LAST week you'll remember the reader who wrote about the unpleasant experience she and her family suffered through when returning to New York from a trip Ireland. She and her husband, newly naturalized U.S. citizens, were aggressively questioned by a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officer; the husband was then taken to a room for further questioning, and eventually released.
They were told he was being questioned because he had been refused entry on a previous attempt to enter the U.S., which the wife said is untrue. The couple believed that by becoming citizens they could travel to and from the country with ease, and not have to undergo questioning about their whereabouts, length of time out of the country, etc.
A CBP press officer this column spoke to last week said agency officers retain the right to question travelers, even U.S. citizens. CBP officers also conduct "random" checks, the spokesperson said, "in an effort to keep our country safe."
Here's the rest of the letter from last week's reader which wasn't published for reasons of space, and some further thoughts on the subject.
"We had been so smug in thinking having citizenship would prevent us having that awful fear of immigration officers and that they have this authority to question you like a criminal. Can you advise us what to say next time, or is there any way we can find out why my husband was pulled in and how we can prevent this happening again? I'm assuming that we can never be denied/delayed entry into the U.S. even with such questioning?
"This was certainly not an experience I would ever like to repeat. It was embarrassing and scary for our children, my husband and myself, and we would like advice as to how we can talk to officers next time with a little more confidence as Americans just like him. Or do we still always have to approach immigration with cowered heads even with American passports in hand?"
U.S. citizens cannot be denied entry into the country. Of course if there's an outstanding legal/criminal issue they can be apprehended at the border, but citizens, even criminal ones, can't be turned away.
You ask about what to say/do should you and your family encounter more difficulty when returning to the U.S. (It's quite likely that you won't, by the way.) It's never a good idea to lose the cool, as your husband was undoubtedly (and understandably) tempted to do. Rather, ask to speak to the CBP officer's supervisor for further assistance.
"If you feel that the examination was not conducted in a professional manner, ask to speak with a CBP supervisor immediately. A CBP supervisor is always available at the facility or by telephone. Supervisors are responsible for ensuring that CBP officers treat all persons with dignity and that they behave in a professional manner," says a link on the agency's website. (Visit cbp.gov/linkhandler/ cgov/newsroom/publications/travel/whyexamc.ctt/whyexamc.pdf.)
If you want to investigate further why you experienced such trouble, CBP takes calls from the public at 1-877-CBP-5511. Perhaps you'd also like to raise the matter with your congressional representative.
Rest assured that you're not the only U.S. citizens who have been subject to questioning at the border. My daughter and I travel with different surnames, a point I've been asked about at Dublin/Shannon airports on more than one occasion. (Memo to CBP: It's okay for a woman to continue to use her maiden name after marriage!)
The very best of luck with your future travels. Let us know if you have a problem the next time. Here's betting that all will be well.