Before Seeing Hollywood, You Gotta Get Through Customs and Border Patrol: A Tour of LAX Airport

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On Tuesday I had the honor of taking a behind-the-scenes tour of the international terminal of the airport in Los Angeles.  While it was not quite as interesting as some of Los Angeles’ other attractions – Venice Beach or Zuma, anyone? – for an immigration lawyer, there was much to see and learn.

What many people forget is that possession of a visa does not guarantee entry to the US.  It is the inspector at the port-of-entry to the US who decides – allow the person to enter or not.  For example, a dependent child who receives an immigrant visa and marries before entering the US is no longer considered a dependent and thus not eligible to enter as an immigrant on that visa.  A more typical example is when an individual possesses the wrong type of visa – a student in possession of a tourist visa or a tourist coming to the US to work illegally.  Depending on the nature of the violation and whether intentional, the consequences for such violations can be lethal – a permanent bar from the United States.

Leading our tour was a knowledgeable and friendly Customs and Border Patrol official, Bruce Mulraney.  CBP organized the excursion for local immigration lawyers.  According to Mr. Mulraney, LAX receives more than 20,000 international travelers a day. These 20,000 travelers go through primary inspection – the process by which an officer determines whether to admit the traveler to the US or not.  If doubts or concerns about the traveler’s intentions or documents are raised at primary inspection, then the traveler is referred to secondary inspection – a more detailed screening process.  On average, 400-600 individuals are referred to secondary inspection every day, a rate of 2-3%.

According to Mr. Mulraney, Secondary Inspection One resolves most of the issues in favor of the traveler and they are admitted.  If not, they are referred to Secondary Inspection Two, which is usually the endgame for the aliens – they will be sent back to their home country or detained.  Innocent violators of the visa regime and hardened criminals are referred to Secondary Inspection Two. What was reassuring – somewhat – is that before a final determination to deport or detain can be made, supervisory review is required.  While the facilities are not drab and dreary, believe me, it is not a place you want to visit.

During the tour, we were able to ask questions.  Of course, Mr. Mulraney declined to answer  intelligence-related or investigative technique questions, but he did provide some interesting insight on certain issues.  For example:

  1. The consensus of the lawyers in the group was that there has been an increasing emphasis at LAX on finding green card holders who have remained outside the US for an extended period of time as having abandoned their US residence. Mr. Mulraney did not dispel the conclusion of the group, but noted that the arriving alien has two options: 1) go before an immigration judge to challenge the conclusion of the inspector that his status has been abandoned; or 2) voluntarily relinquish the green card.  In the latter case, the individual will be admitted to the US as a visitor if he is not a criminal or a threat to public safety or staying for a prolonged period of time.  (Abandonment is a complicated legal issue outside the scope of this article.  Because it has permanent consequences, it should not be undertaken lightly and should only be done in consultation with an immigration attorney.)
  2. Another oft-encountered issue is the completion of a customs declaration.  Whenever a foreigner arrives or leaves with more than $10,000 in cash, that sum must be declared.  If not, the money will be seized.  (Thankfully, there is a procedure for requesting the return of the money.)
  3. US citizens and legal permanent residents may be surprised to hear that they could be arrested at the airport if there is an outstanding warrant out for their arrest.  Mr. Mulraney specifically mentioned an increase in the number of individuals with outstanding debts to the casinos in Las Vegas.  The casinos in Las Vegas vigorously pursue these debts.  They contact the Clark County police, which puts out a warrant.  When the wanted individual arrives on an international flight – let’s say he went to Costa Rica for vacation from his home in LA – he will be arrested and extradited to Las Vegas.  (How’s that for an extended vacation?)
  4. As a general rule, for individuals being sent back to their home country, they wait at the airport if the next available flight is the same day.  If not, they are transported to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility at 300 N. Los Angeles Street in LA for processing, and returned to the airport for the next available flight.  Pickups of detainees take place twice a day from LAX at 11 a.m. and 11 p.m.
  5. First time visitors to LAX (or even highways leading into California) may be surprised to see dogs sniffing for fruits and vegetables and the presence of agriculture inspectors. California is one of the world’s agriculture leaders. After the Mediterranean fruit fly infestation wiped out many crops in the early 1980s, California has taken numerous steps to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again, including inspections at California airports of international passengers and at highway points from other states.

After years of neglect and obsolescence, the International Terminal at LAX has been renovated and redesigned.  Now, it is much more open and airy and customer friendly – as long as you don’t find yourself in Secondary Inspection.  Happy travels!