Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fidley Watch: To Protect and Serve

Earlier this year Alaska State Representative Sharon Cissna, after submitting to the full body scan at Seattle’s SeaTac airport, declined a subsequent pat-down by Transportation Safety Administration officials. The lawmaker’s chief of staff says the Alaska legislator, who had been in Seattle for medical treatment, was ordered to submit to a “very intrusive pat-down or leave the airport.”

The legislator chose the latter, eventually making her way home via rented car, small plane and, ultimately, a ferry from Prince Rupert, BC.

In a general statement, a TSA representative said the TSA is “sensitive to the concerns of passengers who were not satisfied with their screening experience and we invite those individuals to provide feedback to TSA.”

We sympathize with Representative Cissna, but an “intrusive pat-down” seems like a walk in the park compared to the way Customs and Border Protection treats cruise passengers at the Port of Los Angeles.

On May 26th, the P&O Cruises Arcadia arrived at Los Angeles from Vancouver, BC on the 10th leg of a “five-star cruise” around America. The £10,000 (US$16,000), two-and-a-half month “Alaska Adventure” tour from the Arctic to the Caribbean had called at nine previous US ports, including San Francisco and Seattle, and the mostly elderly British passengers had already completed Electronic System for Travel Authorization forms, a standard visa waiver program for travel in the United States that’s designed to facilitate multiple-entry trips.

Nevertheless, all 2,000 passengers were made to go through full security checks in a process which took seven hours to complete and included fingerprinting of both hands, retina scans and a detailed check of the passports as well as questioning as to their background.

The US Coast Guard reported no known security threats at the Port of Los Angeles for the period, and confirmed that the MARSEC level remained at 1. Passengers claim that the extra checks were carried out in “revenge” for what had been a minor spat over allegedly overzealous security, and have complained they were “herded like animals” and made to stand for hours in temperatures up to 80F with no food or water or access to lavatories.

Some are said to have passed out in the heat while others were left confused and bewildered.

“A couple of people struggled to control their bladders and someone said they’d suffered a prolapsed disc,” said one passenger, who likened the experience to that of potential inmates arriving at Guantanamo Bay.

When reached for comment, Customs and Border Protection responded with their prepared statement, stating that the problem was caused by several factors.
  • The approximately 2,000 passengers were foreign nationals.
  • Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers are required to collect biometric data such as fingerprints and photographs for admission into the United States.
  • CBP experienced a “nationwide system slowdown” which greatly increased processing times.
  • The exit of the cruise ship passengers overwhelmed the CBP processing area.
Customs and Border Protection has nonetheless “instituted significant corrective actions and will [be] meeting with cruise line executives to ensure similar processing delays do not occur in the future.”

The Port of Los Angeles is bleeding cruise revenue as travelers shy away from Mexican cruises because of continuing violence in that country. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 illegal immigrants cross the country’s southern border every day, most of those into California.

Next time a group of well-off elderly Britons wants to visit Los Angeles, it might be safer to sneak in from Tijuana.

Chris Philips, Managing Editor