An interrogation at the border

May 2, 2017

When Khury Petersen-Smith, a longtime contributor, returned to the U.S. from Australia, where he spoke at a socialist conference, he was singled out for "additional screening"--which turned out to mean a lot of questions about his political views and activism.

I RECENTLY returned to the U.S. from Melbourne, where I attended the Marxism 2017 conference, organized by the Australian group Socialist Alternative. The conference was incredible, bringing together socialists and other activists from around Australia and the world to discuss some of the most urgent questions facing the left in a serious and inspiring setting.

But this article isn't about the conference.

It's about the political questioning about the conference I was subjected to at the U.S. border.

It started out in a way that will be familiar to many who have come into the U.S. Entering at Los Angeles International Airport, I sorted myself with the other passengers along the lines of nationality and visa status.

Arrows directed us to different lines: U.S. and Canadian Passport Holders this way, Lawful Permanent Residents that way, Non-U.S. Citizens B1-B2 Visa over here, etc. You can guess which lines were longer and which were shorter.

As a U.S. citizen, I scanned my electronic passport in a console and took off my glasses while an automatic camera adjusted to my height and photographed me to compare that image to my biometric data stored in the system.

In line for customs at the airport
In line for customs at the airport

When I finally interacted with a human customs agent, handing him my declaration card, he looked at me and wordlessly scribbled something on a slip of paper that I had gotten from the e-passport machine. Another agent further down the line looked at the paper and directed me to a separate room for "additional screening."

I want to be clear about what did not happen next.

I have heard stories from immigrants, Arabs, Muslims and Latinos in my life--citizens and non-citizens--of being taken to small, windowless rooms, of being surrounded by multiple agents and screamed at, of being questioned about their religious practices.

While, as a Black person, I have been taken aside, away from white travel companions, and asked curious questions ("Have you ever had any trouble with the law?"), my worst experiences at Customs pale in comparison to the harassment that those most targeted at the border have to deal with.

BUT THE questions I was asked this time were unlike any I have been before, and the experience seems to be one of the everyday examples of a new political climate in the U.S. since Trump took office.

"What were you doing in Australia?" the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer asked me when my turn finally came, after waiting in a line of exclusively brown people.

"I was at a conference," I answered.

"What kind of conference?"

"An activist conference."

"What do you mean? A political conference?"


"What kind of politics?"

"It was a left-wing activist conference."

"So the politics in Australia are like here?"

I couldn't help but pause in response to that one.

"Uh, all countries have their own politics and also deal with some of the same political questions as we do here," I finally said. A clumsy answer to a silly question.

"Why did you go to the conference?" the agent asked.

"I was invited," I told him.

The agent was frustrated with my tight-lipped answers.

"You must be really articulate if you were invited as a speaker at this conference. But now you don't want to say anything, huh?" he said.

I told him that I didn't understand his questions, or what he was trying to get at. He said that he needed to know why I was in Australia. He asked me how much cash I was taking back into the country, and if I would like to change any of the answers on my customs declaration form.

"Is there a problem?" I asked.

"We'll see," he said. "That's what this investigation is about." He went back to questions about the conference.

"Did you speak against the president?"

I looked at him in surprised silence. He smiled. "You don't have to answer that one--I was just curious."

But those questions kept coming: So you're a Bernie supporter? Were you at the airport protest? How do you think we can overcome the divide in this country? Do you think we need a civil war?

All the while, he opened my bags, taking everything out--all of my clothes, everything. He opened and flipped through each one of my books--even a comic book.

"Do you have any documentation of your invitation to this conference? Even electronic?"


Once it was clear that an interrogatory style was not working, he switched to a "good cop" approach.

"I could never support Trump," he said. "Not after the way he disrespected Obama."

The officer was also Black.

"Can you believe that some Black people support Trump?" he said, still going through my bags.

"Some people think that we're traitors for becoming officers," he said. "But I think to deal with the problems Black Lives Matter is talking about, we need more Black people in the police."

I didn't take any of the bait. After 20 minutes or so, he sent me on my way. I had to run to another terminal and barely, but thankfully, made my connecting flight to Boston.

IT WAS unclear if they knew that I had been to the Marxism conference before directing me to additional questioning or not. But it became clear immediately once the questioning started that it was an attempt to gather information.

The whole thing could have gone much worse. But I wanted to publish the account because we will likely be dealing with more of this kind of thing under Trump.

A few practical thoughts:

Check out the ACLU's "Know Your Rights" page for more information about what to do when encountering law enforcement at an airport or border crossing.

Border agents (and all police officers) are not your friends. Whether they come off as hostile and belligerent or friendly and conversational, they can get information that can be used against you or others. Honest but brief responses are the way to go, and you do not have to answer questions like "Did you speak against the president" if you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident (see more about what you have to answer and what you don't at the ACLU's "Know Your Rights" page).

The officer did not open my laptop, and I was glad he didn't. I don't have anything remotely illegal on there, but there are things that would be uncomfortable to explain to the border police. At the top of that list is my current wallpaper--a beautiful image by artist Julio Salgado of a brown woman arresting an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent. This experience made me think about what one sees immediately upon opening my laptop, and what I would prefer not to discuss with a Customs and Border Protection officer.

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