Mon | Jan 18, 2021

TRAVEL TRAUMA - J’cans recount ordeal of US immigration officials seizing phones, rifling through private info

Published:Friday | November 15, 2019 | 12:25 AMPaul Clarke/Gleaner Writer

While travellers passing through United States airports will breathe easier after a federal court ruled warrantless searches of phones, tablets and laptops unconstitutional, several Jamaicans have recounted tales of trauma about what they deemed an invasion of privacy.

While Washington has vigorously defended the searches as a critical tool to protect America, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has described the actions as “fishing expeditions” that violate the Fourth Amendment.

Border officers must now demonstrate individualised suspicion of contraband before they can search a traveller’s device.

A Jamaican woman who routinely vacations in the US to visit family recalled a harrowing experience earlier this year at the JFK International Airport in New York.

Thirty-year-old Shanna Thompson (real name withheld) says that she was the victim of an aggressive interrogation that involved her cell phone being searched by an immigration officer for undeclared reasons.

She told The Gleaner that the experience has left her embarrassed, angry, and traumatised.

“I was travelling to the US for my regular summer vacation on July 22, 2019, when I was pulled from the immigration line at the JFK Airport in New York and taken to a room. The officer requested to see my cell phone, which needed charging at the time. So I informed him that it had no charge, and he demanded that I present it to him.

“I went inside my pocketbook and gave the phone to him. He then plugged my phone to a charger and asked me for my lock code,” Thompson said.

Recounting her ordeal, she said that the officer eventually plugged her phone into his own charger and waited a few minutes and turned the phone on.

“I was so shocked when I realised that the man was going through my gallery, my messages … everything. And each time I would try to find out why, he told me to have a seat,” she said.

“I felt so degraded, ashamed, but startled because I couldn’t understand why he was searching my phone, which is my privacy.”

Thompson explained that it has left her feeling terrified of travelling to the US again.

“I was held in questioning for more than two hours and ended up leaving the airport some time after two the following morning, having arrived at JFK minutes to 12. On top of that, he even asked me if I have a sugar-daddy over there. What kind of question was that to a woman?” she said.

Thompson said that when she was finally allowed to enter the US, she was so traumatised that she didn’t even want to go outside.

“It was the worst vacation for me. I don’t know if I’ll be going back,” she said.


She is not alone. Ricardo, who requested that his name be withheld for fear of victimisation by US authorities, said that he was also stopped at immigration, taken to a small room, and questioned for hours while an immigration officer rifled through his mobile phone in December 2018.

He, too, has been left scarred by the experience.

“I will never forget that day. It was my son’s birthday and I took him overseas as a treat, you know, father and son thing, and they had me there answering all sorts of questions. But worse, they were going through my mobile phone. It was hugely embarrassing for me,” stated Ricardo.

Last year, the US government conducted more than 33,000 searches, almost four times the number from just three years prior, according to the ACLU, which filed the lawsuit along with Electronic Frontier Foundation on behalf of 11 travellers whose smartphones and laptops were searched without individualised suspicion at US ports of entry.