Commissionerpromises courteous and friendly border

Published on Thu, Sep 2, 2004 by eg Olson

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Commissioner promises courteous and friendly border

By Meg Olson

It has been a summer of discontent at local borders. As the department of homeland security forged ahead creating the new “one face at the border,” Customs and Border Protection inspectors, veteran immigration and customs inspectors complained they were being squeezed out. Reports of bullying by border inspectors took over the opinion page and flooded into congressional offices, and travelers reported growing confusion at apparently arbitrary decision-
making.

This week the national head of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Commissioner Robert Bonner, announced a program promising politeness. “Today I will publicly announce an initiative to ensure that all U.S. Customs and Border Protection employees uphold – at all times and in all circumstances – the highest standards of professionalism,” he said in an August 26 statement to the media. “Even one incident of rude or hostile conduct tarnishes the image of CBP, and gives our country a black eye. Even one instance of rude behavior is too many.”

The new program will include “professionalism training” for all inspectors, a new complaint/comment tracking process and a pledge to travelers. A copy of the pledge will publicly display the agency’s “commitment to the traveling public that they be treated with courtesy and respect.”

Seattle district media relations officer Mike Milne said the program was not triggered by rising complaints of mistreatment at the border. “In the last few years those numbers are neither up or down,” he said.

However, since mid-July The Northern Light has received 20 letters to the editor regarding the behavior of border inspectors, half of them documenting specific allegations ranging from simple rudeness to abuse of power and intimidation. Congressman Rick Larsen acknowledged that his office had also seen a rise in complaints about heavy-handed border inspections. “I don’t want to put a degree to it but there has been an increase,” he said.

Canada and USA Immigration Services owner F. Scott said his sign just south of the Pacific Highway port of entry has been bringing in a steady flow of those refused entry at the U.S. border. “For the most part they don’t have enough evidence of ties and equity,” Scott said. “Some Canadians think they can just come to the states for six months. That’s up to the inspector and the burden is on people to prove they’re not illegally immigrating.”

Sharon Simpson was one of the few who complained in a letter to the editor who did not ask to have their name withheld for fear of retribution next time they try to cross the border. Simpson, a White Rock gallery owner with a boat moored at the Semiahmoo Marina, was refused entry to the United States and had her NEXUS privileges revoked the first week of August after an inspector she described in her letter as “obnoxious” detained her for two hours dissatisfied with her residence status since she did not own her White Rock residence, but rented it. “They told me I was using my NEXUS too much to cross the border, but I thought that’s what it was for,” Simpson said. “I was really shaken up and affected. I couldn’t speak about it without crying for two days.”

A week later Simpson had her NEXUS back along with an apology from port director Peg Fearon. “I got it back but I’m still nervous crossing the border,” Simpson said.

Milne said Simpson’s complaint was reviewed after Fearon became aware of the incident through the letter in The Northern Light, not through the normal complaint process. “We encourage passengers who feel they have been mistreated to file a complaint at the time, ask to speak to a supervisor,” he said. “Local managers review these cases, speak with the inspector, get their side of the story. If action is warranted it could be anything from a letter in their file to more severe action.”

However, Milne said, other complaints were more about travelers not liking the rules than inspectors being harsh in enforcing them. “In some cases allegation have been shown to be unfounded,” he said. “People come in ranting and raving and others witness it.” Milne said border crossers should be prepared for the highest level of legal scrutiny by law enforcement allowed, including searches of their belongings, their vehicle, their personal items and even their person. “It’s the broadest search authority in the United States,” he said. “It’s basically a warrantless search that’s been upheld in the courts for many years. We take that authority very seriously and we don’t subject people to unnecessary searches but many still don’t like it.”
Simpson said since her letter was published she’s heard from several others who have been driven to tears at the border and speculated the power inspectors hold over travelers could lead some to enjoy wielding it. “He wanted me to cry,” she said. “I would have been out of there a lot sooner if I had cried.” She applauded the new professionalism program, and commended Fearon for what she said was a noticeable new air of courtesy at the local ports. “She’s serious,” Simpson said, referring to Fearon’s commitment in The Northern Light that all CBP employees have a duty to treat travelers with dignity and respect. “I’ve already seen a difference.”

Besides a program of politeness, the new professionalism initiative includes a national review of how decisions are made on the front lines. Bonner said the new program gives local port directors, inspectors and supervisors discretionary oversight so that, “individuals who do not pose any risk – who are not a potential terrorist or criminal threat, and who are not likely to remain in the U.S. illegally, be paroled – that is permitted to enter the U.S.” This differs from former immigration and naturalization policies, explained public information officer Cherise Miles, which focused on inadmissibility. “If there was any reason a person could be inadmissible, he was not admitted to the United States,” she said. “What changes here is our emphasis is towards admissibility. “If there is no evidence someone is excludable there are discretionary measures like paroles and waivers to let you in.”

Bonner said teams would be reviewing how that discretionary power is used in primary and secondary inspections “to make sure we’re keeping potential terrorists and criminals out, but allowing in those who pose no risk whatso-ever.”

Simpson’s case and others highlight how such a review might be needed to bring some consistency and predictability to the border. A truck driver was given no reason for being denied admission to the NEXUS program for low-risk passengers, but was admitted to the FAST pre-clearance program for low-risk freight trucks. At one port a U.S. foster parent was told her three-year old foster child would not be allowed back into the United States from Canada without a notarized birth certificate, but at another port was told that a notarized letter from state children’s services was sufficient. In Point Roberts an elderly man who had crossed the border weekly for 30 years was denied entry because he had stolen a parrot from a bar during World War II.

In Simpson’s case the day after her refused entry for not owning her home, her husband went to bring documents proving their residence to immigration authorities and left having been told “they were satisfied everything was in order, I could get my NEXUS back,” she said. The supervisor at the NEXUS office said no, and indicated his office had evidence of a fraudulent art importation charge on her record, making her high risk. Looking into the charge the next day, the Simpsons were told by a Peace Arch supervisor there was no evidence of it. The next day she was called by the NEXUS supervisor, returning her NEXUS privileges. Fearon’s apology came several days later. “After everything, it was absolutely not what I was expecting,” Simpson said.
Bonner said through the new initiative the now unified border enforcement agencies “have been given an unprecedented opportunity to develop a “new tradition” – as a new law enforcement agency – a tradition of professionalism and excellence among our workforce for years to come.”