SAN DIEGO — While Washington is preoccupied by “immigration reform” and what many believe to be its essential precursor, “enhanced border security," most of the talk here along the U.S.-Mexican border is about improving border wait times. Of course we want a secure border, but we also want and need a faster border.
The Mexican economy is growing, cross-border trade is booming and there is renewed excitement at the prospect of entrepreneurial opportunity in working with the lower-cost engineering expertise of Mexican border states.
Adding to the allure of possible profit, there’s an improving security situation in border states with violence down some 32 percent in 2012, according to a recent report.
Here in Southern California, Baja wines and a trendy Baja Med cuisine beckon, if only the border infrastructure would expedite crossings.
So, a story I heard recently of the experience of a fellow journalist applying for a SENTRI pass was both informative and disheartening. SENTRI passes are all the rage for frequent crossers here, with nearly half of the nation’s 354,000 pass holders residing in San Diego County. SENTRI stands for Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection, and is a card issued to pre-approved, low-risk travelers that allows them to cross the border in specific, dedicated primary lanes. It is like the first-class line a airport security: you’re whisked right through.
To get a SENTRI pass applicants must “voluntarily undergo a thorough biographical background check against criminal, law enforcement, customs, immigration, and terrorist indices; a 10-fingerprint law enforcement check; and a personal interview with a CBP Officer.”
No problem, right? You can’t have been convicted of a felony; you can’t lie on your application; you can’t be a drug trafficker or a terrorist. You also have to “satisfy the CPB of your low risk status.”
So that must be where the “personal interview with a CBP Officer” comes in. That face-to-face interview must be the place where that low-risk status is determined.
When a young television reporter went for her SENTRI pass interview about a year ago, she sat down facing a CPB officer named –- I kid you not –- Agent Outlaw. According to the journalist’s account of the interview (she never filed a complaint about this incident, and asked not to be named, in order not to jeopardize her current SENTRI pass status), Agent Outlaw seemed immediately suspicious of her desire to travel in and out of Mexico.
“Why do you want to go?” he asked.
“I need to go in for my work as a journalist, and can’t afford the standard three-hour wait times,” she responded.
“A pretty little blonde thing like you,” warned Agent Outlaw, “You’ll become some drug trafficker’s 52nd wife in no time.”
She laughed nervously.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. (That’s the only answer any woman or girl would give in a circumstances like this, by the way.)
“If you were my girlfriend, or my wife, I’d never let you go into Mexico. I’ve never been to Mexico and I’ll never go.”
Beyond the clear sexual harassment in his questioning, and the implication that a boyfriend/husband would be able to ban his girlfriend/wife from travel, there’s also a very troubling admission that this Border Patrol officer had never gone, and would never go, across the border he is defending.
I called the CBP to find out what exactly the parameters were for these SENTRI pass interviews. What were they supposed to ask, what were they looking for, what did they find suspicious?
Spokesperson Angelica Decima explained the interviewer would double-check the applicant’s paperwork, and make sure they didn’t have any questions about the program.
“How important is the interview?” I asked, “as part of the whole process?”
“Good question,” she said. “It’s ALL important.”
When I told her the story as it was related to me, the questions Agent Outlaw asked and his demeanor, Decima was quiet, then said: “My God. Can I get back to you on this?”
When Decima responded the following work day, she shared in an email basic information about the interview process: “The CBP uses the interview to determine identify, admissibility, and confirm application information. We also use the interview as part of the risk assessment of a traveler.”
Decima added, "The vast majority of the CBP workforce serves with honor and integrity, adhering to the high standards demanded of CBP personnel. Our high standards are reflected in the quality of the people we hire, as well as in how we train and evaluate our employees. Our commitment begins at the time of application for employment with CBP and continues throughout the careers of our officers, agents, and mission support personnel."
For individuals who want to voice a complaint about the security screening process, Decima suggested travelers go to the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program.
Unfortunately, that website indicates that the redress program is designed to help the following:
People who have been denied or delayed airline boarding; have been denied or delayed entry into or exit from the U.S. at a port of entry or border crossing; or have been repeatedly referred to additional (secondary) screening can file an inquiry to seek redress.
It says nothing about people who are harassed at the interview, or who feel they were treated poorly and with disrespect.
No one disputes the need for zealous border security. And, the humiliating and demeaning interview incident recalled here may be a rarity: an overworked Border Patrol agent, with old-fashioned ideas about women, having a bad day and behaving in a manner that could and should get him fired or transferred if reported.
But this behavior, which reveals deep ignorance about Mexico and an instinctive mistrust of any working American who would choose to visit Mexico, seems emblematic of a border security force mobilized against the border, and not for the border.
As we here at the Fronteras Desk continue to report on the things that make this region so exciting and so great, I do hope we have the opportunity to cover a border region that is growing in understanding about each other, and not only welcomes the frequent border crossers, but also makes their way a bit easier.
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