For the vast majority of travelers their experience with Customs and Border Protection (CBP), an agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is - if not pleasant per se - at least uneventful. For some travelers though, their experience is anything but pleasant. When faced with such situations, it's important to know what to do and where to go for assistance.
Take for example the unfortunate case of a client of mine who is a full-time Pastor who was returning with his wife from a short business trip to Central America. Upon presenting their U.S. passports they were placed in secondary inspection. This couple, who are naturalized U.S. citizens, are elderly and one of them has a hearing impediment. They were both accused of lying because they were "too old" to have gone on a business trip, and were also accused of having fake U.S. passports because they couldn't communicate well in English and they had an accent. After all, you can't have an accent if you're a U.S. citizen - right? Well, after several hours of questioning, that included a CBP officer wanting to force the wife to sign a document where she "confessed" to having a fake U.S. passport, they were simply released with no apologies offered.
This case is by all means the exception - rather than standard operating procedure. That's just my humble opinion, I'm pretty sure others would differ. I will concede however that these events happen more than what one would suspect. Although no comfort to those affected, it's important to keep things in perspective. CBP is tasked with protecting our nation’s borders from, among other things, terrorism, human and drug smuggling, and agricultural pests. This is no small task and that is why CBP employs more than 52,000 employees to man, among other things, the 327 official ports of entry in the United States and 15 Preclearance offices in Canada and the Caribbean. CBP is also responsible for guarding nearly 7,000 miles of land border the United States shares with Canada and Mexico. At the same time CBP does all of that, they must also work to facilitate the movement of legitimate trade and travelers, as the agency processes all people, vehicles and cargo entering the United States. According to CBP's website, on a typical day in fiscal year 2008, CBP processed approximately 1 million passengers and pedestrians; 70,000 containers; and 331,000 privately owned vehicles.
CBP has four primary programs to receive and address customer complaints. These programs are explained in CBP's Fact Sheet, which include the Passenger Service Manager program, Comment Cards, Customer Service Centers, and Port Director or Supervisor direct response program. In addition to these programs, CBP has separate procedures for submitting a complaint, reporting officer misconduct, discrimination, and illegal activity. Each program has different procedures for receiving and handling complaints. Alternatively, complainants may contact a CBP Public Information Officer by telephone at 703-526-4200. You can also see a list of questions and answers relating to the complaint process.
Travelers are encouraged to visit CBP's website to avoid delays. On their website travelers will find useful information like CBP's Top Ten Traveler Tips and the Traveler's Checklist along with a very handy "Know Before You Go" manual for U.S. Residents. For those family members (and we all have them - I think), that try to sneak in "empanadas" "quesitos" and a host of other native delicacies and traditional herbs and remedies, you might want to point them to CBP's list of prohibited foods and other products.
Hopefully none of the readers have to through what my clients went through, but if they do, you now know where to go. Safe travel to all.