The U.S. Immigration and Customs Service [hereinafter ICE] is the country’s second largest law enforcement agency behind the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The agency has been on a seemingly perpetual ‘high alert’ since at least 2001 (at which point the agency came under the jurisdiction of the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security) and is likely to remain on edge for a while, since the last act of terrorism to have struck a major metropolitan area (Boston).
Aside from this pressing concern, both ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection are tasked with keeping contraband shipments of drugs and weaponry out of the country, a task which requires them to man both the world’s longest undefended border to the north, and the 3,200 km of Mexican border to the south.Checking the Alerts
Put simply, encounters with customs and immigration officials in the U.S. are not quite the same experience as in Costa Rica (where this particular author was greeted by a sleepy officer with no more imposing barricade than the card table at which he was sitting). Depending on what the geopolitical realities are at your time of travel, the intensity of customs and immigration enforcement will change accordingly. While it may not always be possible, it is therefore advisable to keep abreast of key indicators like the color-coded ‘terror alert’ posted at the dhs.gov website.
At times when the terror risk is listed as ‘high’ or ‘severe’, you are likely to encounter more rigorous customs and immigration procedures and the inconveniences associated with them. Of course, critics of this system have noted that the ‘blue’ and ‘green’ alerts on this scale have never been used since the system’s inception, claiming each grade on the scale to be completely arbitrary, but you can still be relatively sure that customs procedures will change in accordance with these alerts.
No Two Checkpoints are Alike?
Some customs checkpoints are likely to be much more intense in atmosphere and in the rigor of their screening processes than others, particularly those situated along the shared border with Mexico. The Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez, which regularly features in U.S. travel alerts due to the activity of its warring drug cartels, is not far from the city of El Paso on the other side, which is exponentially more peaceful than its Mexican neighbor. Given what is at stake here – i.e. preventing the cross-border proliferation of this violence – it would not at all be out of the ordinary for border interrogations to consist of more than questions about your nation of origin and purpose of travel.
Though this will be a point that is argued, border crossings between Canada and the U.S. can also be potentially more stressful than customs checkpoints encountered in major U.S. air hubs such as Chicago’s O’Hare and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. The caveat here is that U.S. citizens are far more likely to come under scrutiny at a Canadian crossing than residents of European nations, a fact that may date back to the large number of U.S. refugees that Canada absorbed during the previous era of military conscription in the 1960s.
No Laughing Matter
As sad as it may seem, immigration and customs officials at U.S. checkpoints can be as cold, humorless, and bureaucratic as any of those in the former Soviet Union. The temptation to liven up the atmosphere at your point of entry / questioning may become overwhelming, but this is absolutely not the time to attempt winning them over by cracking jokes on sensitive subjects: a perennial feature of the U.S. news cycle is the headline going something like “man held for questioning at customs after making ‘bomb’ joke.” Whether owing to the high stress level of the job, or to official mandates that make it a requirement to act upon even the most comically stated and hyperbolic threats, customs officials are more likely to whisk you away for questioning than to quietly chuckle if you answer “anything to declare?” with an attempt at humour.
Many will understandably be offended by the seemingly random baggage checks conducted by customs agents, but keep a cool head in this situation as well. Though no one wishes to be placed under a microscope for an imagined offence, the nature of these checks is, again, random and unlikely to be accompanied by an attempt to publicly humiliate you.
Be careful not to conflate the duties of ICE or CBP with that of other controversial, widely disliked bodies like the TSA [Transportation Security Administration] (they who are responsible for the full-body ‘backscatter scanning’ technology at airports and the regulations against bringing toothpaste tubes on planes). Many will use their meeting with a customs agent as an opportunity to sound off about the inconveniences caused to them by the TSA, which is another DHS agency not fully compatible with the duties of customs and immigration.