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 II - the conclusions...

With the big picture on U.S. border protection laid out in the first part of this blog entry, it is fruitful to revisit the basic entry norms, especially if when a border crossing – ideally of the legal variety – is imminent.

First, it helps to be familiar with allowed and disallowed items and not bring in luggage anything that could be considered contraband. While this may seem rather obvious, the number of people who get confused about this, or who end up making mistakes and then fudging their paperwork is considerable, CBP officers told this correspondent.

In particular airlines (and presumably ships as well) supply disembarking passengers with a customs declaration form, and this form asks passengers whether they are carrying any food, plant, or meat/animal products. Here it is important to answer “yes” if any such item is being carried, and not only for items that the passenger speculates is included within a “grey area” category.

This is because the customs declaration form is actually considered the first of three or four different points at which the passenger has the opportunity to declare potential contraband. If despite these multiple opportunities a passenger refuses to declare items that ultimately turn out to be disallowed then they are liable to face civil, and in some cases criminal, prosecution. Typically there is a $300 penalty for untruthful declarations.

Yet this first encounter with the “invisible border” could work in passengers’ favour too. CBP officer Robert Hunt narrated an incident when he was in the secondary inspection unit and discovered a passenger was attempting to bring in a large vat filled with live crabs from El Salvador.

Although he thought he’d landed a major catch that day, further investigation revealed that that item was indeed on the “permitted” list and El Salvadorian crabs were regularly imported to feed a migrant population from that country located in Northern Virginia.

Another officer in secondary inspection, Specialist Leilani Worrell, said to The Hindu that the only fresh food items permitted in luggage for travellers arriving from India were onions and peeled garlic. Processed and hermetically sealed items – other than meats such as meat pickles – are generally permitted. However the regulations governing the list of permissible and disallowed items changes frequently, Specialist Worrell cautioned, and general information on it is on this website: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/import_export/. One month’s supply of pharmaceutical drugs is usually permitted, but for prescription medication the prescription must be shown.

The second broad point to be aware of prior to embarking on a flight to the U.S. – and this probably applies equally to all or most other countries too – is that the paperwork for travel is in order. Officer Brett Penberthy, who spoke to The Hindu from across one of those much feared immigration officer booths made of glass, said that while he does look out for signs of suspicion in a passenger’s story, he remains fundamentally aware that most passengers are simply tired and overwhelmed after a long journey and want to get home from the airport without a fuss.

That being said, Officer Hunt said that “global intelligence” and “non-verbal communication” signals are also used as part of the arsenal of immigration officers tackling the long lines of travellers at most U.S. airports. So for example, he said, even as parts of the Spanish economy tanked during the worst of the global economic downturn, CBP officers noted an uptick in the number of would-be immigrants from that country – and not all of them had the right documentation.

One question that our journalist corps posed to the officers was how they resisted the drift towards racial profiling when it came to the interpretation of body language, defined most broadly. A classic example that colleague from Pakistan alluded to was the tendency of persons from his and nearby countries in Asia to avoid direct eye contact with uniformed officials for reasons of cultural habit. Are there any such red flags, we asked of the CBP.

Although CBP officers however alluded to the “shifty eyes” signal as one that suggested that the person they were interviewing might have something to hide, Mr. Sapp explained that “sensitivity training” was typically provided to all officers at least once a year and often it was once every six months.

Nevertheless, it would be unwise to underestimate the pressure faced by officers manning the border. Possibly under pressure from brutal federal budget cuts engendered by the Congress-mandated “sequestration,” a bewildering feature of U.S. border control is that despite an eight per cent rise in arrivals since 2008, the ranks of their officers have scarcely increased at all. Despite this the number of inadmissible foreign nationals stopped (and presumably deported) during the last year was 1,108, or 0.03 per cent of the total volume.

With the U.S. continuing to rely on talented immigrants to drive forward its economic prospects in these difficult times, border control will always be an important part of its overall policy arsenal. Indeed border protection is a major component of ongoing discussions regarding comprehensive immigration reform, a key thrust of the second Obama White House.

The gatekeepers to America’s vast immigration melting pot are ultimately humans following rules and prejudices may sometimes creep in – as the occasional story of overzealous detainment or interrogation reveal. Yet what matters at the macro level is indeed that rules govern the operation system and they are closely adhered to by people on both sides of those rules. Given the ease with which information about such rules can be accessed in today’s networked world there are fewer and fewer excuses to plead ignorance.