Protecting Your Privacy and Rights when Arriving in the United States
By Anish Vashistha
Los Angeles , California


A common yet undesirable experience for many individuals arriving in the United States from various countries involves the close inspection and possible seizure of their belongings. A person’s feeling of helplessness as a United States Customs and Border Protection officer scrutinizes the contents of his/her suitcases, laptop computer, and cameras is combined with his/her fatigue from immediately having stepped off a long flight from the other side of the world. Moreover, the fear that one may not be permitted admission into the United States, may be detained, or may be arrested and criminally charged for not cooperating only adds to his feeling of helplessness.

Unlike most interactions between individuals and law-enforcement officials within the United States, arriving in the United States by land, sea, or air and seeking entry does not include the same Constitutional rights that one may expect. The United States government officials have many more powers at ports of entry, i.e., border-crossing points, seaports, or airport terminals for in-bound international flights, than they do at other locations within the United States. For example, whereas a law-enforcement officer would require a warrant or either probable-cause or reasonable suspicion before inspecting the contents of one’s personal belongings on a typical United States street, such requirements do not exist for inspections at the port of entry. A United States Customs and Border Protection officer requires no such warrant or suspicion to inspect the belongings of a person seeking entry to the United States. The search for bomb-making material, child pornography, and unreported large sums of money is the usual reason given by inspecting officers for conducting close inspections.

However, once the decision to conduct a search has been made, the search must be done in a reasonable manner. Therefore, an inspecting officer is not permitted to read closely personal correspondence after determining that a document is indeed personal correspondence and is not, for instance, bomb-making material. In addition, the no-suspicion standard does not apply if the United States government seizes a person’s laptop computer or other electronic devices to send to a lab away from the port of entry for further inspection of whether those electronic devices contain, for example, child pornography. In such a case, some level of suspicion or possibly a warrant would be required for such an off-site inspection. Finally, even if the United States government seizes from an individual sums in excess of $10,000.00 because those amounts were not reported, then the individual still has a right to receive back a percentage of that seized amount after pursuing the correct process.

The protection of the United States from criminal activity and security risks is an important component of the jobs of the United States Customs and Border Protection officers at the various ports of entry throughout the United States. An educated population knowledgeable about its rights only ensures that these officers are engaging in their jobs correctly and are providing the highest level of protection.

(The author, Anish Vashistha, is a licensed attorney with a nationwide immigration-law practice. He is a graduate from Georgetown University Law Center and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He has helped several Pakistani nationals obtain or maintain legal status in the United States. He may be contacted toll-free at 1 (866) 433-7016, by email at, or on the web at



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.