Border protection authorities in the U.S. sometimes have a harsh reputation amongst international travellers. Are they really deserving of these credentials? Plus, do’s and don’ts at airport checkpoints. Part I – the big picture.

It’s a scene that’s confronted many millions of weary, nervous travellers arriving at U.S. airports every year – long lines for immigration, icy, un-empathetic officers behind glass walls, sniffer dogs veering worryingly close to personal belongings and then a nail-biting final encounter with customs officials before the exit.

For those among us who have long-suffered the anxious moments of un-knowing, the endless hours of wondering whether those two dreaded words, “secondary inspection,” will be uttered by a fierce-looking uniformed officer before us, here is a measure of disambiguation, a beacon of inside knowledge if you will, that could help you rest easy as your plane approaches the landing tarmac.

In recent weeks the Foreign Press Centre, which is the media division of the U.S. State Department, organised a much-anticipated reporting tour to Dulles International Airport (IAD) for foreign journalists, perhaps in a bid to disseminate some information on the processes undergirding the work of Customs and Border Protection (CBP). CBP is the authority within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) apparatus responsible for manning thin line between America and the rest of the world.

Some have wondered whether the view of this border from within is that of the final frontier, with barbarians at the gate, waiting to burst in and wreak havoc in a limping, post-recession U.S. economy. Indeed the very origins of DHS, born of a defensive reflex that characterised post-9/11 security policy, suggest that it might focus on keeping certain people out, rather than letting more and more of the right people in.

Yet this is likely to be untrue. In the words of Stephen Sapp, a public information officer within CBP, the U.S. welcomes travellers from across the world – however it does not compromise on all visitors abiding by the rules of entry, just as Americans are expected to follow the laws of other nations that they may choose to visit.

Of course, among the rules of entry accorded highest priority are firstly that visitors possess the right immigration or visa documentation for their stay in the U.S., and secondly that they do not attempt to bring in any contraband or undeclared items to which disclosure requirements apply.

It’s worth drilling down into some of the details that the CBP kindly laid out for our team of visiting reporters. But first – some big-picture factoids:

Based on FY2012 statistics for CBP nationwide, in a typical day:

  • 963,174 passengers and pedestrians are “processed”
  • 66,615 truck, rail and sea containers seek entry
  • 260,143 incoming privately-owned vehicles

Of these, at the U.S. ports of entry CBP stops:

  • 536 “inadmissables”
  • 999 apprehensions
  • 395 refusals of entry
  • 54 arrests of criminals
  • 66 fraudulent documents cases

CBP also seizes

  • 5,289 kilograms of drugs
  • $274,065 in undeclared or illicit currency
  • 476 pest-ridden products

With such a large volume of daily goods-and-people inflow, it is hardly a surprise when charges of overzealousness are levelled against certain actions taken by CBP or other DHS units such as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). In India’s case this would include, for example, the detention of Shah Rukh Khan, the pat-down of former Ambassador Meera Shankar, or the controversial arrest of film-maker Vijay Kumar (which The Hindu covered extensively here and here, in among other pieces).

Yet there is a flip side to this process – the cooperation of CBP and its sister agency, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with Indian authorities – was vital in securing evidential proof behind the ground-shaking case of Subhash Kapoor, an alleged idol smuggler who reportedly looted millions of dollars worth in statues and other artefacts from Indian temples and hawked them off to various U.S. museums.

These cases, which attracted media and public attention for both positive and negative reasons, are all rooted in interpretations of the laws governing entry into and exit from the U.S. The laws or rules themselves have not changed much over the years, barring the controversial introduction of full-length “naked picture” body scanners – criticised for invading passenger privacy – and more arduous procedures at security check after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber” nearly detonated explosives mid-air on Christmas Day 2009.