When the International Olympic Committee selected Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, over Chicago, to host the Summer Olympics in 2016, I was surprised and disappointed.  When the media started to report that one of the factors that led the Committee members not to vote in favor of the United States was our security policy toward international visitors, I was intrigued. When I read that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had previously promised the Committee that the White House would set up a special office to oversee a host of federal agencies to make sure the customs and immigration process would be streamlined so athletes and other visitors would have no trouble getting to the games, then I realized something was seriously wrong.

A New York Times October 2, 2009 article entitled “Chicago’s Loss: Is Passport Control to Blame?” stated the case well.  The CEO of the lobbying group U.S. Travel Association also stated on October 2, 2009 that we “need to change impressions of what the experience of travel to the U.S. is like for international visitors.”  And he said that the very day after personally meeting with United States Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.  

I wondered about the impressions that foreign visitors have of clearing the international arrival areas of our nation’s airports, including being processed by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (U.S. Customs).  The results were disturbing.

I randomly spoke to people I knew overseas who were frequent and experienced international travelers. They were Brazilians, Argentinians, Mexicans, Germans, Australians, and Colombians whom I asked for an honest assessment of their U.S. international entry experiences.  Many persons spoke of being selected for questioning by U.S. Customs personnel upon arrival in the United States, usually at an international airport such as New York’s JFK, Los Angeles (LAX), or Miami International Airport (MIA).  Many had their baggage examined by CBP officers.   Although unpleasant, most persons did not seem to mind much even though they stated that the border security of the United States was a relatively poor experience compared to other countries.  Virtually everyone I spoke with had a story about a friend or colleague of theirs who was detained and questioned by CBP officers in the United States.  The result was suspicion, and even some hostility, toward the United States regarding its perceived unwelcoming attitude to business persons and vacationers coming to the United States.  Many of those person interviewed mentioned President Bush as the person to blame for their negative perspective.

Clearly, something needed to be done.  Fortunately, sometimes out of something bad comes something good. Within a week of the Olympics going to Rio instead of Chicago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 1035, the “Travel Promotion Act of 2009,”  co-sponsored by U.S. Representatives William Delahunt (D-MA) and Roy Blunt (R-MO). The Act would create a public-private partnership to promote the United States as a premier travel destination, and better explain U.S. security policies to our overseas guests. The U.S. Senate already passed identical legislation also entitled the Travel Promotion Act of 2009  (S. 1023) earlier in September, so the Act should eventually become law. As stated explicitly in the Act, the primary purposes of the new organization would be “to identify, counter, and correct misperceptions regarding United States entry policies around the world.”

Why does the United States need such an agency? What did we do wrong after 9/11 to have created such a bad impression around the world? In President Bush’s National Strategy for Homeland Security issued October 5, 2007, he stated:

“We have made our borders more secure and developed an effective system of layered defense by strengthening the screening of people and goods overseas and by tracking and disrupting the international travel of terrorists.”

Whether “more secure” and “effective” is arguable, however, there certainly had been more aggressive screening of people both prior to their boarding aircraft overseas and upon arrival in the United States during President Bush’s “War on Terror”.

U.S. Customs has attempted to educate the international traveler by having useful information on its website entitled “Admission into the United States” and even a flow chart of the CBP Inspection Process.  From my own personal contacts, although certainly not any kind of scientifically proven study, I agree with the U.S. Travel Association that we lost the Olympics, in part, because of a perception (real or imagined) that our entry process is just not up to international standards of hospitality. 

While balancing the concepts of border security and facilitating trade is now an ongoing debate, I remain optimistic that the U.S. Congress, President Obama, and DHS Secretary Napolitano have already started to move the country in the right direction in re-evaluating our trade and border security policies and practices. For example, the phrase “War on Terror” is no longer in vogue.  I have personally recently heard both the U.S. Customs’ Director of Field Operations for South Florida, Harold Woodward, and U.S. Customs’  Area Port Director for Tampa, Gary McClelland, talk about a renewed relationship with the international trade community to facilitate trade and travel.                                                                                                                                                                

My recommendations are:

(1) If an international traveler is selected, stopped, and questioned by CBP, preferably do it in the person’s native language;

(2) With CBP’s Treasury Enforcement Communications System (TECS) that includes the Department of Justice’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC), the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications Systems (NLETS), U.S. Customs’ Automated Targeting System (ATS), Border Crossing Information (BCI), and Advance Passenger Information System (APIS), all of which is provided in advance of the arrival of the airplane in the United States, questioning of passengers should be brief;

(3) anyone detained by CBP should have explained to him or her exactly why the person is being detained, and should be informed how to remedy any false or inaccurate information that may be in a U.S. Customs database; and

(4) invigorate the DHS’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties to directly investigate and then remedy any shortcomings it identifies in the international arrivals process.

Finally, after a long international flight from somewhere such as China, it really is nice to hear a uniformed U.S. Customs officer say “Welcome to the United States.”