncooperative individuals than parents do. If a foreign national does not respond well to “no,” CBP Officers can do a lot more than send him to his room.

It is really too bad that we can’t regulate manners. And it’s even sadder that we would have to.

by Eleanor Pelta