Flyer beware! If you are traveling from the Caribbean to certain ports of entry in the United States, your flight will be scrutinized for smugglers and you may be targeted for a search and seizure.
The show “To Catch a Smuggler” on the National Geographic channel follows U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers as they diligently do their jobs in keeping drugs, prohibited agricultural items and other illegal products out of the United States. Florida, New York and Georgia are prime states where incoming passengers from the Caribbean can expect to be pinpointed and pulled aside for random searches.
The show has run since 2012, but I just watched it for the first time last week and it seems as if people from Caribbean flights are scrutinized on every show.
On one episode a woman from Trinidad and Tobago was pulled aside by a customs officer who just “had a feeling” that she might be up to no good. The officers asked her why she was coming to the U.S. Her response was that she had a clothing boutique, and she was coming to New York to purchase merchandise for her store. They asked her how long she would be in the country and she said one day and showed them her return ticket. They asked how much money she had, and she told them $500.
The next day, a couple of officers were assigned to the outgoing Trinidad flights to see if she was a passenger. She was. They had her open her suitcase in the boarding corridor and searched her suitcase for drugs. Lucky for her, they found nothing. She had a receipt that showed that she had spent every penny on clothing. She was allowed to continue to board.
In another incident, they pulled aside a young biracial man who was returning to the U.S. from Jamaica. He was not so lucky. They asked who he went to visit and how long he was in the country. He indicated he had visited his mother for two weeks. They felt that he was “acting nervous” so they told him to take his suitcase and follow them to a search area. They asked him if the suitcase he was carrying was the suitcase he took with him to Jamaica and his response was “no.” That made them even more suspicious. They cut open the suitcase and sure enough cocaine strips sewn were into the side. He was arrested and taken away for processing.
Then there was a 20-something man from Dominican Republic who officers thought was guilty of something ... but what? A female officer asked where he was flying from. He said from Florida, that he was staying with his brother there and he was on his way to New York to stay with his uncle. They asked him his uncle’s name he said that he didn’t know. They also asked how long he would be in the country, and he said he didn’t know.
They pulled him into a search area, searched his suitcases, and told him to take off his sneakers so they could prick the bottoms for potential cocaine-packed soles. Nothing. They tried to get him to confess to a crime by telling him that if they found something he would be in big trouble, that he could potentially go to jail.
The young man just sat there, completely serious, with a blank stare throughout the entire ordeal. It turned out that he was having family problems in the DR and was just trying to get away from his mother.
Why are we giving you these scenarios? Just to show you that it could happen to you.
It happened to me. I visited one of the Caribbean islands in 2010 and I was pulled from the waiting area. My name was announced over the intercom. With luggage already processed and boarding pass in hand, I stood up and walked to the flight attendant checking the passengers in. I wondered whether I was being bumped off the flight. Did they forget to stamp my passport or was there another form to complete?
As I approached the information desk, two customs officers indicated that I should follow them. I became a little anxious but decided to cooperate — to keep a “cool head.” I was taken to a room with another officer behind a desk who asked how long I was in the country and what was the purpose of my visit. They asked to search my handbag, and I gave permission for the search. I was asked the same questions over and over and I gave the same response. I was asked to raise my hands as they patted me down.
After a while I was escorted back to the boarding area but was told I could not return to my original seat. I asked if I would be allowed to board the flight, and the response was yes. The officers stood next to me until most of the passengers boarded the aircraft. I asked if I could go. They hesitated and then indicated that I could.
I walked down that boarding ramp just as quickly as my legs could carry me. I finally looked back and realized they were leaving. Even though it was 10 years ago, I still remember the feelings of humiliation and embarrassment as the other passengers stared questionably at me.
Just remember that when you are on a flight coming from the islands into the States, you have to be mentally prepared because you too could be chosen. Don’t get caught off guard.