Monday, September 13, 2010

Border Crossings: Sometimes It's Easier to Go Abroad than Return

This article is for DC area residents who travel abroad, which is to say, a lot of us. There are two ways to return to the United States:  the easy way and the hard way. Easy is when nothing happens at all. You breeze through immigration and customs, those cute drug-sniffing doggies ignore you, and you still have all the luggage you boarded the airplane with. The hard way is when Customs decides it's interested in you.

For now, US Customs and Border Protection has the legal right to seize and search any electronic device you bring back into the United States, including laptops, iPads, cellphones, USB sticks -- the works.  This policy, first implemented by the Bush administration in 2008 has been continued by the Obama administration.  Currently, Customs agents can search any device for any reason. (Other countries, including the United Kingdom, can search laptops and electronic devices, too.) The ACLU has filed a lawsuit to require the government to have  reasonable suspicion before searching somebody's laptop or electronic device. Over the past two years, approximately 6,500 returning Americans have had their laptops searched.

It might be years before there's a definitive court judgment. Until then, don't put anything you don't want the government to see on your laptop, cell phone, or other electronic device when you travel abroad.

While the legality of what the government can look at is still up in the air, what customs can ask you when you return, and what you have to answer, is crystal clear. Other than the forms you fill out, you don't have to say anything. If a passport control officer asks you why you went to China, you're not required to explain anything or even answer at all. But everyone does answer the "Why were you in x-country?" question. Everyone except for Paul Lukas, who refused to tell the passport control officer why he went to China.

Here's how the exchange between the passport control officer and Lukas went:
“Why were you in China?” asked the passport control officer, a woman with the appearance and disposition of a prison matron.
“None of your business,” I said.
Her eyes widened in disbelief.
“Excuse me?” she asked.
“I’m not going to be interrogated as a precondition of re-entering my own country,” I said.
Lukas said what? He certainly has some cojones. For what happened next (and what happened next took  hours), read Paul Lukas' blog, Knife Tricks. (It's not a crime to remain silent, but it is a crime to lie to a federal official, so you're always better off keeping your mouth shut than saying "business" when you spent all the time at the beach.)  Personally, I prefer to make my entrances back into the United States as un-memorable as possible.

Thanks to the Consumerist for spotting this.

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