Going through customs and airport security is never anyone's idea of a good time, but the Washington Post and the Center for Public Integrity have released a new report alleging that for some women, the experience has been far more than just a simple inconvenience. Instead, the report details the cases of numerous women who claim that their border patrol searches were "invasive" — and unwarranted.
According to the report, many women have filed lawsuits regarding the way that Customs and Border Protection officers searched them upon their returns to the U.S. CBP later said the searches are part of its efforts to stop illegal drugs from entering the country. However, the Center for Public Integrity said in its report that CBP would not reveal the rate at which it encounters cases of people trying to smuggle drugs into the country in their body cavities. In a statement, a CBP spokesperson told Bustle:
CBP has policies, procedures and training in place to ensure officers and agents treat travelers and those in custody with professionalism and courtesy, while protecting the civil rights, civil liberties, and well-being of every individual with whom we interact, and maintaining the focus of our mission to protect all citizens and visitors to the United States. Especially with intensive, intrusive searches, CBP has protocols and procedures in place. Body cavity searches are not performed at CBP facilities. If CBP determines that a body cavity search is necessary, it must be carried out in a medical facility by authorized medical personnel.
One Long Island woman, Tameika Lovell, filed a lawsuit alleging that she returned from a trip to Jamaica only to have CBP officers ask her inappropriate questions and then subject her to an invasive body cavity search. According to the lawsuit, the officers allegedly informed Lovell that it was a "random search," but she claims that she had been the target of illegal racial profiling. The lawsuit then claims that they forced her into vulnerable positions and subjected her to breast, vaginal, and anal exams, all without finding Lovell to be illegally transporting drugs or doing anything else illegal, the suit alleges.
This, however, is only one of at least 11 lawsuits that the Center for Public Integrity has reviewed in the past seven years.
In a written statement to the Post, a spokesperson for CBP said that there were “policies, procedures and training in place to ensure officers and agents treat travelers and those in custody with professionalism and courtesy, while protecting the civil rights, civil liberties, and well-being of every individual with whom we interact."
The Post noted that CBP would not comment on ongoing lawsuits, but that it took any complaints "seriously" and “our mission is to facilitate legitimate travel and trade while preventing illicit drugs, weapons or other contraband from entering our country.”
CBP's reasoning for conducting invasive searches like the one that Lovell allegedly experienced is that, according to the statement released to the Post and the Center for Public Integrity, CBP sometimes "[encounters] persons attempting to smuggle narcotics into the United States internally, a very dangerous smuggling method that comes with the risk of great personal harm." These searches do not always result in drugs being uncovered, however.
Another case filed in 2013 alleges that "government agents brutally probed Plaintiff Jane Doe's body cavities against her will in multiple, redundant, and increasing intrusive searches even though none of the searches uncovered any evidence of internal drug smuggling." According to the filing, the searches lasted over six hours and included manual probing, a forced gynecological exam, and a CT scan. According to Post's report, Doe's allegations weren't an isolated incident, and CBP conducted similar searches on minors. These cases, which allegedly happened to U.S. citizens, are entirely separate from the cases detailed in a recent ACLU report on CBP allegedly abusing immigrant children (a report that the CBP called "unfounded."
Based on precedents established in the courts, CBP has broad rights to conduct searches, even invasive ones, without first acquiring a warrant, as long as there is “reasonable suspicion” that the person being searched has done something to warrant it. However, many women filing lawsuits claimed that officers did not do enough to established that "reasonable suspicion," thereby violating their rights. According to the Post, these searches also happen far more often to women of color.
The ACLU has represented several women filing lawsuits, and a spokesperson for them told the Post that they were worried that the number of lawsuits filed is far smaller than the number of women actually subjected to these searches.
“Instances like these are traumatic and people feel sexually assaulted. Filing a lawsuit requires detailing a significantly painful incident in a public forum,” said Adriana Piñon, an attorney on staff for the ACLU of Texas. "“I worry that the cases we represent underestimate how often this [invasive searching] occurs.”