How the INS targets for secondary inspection at San Ysidro

Blame the computer

— If you're a law-abiding citizen and you've lived in San Diego for a while, you can get complacent about crossing the border. The lines at the San Ysidro checkpoint, the perfunctory exchange with the inspectors, can become as humdrum as doing the dishes or taking the garbage out. It used to be like that for Alma and Heraclio De Jesus. The De Jesuses have so many ties on both sides of the international line that the two might as well be citizens of both countries. Fifty-four-year-old Heraclio is an American who grew up in Tijuana, then moved to the San Gabriel Valley when he was 18. Fifteen years ago he married Alma, whose ancestors helped settle Baja in the early 1800s. She grew up on a cattle ranch just south of Rosarito. After her marriage, she obtained a green card permitting her to reside in San Diego. The couple and their two young daughters have lived in Tijuana at various times, but for the past three years, they've resided in an apartment close to National City's "Mile of Cars." There Alma tends house and homeschools the two girls, now 6 and 11. Heraclio works for a South Bay trucking company, making runs that take anywhere from hours to days. Over the past 15 years, the De Jesuses figure they've gone through the checkpoint two to seven times weekly. Stops at the secondary inspection station have been rare and unremarkable. Sometimes the family has transported relatives who've needed to get special permits. Once their older daughter, feeling shy, failed to answer the inspector's question about her (American) citizenship. On that occasion, "The [secondary inspector] said, 'Sometimes my kids don't want to talk either,' " recalls Heraclio. "And he let us go."

Against that backdrop, their experience on the evening of Thursday, May 8, seemed like a bad dream. In anticipation of Mother's Day, they were bringing Alma's 78-year-old mother (who also holds a legal border-crossing permit) home with them for the weekend. Alma was driving the couple's 1995 Dodge Dakota pickup. Her mother and her 6-year-old daughter sat next to her, while Heraclio and the older girl were back in the camper shell. The line was short. But when they reached the head of it, their truck was abruptly escorted to the secondary inspection area. "They closed the gate behind us, and as we were going over there, the inspector kept asking me questions about how long we had owned it," Alma says, "and whether we had bought it from someone else." Alma told the inspector that the truck had been purchased from a dealer, new. "I asked her, 'Why me?' and she answered, 'The computer.' " The inspector offered no further explanation. But she made the family get out of the car. Unnerved, Alma asked her husband what was going to happen, and Heraclio recalls that he answered, "Nothing. We're just going to waste our time." This comment appeared to infuriate one of the male Customs officers. "He said, 'We don't make anybody waste their time here!' And he started to act real aggressive."

Inside the inspection station, the three adults were made to empty their pockets and bend over, spread-eagled. "They pushed our legs apart! It was like a police search," Alma exclaims. "Even my mom! I felt so bad. They touched our bodies - everywhere. They made us take off our shoes, and they looked inside. They even felt our socks - like they thought we had something inside!" Every time either Alma or Heraclio tried to ask a question, the officers told them to shut up.

After perhaps a half hour, the inspectors dismissed the family, and Alma says one of them asserted in parting that the computer had picked them out at random. "I asked if it was going to happen again, and they said the chances would be something like a million to one."

"They always tell people that they were randomly inspected," commented Roberto Martinez, when informed about the De Jesuses' experience. Director of the U.S.- Mexico border program of the American Friends Service committee, Martinez says, "They never explain to people why they were pulled into secondary or why they were searched. And a lot of these people are body-searched. Even though we file lawsuits, complaints, investigations, it doesn't change anything.... Your constitutional rights cease to exist when you enter that border area."

Although a spokesperson for the Immigration and Naturalization Service says that random secondary inspections have been on the rise, Alma and Heraclio have come to doubt that they were targeted for no particular reason. Since the first incident, they've crossed the border several times, and on two occasions when the inspector failed to type their license number into the terminal, he waved them through the gate. On two other occasions, however, the license plate number was punched in, and each time that action appeared to trigger some message that sent the family to secondary again. Alma and her husband have thus become convinced that their license number was somehow entered in error into the Customs Service's database. "The second time it happened, one of the [officials] said that maybe we would have to change our license plate number!" Alma recalls, adding that during the third incident, another man told her husband that the computer system had been changed sometime during the past year and that this change had caused problems.

The information system in use at the border is known as tecs ii, an acronym for the Treasury Enforcement Communication System II. A long list of federal government agencies tap into it, including the Customs Service; the ins; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; the irs; the dea; the State and Justice Departments, the Coast Guard; and Interpol Washington. According to a Treasury Department fact sheet, records accessible by the system range from driver's license and vehicle registration information to criminal histories and profiles.

Errors have sometimes plagued those records. In 1990, for example, an investigation by the federal General Accounting Office (gao) of the San Ysidro screening procedures found "systemic deficiencies" in tecs ii. Investigators discovered at that time that records had not been created for a number of known drug smugglers and other major criminals. They also found that Customs Service clerks had made many mistakes entering other records, and as a result, "innocent persons may be stopped and intensively inspected at the borders for offenses they did not commit," the subsequent gao report said.

Among the more embarrassing incidents that fulfilled that prediction was the detention two years ago of Ronald Noble, the Treasury Department's own undersecretary for enforcement. "Noble - who is black - was waiting in line to board a flight for an Interpol meeting in Europe" at Dulles Airport when the tecs ii system "mistakenly fingered [him] as someone trying to smuggle money out of the country," the Intelligence Newsletter reported. Although Noble was quoted at the time as vowing to review tec ii's criminal-profiling system, reports of Customs Service database problems have continued to surface. This past March, for example, the Washington Times quoted several Customs sources as claiming that "a new multimillion-dollar database introduced last November is so faulty that [the Service] has no idea what has been seized or even the storage locations of impounded goods."

Despite this history, no local mechanism exists to enable a citizen to check on the accuracy of his or her particular tecs ii records, according to Bobbie Cassidy, the Customs Service's San Diego spokesperson. Cassidy says inspectors aren't even supposed to confirm or deny "the presence of anything in the computer," let alone to disclose what the record says. "It's Privacy Act, and it's law-enforcement sensitive," Cassidy stated. If someone thinks that the system might contain false information about him, all he can do is to write the Customs Service's headquarters in Washington, D.C. "Even then they might not get a direct answer," Cassidy warns, adding, "I don't know how those [inquiries] are responded to."

If someone has a complaint about the way a secondary search is conducted, Cassidy recommends that he ask to see a supervisor immediately. The advantage of doing this "is that the supervisor can very easily determine who the inspectors involved were," whereas if the search subject waits to write a letter "then it becomes very difficult to find out which inspector was involved." While someone can complain about the manner in which a search was conducted, Cassidy points out that it's fruitless to complain that a search was conducted with insufficient cause. She says the "border search authority" cited in the federal code is the broadest granted to any law enforcement agency in the country. "Searches can be conducted without what the state and local officers would call 'probable cause.' " Instead, "mere suspicion" is all that's necessary to trigger a search that can go as far as "taking people to a hospital for x-ray examinations or a cavity search." Cassidy adds that "the fact that people are coming in from a foreign country provides the 'mere suspicion.' "

By that definition, Alma and Heraclio will continue to be suspicious in the eyes of the government. They say their lives are rooted on both sides of the border, and they can't imagine breaking those bonds. If the computer system continues to point an electronic finger at them, they'll have to endure the resultant searches somehow. Even if the error is found and expunged, Alma sounds mournful about the harm that's been done. "I'm trying to teach my girls not to feel strange wherever they live, here or there. But now, seeing this, what's in their minds? It's sad because it's like losing something that we had for all our lives."

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