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Will the immigration officer know what I said to CBP – or – the case of the sandwich smuggler

I have a confession. Long before I was an immigration lawyer, before I was a judicial law clerk, before I had a law license… I was a smuggler. A smuggler of the worst type – a sandwich smuggler.

But, before we get there, here’s a common question.

“Will USCIS (or a visa officer) know what I said that one time to the border agent?”

By the time someone begins the immigration process to the United States they have often had many interactions with U.S. immigration agencies. They may have previously applied for a visa and spoken to a consular office. They may have had many entries to the United States, and spoken with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers. They may have filed applications or former petitions.

So the question comes up often – will a given immigration officer know exactly what you said, 5 or 10 years ago to another immigration agent in different immigration agency?

Let’s get back to…

Sandwich smuggling.

I hadn’t set out to be a smuggler. Not really. My wife and I were in the midst of grad school and were coming back from a Caribbean island for a friend’s wedding. On the way to the airport, we stopped for one last bite of local(ish) cuisine. In my case, a Cubano.

Surely some will offer dissenting views, but a Cubano typically involves a couple types of pork (usually a smoked ham and a roasted loin) on pressed bread with pickles, mayo, and mustard – variations abound. This example, for a roadside deli, was fine if not particularly noteworthy. Half went down the hatch, half went into my carry one for later.

At the Houston airport, we cleared customs and headed over to the agriculture screening – another one of those big x-ray looking machines. The officer asked me if I was bringing anything back into the country.

“Yeah, I’ve got like half a sandwich.”

“What type?”

“A Cubano.”

“Sir, please step aside.”

I was ushered to the side of the screening area where we were joined by another officer. (A safety protocol, I’m sure, for sandwich screening). The first officer had me pull the sandwich out of the bag, open the sandwich, whereafter he confirmed that it contained… pork! Importation of pork, it turned out, was forbidden.

That’s understandable. The pork in my sandwich could have been infected with a disease that could endanger U.S. livestock. That disease could have survived the cooking process. Then, I could have taken that sandwich to a farm in Nebraska and rubbed it all over a swine, endangering American lives.

It was an important victory for national security.

Despite the grave danger imposed by my Cubano, I was ultimately released. (No, I wasn’t permitted to just eat the sandwich at the inspection station… what would be the sense in this if we couldn’t also waste the sandwich).

The sandwich comes home to roost.

Several years later I’m back in my hometown of Seattle, working as an immigration attorney. Since I’m back and forth often to Vancovuer, BC, I’ve applied for a NEXUS card. One of the best purchases I’ve ever made in my life, a NEXUS card gets you in the fast lane both at the Canada and Mexico borders and also at the Global Entry lines when arriving at U.S. airports. Oh, and also streamlined screening when you’re checking in at U.S. airports. It’s great.

The application process culminated in an interview at the modest Boeing Field airport. I explained to the CBP officer why I wanted the card and he asked about my background.

“Any criminal convictions?”

“No, sir.”

“Ever violated U.S. immigration laws?”

“No, sir.”

“Is there anything you’d like to tell me about what happened at the Houston airport?”

I had to stop and think. I’ve been through Houston many times, and nothing came to mind. Oh, man – does he mean the sandwich?

Yes, he did.

My Cubano smuggling history had been dutifully documented in my permanent immigration records. Frankly, I’d filed the story away in “obnoxious travel hassles” and rarely thought about it. I certainly hadn’t stored it away in my, “close brushes with the law” file (which is small).

Fortunately, I explained the issue to the officer, who wasn’t particularly concerned or interested, and my NEXUS application was approved. But the moral of the story is…

Always assume that every immigration agent knows everything you’ve ever said to any other immigration agent.

When I advise clients about immigration interviews and applications I often tell them about my Cubano sandwich smuggling. I encourage them to approach every conversation with an immigration officer as though she has perfect access to every statement the person has ever made in any immigration context. That goes for all verbal statements to officers, as well as everything ever stated on a visa application or petition. Always assume they know everything.

You should never, ever try to play “hide the ball” with an immigration officer. If you have a nagging feeling that there is something in your past that could become an issue, that should be addressed head-on before you walk up to a border agent or file an immigration application.

The importance of this really can’t be overstated. Here’s a dramatic example of why. The Trump administration currently has a “denaturalization task force” examining over 2,500 individuals who have U.S. citizenship. One of the things that they are looking for is whether any of those individuals made inaccurate statements on their naturalization applications. And not just that – whether they made misstatements on their underlying applications for residency. In other words, an inaccurate statement that someone made a decade ago on an immigration application could now be a cause for revoking their U.S. citizenship and, potentially, could lead to their deportation. This is a dramatic example that will apply to relatively few people, but the point is that the immigration agencies have a long memory, and they don’t forget what was said to them.

So the bottom line is:

  • Be scrupulously honest with immigration officers.
  • Always assume that any given officer knows every statement (verbal or written) you have ever made to a U.S. immigration agency.
  • If you think that there is something in your past that could come back to haunt you, address that issue now, not when you are later confronted with it.

Feel free to add comments below with any related questions.

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Greg is recognized as the leading national authority on enforcement of the Form I-864, Affidavit of Support. Greg represents low-income green card holders in lawsuits to recover support from their sponsors. Practicing family-based immigration law, Greg also focuses on helping married and engaged couples with U.S. immigration.

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