“My husband, myself and three young kids (two babies) recently arrived at Kennedy Airport on a flight from Dublin. We were excited about going through immigration for the first time as a family of Americans. We received our American citizenship last year, and this was our first trip using our American passports (our three kids born here).
“However, the officer we met was very rude and began asking my husband and myself a barrage of questions regarding the purpose of our trip, occupations, how often do we travel. Needless to say we were shocked at this sudden ‘interview,’ but we answered all questions politely given that by now our two youngest babies were crying due to the long flight, etc.
“When the officer seemed to finish he gave myself and the kids our passports and told us to proceed to baggage claim, but that my husband should proceed to another room for further processing! We looked at each other in shock. Wasn't this what we were trying to avoid by becoming citizens?
“After 40 minutes my husband appeared. He had asked the next officer why he was pulled in and the officer told him it was because he had been refused entry once before. This is not the case. My husband and myself were never refused entry.
“We came here in 1993 and overstayed. We got our green cards in 1996, paid our fines at that time for our overstay and applied for our citizenship in 2006 which we happily received in 2007. We traveled to Ireland at least twice a year all this time without incident except once.
“We both were only questioned once by immigration in 2005 (when we had green cards) when the officer was insistent in asking had we ever entered the country illegally prior to 1996. My husband and myself did not answer with any specifics as we didn't think that our trips some 12 years previously were relevant now that we were green card holders, especially as USCIS were given all dates of our previous trips on our green card applications.
“At that time in JFK in 2005 we were led away to the other interview area, where the next officer just stamped our passports and did not give us any further reason for us being pulled in (nor did we hang around to ask). Subsequently we never had an issue, even with our citizenship applications/interviews. There did not seem to be any red flags. My husband has no criminal background or any other immigration flaw to pick up on.
“This was such a terrifying, awful experience that we were certainly not expecting. We would like to know what are our rights as American citizens given this situation should arise again -- can we be questioned in such a way? Can we refuse to answer such questions as we are no longer dependent on green cards?”
We spoke to Joanne Ferreira, a press officer at U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) in Washington, D.C. about your situation. Of course she would not go into details about a specific case, but can CBP officers question returning American citizens in the way that your husband experienced? Absolutely, she said.
“Travelers go through primary inspections, and if a CBP officer maybe notices something irregular then there can be a secondary inspection,” she said.
Ferreira added that CBP officers can also question travelers “at random.”
“They can do this in order to make sure that everything is in order in an effort to keep our country safe,” she said.
Fair enough, but your frustration is more than understandable considering that you’ve traveled many times before without incident, and successfully completed the naturalization process as well. Refusing to answer questions, though, would not be advisable for many reasons, especially because CBP officers do have the right to initiate these types of inspections.
We’ll have more on this subject next week, including the rest of the questioner’s letter and further thoughts.