Detained, Searched and Interrogated Without Reason
Dear friends and allies,
On Saturday June 1, 2013 I was detained for more than 6 hours at Miami International Airport. I was humiliated, misled, intimidated and used by the system. I was never given a reason.
I realize that many folks, other activists, people of color, non-citizens, people of different sexual orientations and gender expressions face much, much worse at the hands of security agencies. But I feel a deep need to share this experience with my community. Like the sheer scale of NSA surveillance revealed this week, my experience is part of systematic abuse that we all face. Also this is a message of gratitude to all those that mobilized in my support.
Here’s what went down.
When returning from a family vacation in the Dominican Republic I was flagged and had to be searched at the airport in the DR but flew to Miami without too much trouble.
But they were waiting for me as I deboarded. At about 4:10pm, 3 Customs and Border Protection officers checked my passport and asked me to come with them. This was in front of my partner and 9 of her family members including 3 babies. I was humiliated from the outset.
I was taken to get my luggage, escorted to Custom’s special screening area, and searched in a back room.
There we were joined by two men in plainclothes. I asked who they were. One gave a vague answer that he was a liaison for people first going through this screening process. The other hovered in the background and never said a word.
Not finding any contraband, a Customs officer only took interest in my notebook that I use for work and at talks I attend. They took it to another room and returned it an hour later.
I was then taken to an interrogation room. I asked - hoping - if the conversation would be recorded. They said of course not, are you recording it? Do you have anything in your bag recording it? We don’t want that. My first real defeat. They asked many questions about my family, my work as a digital media consultant for non profits, the vacation and my travel over the past year. This didn’t seem odd, maybe they were just trying to confirm my story. They also said this was a random search and they’d get me out of there pretty quickly, it was a slow day. Then they got to my phone.
They had it and wanted the password. They had asked earlier when getting my luggage. I had said I didn’t feel comfortable with that and told them. I said this again. I kept asking what this was about, why they wanted it. I believe this is when they started to say they weren’t allowed to tell me. I asked what my options were. They began with intimidation. President Obama says we can search your phone just like your luggage. Do you have child pornography you’re trying to hide? You haven’t been admitted to the U.S.
They implied that at the Border - of which airport customs is part - I didn’t have the same rights, like to an attorney, and that I wouldn’t be let back in if I didn’t give them the password. I asked them what they would do with it, would they download the data? Not much, but we can’t tell you. Then I cracked. I was worried sick about my girlfriend and her family, I felt powerless. I gave them my password.
I might not have had much of a choice, but I still feel traumatized and guilty today. Like many of us, my work, really all of my life, is digital. Like that, I became their zombie, a tool under their spell. They took my phone away for many hours. Who knows what kind of data they collected and social mapping they are using it for.
I was defeated. We chit chatted for awhile and then they made me sit in their lobby with mostly non-citizens who were flagged for extra screening. Hours passed. Others were brought in and released. I missed my connecting flight. Finally, at 10:30pm, I was given my passport, escorted to baggage claim, given my phone and released into the arms of my partner. I have no idea why this happened or if it has to do with being a climate activist. I have never been arrested and there is no warrant for my arrest. They never told me anything.
Outside was a different story characterized more by misinformation. My partner, her father and her stepmother had been working for hours to figure out what happened to me. Often, because they have Latin American accents, their requests were met with skepticism. Airline staff and airport police were shocked that they, and I, were U.S. Citizens. The speculation was horrible, I was going to be sent back to where I came from (?!?), my family didn’t know who I really was, I probably wasn’t paying child support to an unknown former lover. Some staff helped and called customs. They came back with varying stories. I was in real trouble. I was being held by homeland security. There was a warrant for my arrest back in Seattle and I would be sent there without word because we aren’t married. Eventually, legal council helped them find out I was being officially held by Customs and then later Airport staff said that I would be released. No matter what, I am pissed by the trauma my partner and her family were subjected to for hours.
I believe being held for more than 5 hours without reason is a breach of my civil liberties. The “mandatory” confiscation of my phone and lack of information for my family at least should be.
Though traumatic for my family and me, this is fairly mild as abuses in civil liberties go. Borders and the security state are brutally thrust upon others everyday.
But I do want to find out what happened and I plan to document the event with the ACLU. I also need to take steps to restore some personal privacy. If you have any advice please send it my way.
In love and solidarity,
P.S. This can happen to anybody! Make sure you know your rights and take precautions when you travel!
EDIT: changed sex to sexual orientations
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