01/09/2015 11:05 am ET Updated Mar 11, 2015

Being Polite Does Not Diminish Security: The Sometimes Shameful Treatment of Valid U.S. Visitors and Residents

The United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is responsible for the complicated and indispensable role of handling the influx of people and goods into the United States. CBP's mandate is incredibly broad: on a typical day, CPB welcomes nearly 1 million visitors, screens more than 67,000 cargo containers, arrests more than 1,100 individuals and seizes nearly 6 tons of illicit drugs. CBP officers help keep our nation and our citizens safe. That said, the agency could do more to ensure that lawful visitors to the U.S. are treated with courtesy and respect. CBP is the first point of contact for all foreign nationals entering the US, and are themselves a reflection of American principles and ideals. Unfortunately, improper treatment by a few CBP officers at air, sea, and land borders can ruin not only CBPs image, but also that of our country.

CBP directives recognize that "the conduct of CBP employees must reflect the qualities of integrity and loyalty to the United States ...courtesy and promptness in dealing with and serving the public; and a standard of personal behavior that reflects positively upon, and will be a credit to, both CBP and its employees." For the most part, CBP officers succeed in upholding the agency's mission and reputation. Nevertheless, examples of improper and offensive treatment are increasing, varying from taunting and impertinent conduct to outright physical abuse. The American Immigration Council has kept a record of many of the worst abuses, which often involve undocumented persons. Nevertheless, ill treatment similarly applies to persons with valid U.S. immigration status and returning lawful permanent residents.

For example, many of my Venezuelan clients have been forced to seek asylum here. After struggling to rebuild their lives in the US, they have become tax-paying and contributing members of society. When returning from trips abroad, they are often mistreated and taunted, especially upon arrival at Miami International Airport. (Unfortunately, certain entry points are notorious for deriding travelers.) Recently, a large family was pulled into secondary inspection by CBP where officers made comments that they were "the new Cubans" and that it looked like the U.S. government was "giving asylum away for free." The officers went as far as to question the parents, in front of their adopted children and in front of other passengers, if they had adopted just for purposes of obtaining a lawful immigration status.

Other clients, such as long time international civil servants working for the many important international organizations in the Capital area, are subjected to unnecessarily long wait times and rude treatment. One recently waited nearly three hours at Dulles International Airport (another notorious entry point) to be interviewed due to a pending residency application. The CBP officer commented loudly to his co-worker that persons who waited so long to obtain their residency in order to avoid paying taxes "disgusted" him. (The client had been paying taxes all along). A client from Norway, and lawful resident of the U.S. for 32 years, explained to me with tears in her eyes that because of a name change, she often gets pulled into secondary inspection where she is subjected to harsh and unnecessary questioning and feels intimidated by officers who mistreat travelers for no reason at all.

In response to systemic abuses, CBP instituted an online complaint system (DHS TRIP). A complaint filed with DHS TRIP leads to review of the case and issuance of a "redress control number" which may, or may not, assist in securing worry free entry in the future. However, few know about DHS TRIP and by the time a complaint is filed, the damage is done. Further, there is no appeals process and the complainant never knows how his/her specific complaint was dealt with.

Given DHS' shortfalls, some additional basic measures should be instituted to reinforce good practices and compliance with the existing standards of conduct. First, standards should be posted in many languages at U.S. customs as a reminder to both the officers and the travelers of their responsibilities and rights. Other notices should inform travelers of the right to ask for a supervisor without fear of penalty. Second, more resources should be allocated towards training officers in basic courtesy, increasing privacy for passengers who are questioned during secondary inspections, and assessing the appropriate penalties in cases of misconduct. CBP published a guide for managers, supervisors and practitioners that allows for the suspension and subsequent removal of an officer with more than one offense involving inappropriate conduct towards members of the public. Better monitoring of officer performance, perhaps through video and recorded customs interviews, and encouragement of appropriate behavior with a reward system could help. Third, CBP should ensure uniform application of procedures across borders. All too often, travelers are subject to arbitrary secondary screening or requirements not mandated by law, which leads to confusion and mistaken annotations in a person's official travel history. For example, for returning asylees, there is no clarity whatsoever on whether they must complete I-94 Arrival/Departure records. Fourth, simple administrative procedures such as stamping a travel authorization document upon return to the U.S. should not result in secondary screening and may instead be handled by the first officer reviewing the case. This will save time and resources for CBP and the traveler. Fifth, for more complicated cases or where passengers are being asked to come back to the airport for secondary inspection, CBP should allow for the presence of an attorney. This will allow for more oversight, especially when more complicated legal issues are involved.

These procedures will go a long way towards creating a more just and accountable immigration system and will help ensure that we continue to be not only a nation of laws, but a nation that provides dignity and respect to foreign nationals at our borders.