How U.S. Customs Officers Are Trained

Mar 15, 2018
Originally published on March 15, 2018 7:32 am

It looks just like an airport customs checkpoint.

Role players wait in lines, each playing different travelers that a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer is likely to encounter. Some may be playing the role of refugee, others are told to act as though they’re hiding something sinister.

The actors have detailed instructions, like to smile and flirt with the CBP trainee, or their script may call for them to avoid eye contact, bite their nails, and appear to be nervous.

“Mr. Madison, can you step aside for me for one second?” one trainee asks a traveler. “Someone’s going to come and escort you to secondary, they’re going to ask you some more questions.”

A CBP trainer watching over the candidate’s shoulder cracks a grin of approval and informs the officer in training that she successfully sidelined a would-be smuggler.

This real-world scenario occurs at the federal law enforcement training center in Brunswick, Georgia. These hopefuls are trying to be among the approximately 875 candidates who graduate annually to become CBP officers.

CBP officers work at official ports of entry and they decide who enters the country and who doesn’t. But their broad authority has some civil rights advocates raising concerns.

A Focus On Security, And On Hiring

The curriculum for a CBP officer-in-training is broad, from constitutional law and computer training to firearms training and tactical role play.

CBP officers are responsible for more than 200 job-specific tasks, like upholding immigration laws and trade and commerce laws. But the facility’s Branch Chief Nick Sunderhaus says the focus is always on security.

“‘Cause at the end of the day, yes, we’re facilitating travel and trade, but we have people who want to harm us and have ill will,” says Sunderhaus, a 15-year veteran of CBP who chews gum most of the day and sports a short, tightly cropped haircut.

Since November 2016, getting into the training academy may have gotten a little easier. Some specially qualified applicants no longer need to take the entrance exam and CBP is accepting slightly older applicants, increasing the age limit from 37 years old to the day before a candidate’s 40th birthday.

President Trump has not mandated a hike in hiring for CBP officers like he did with border agents, but Sunderhaus says there has been a bump in candidates coming through the academy, and morale is good.

“CBP is hiring,” he says. “The morale here from the trainees coming in, we see that, because they got a job that they applied for that they wanted to do.”

For 26-year-old Patrick Provost of North Kingstown, Rhode Island, becoming a CBP officer is all about job security.

“At the time I was applying to almost every opening I could find on [the federal government’s job site],” he says. “Steady income with good benefits. I do have a criminal justice degree so I’m always trying to look for the next step.”

And after graduating, the next step for Provost is up to Norton, Vermont, where he’s been assigned to a border crossing in one of the most remote regions of New England. It’s there that his CBP training will be put to the test.

The job of a CBP officer is quite different than their counterparts, border patrol agents, who roam the places along the border in between the official ports of entry.

There are more CBP officers than there are border agents, and according to CBP statistics, officers at ports of entry seize far larger amounts of drugs like opioids than border agents. Officers also arrest more wanted criminals at ports of entry.

As Sunderhaus explains, that could be because officers have a whole lot of data at their disposal.

“There’s so much information that we’re able to utilize in our systems that allow the officer to make a really good assessment, when they see people coming at them, to be able to say, ‘That person’s going there, that person’s going there.’ ”

Concerns About An Officer’s Hunch

While CBP policy prohibits racial profiling in “all but the most exceptional instances,” officers at ports of entry can look beyond the computer systems, using what’s called their “border search authority” to take other factors into account.

“The things you’re wearing, how your mannerisms are,” Sunderhaus says, “all of those things can still come into play and then that would fall under border search. How often that happens? There’s no quantitative number.”

That’s because these interactions aren’t always documented.

“It’s not kept track of because sometimes I might get that intuitive speak and nothing comes out of it. Or, I looked and I didn’t find anything,” Sunderhaus says. “It’s not saying I might not get them next time, but only if there’s an apprehension, a seizure, would that data be collected.”

In other words, an officer may decide to follow a gut instinct and ask additional questions. If that hunch comes up empty, then, Sunderhaus says, it’s not necessarily kept track of.

For some civil rights advocates, this presents a problem.

“The problem here is that officers bring their own subjective bias to the situation,” says Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, “and if they’re not actually measuring their success rate, there’s no way to actually judge or to know whether their training is working or not.”

This is part of what’s at question in a case filed in Boston federal court by the ACLU of Massachusetts and others. They’re challenging a growing practice of searching travelers’ electronic devices without a warrant. In fact, CBP officers are on pace to search nearly three times as many devices as they did in 2015. CBP, though, says these searches still only impact a fraction of the traveling public.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are 10 U.S. citizens and one lawful permanent resident– several of them Muslims or people of color — whose smartphones and laptops were searched at the U.S. border without warrants.

“These people were subsequently not accused of any wrongdoing,” Rose says. “So, we do have instances of when people are wrongfully stopped, wrongfully questioned and in this instance having their cellphones and their laptops confiscated and viewed and kept for weeks or months.”

Oral arguments in the Massachusetts court case begin in late April.

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