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Stopping Terrorism at the Border

Are the U.S. borders the last stop before both foreigners and citizens are entitled to the constitutional rights generally afforded to all within the United States? Terrorists have long been recruiting Americans whose outward appearance matches the local population to make their war against the non-believers more effective and inconspicuous. A limit on search and seizure to the standard of reasonable suspicion allows these “typical Americans” to cross the U.S. land borders without any additional scrutiny; meanwhile, those who fit the terrorist stereotype are subject to interrogation. Perhaps security measures at a land border and other checkpoints should mimic those at the airport to prevent a lapse in judgment or a border guard from overlooking a subtle red flag.

Should only an act of suspicion trigger a search and seizure at the U.S./Mexico and U.S./Canada borders, or should border guards subject all travelers to the same kinds of security measures as those in an airport? Ahmed Ressam, commonly known as the Millennial Bomber, attempted to enter the U.S. from Canada via a ferry.[1] When Ressam reached Port Angeles, Washington, U.S. Customs and Border (CBP) officers performed a standard search of the vehicle he brought with him.[2] Officials found nothing during this search, but a border guard decided to give him additional scrutiny based on his body language and facial expressions.[3] A more thorough search of Ressam’s car then produced explosives hidden in the spare tire well.[4] Should we always wait for that act of suspicion to occur, and if not, then how thorough should a required search and seizure be? The routine search and seizure of Ressam’s car failed to yield results since CBP officers did not check the trunk’s spare tire well.[5] Without another agent’s shrewd assessment of Ressam’s body language, perhaps Ressam would have been able to successfully bomb the Los Angeles Airport.[6]

The fourth amendment protects Americans from unlawful search and seizure; however at the border, should national security rely solely on CBP officers to determine who receives a more stringent search?[7] Perhaps stricter searches will lead to capturing others like Ressam and remove the element of human judgment while simultaneously treating all travelers equally. In U.S. v. Ramsey, the Supreme Court held that border searches are considered reasonable due to the fact that the person or item of interest entering the U.S. is from the outside.[8] As a result, the border represents the best and final opportunity for CBP officers to secure our borders before domestic law enforcement has to allocate limited resources in an effort to protect American citizens from those who breezed across the border with the sole intent to do substantial harm to the U.S. and its people.

Lastly, racial profiling and other stereotypes will not be a point of contention if everyone is required to be thoroughly searched. In 2004, CBP officers detained five American Muslims returning from an Islamic revival conference in Canada.[9] Although they did not have criminal records, they were questioned, patted-down, fingerprinted, and photographed by CBP officers over the course of several hours.[10] The court held that in Tabbaa v. Chertoff, searches and detentions constituted the least restrictive means to protect the nation from terrorism.[11] Given the recent surge of terrorist activities in Europe, the court’s opinion has merit. Despite the inconvenience of a detailed search, the time lost is a small price to pay for the safety of the country.

[1] United States v. Ressam, 474 F.3d 597 (9th Cir. 2007).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] United States v. Ressam, 474 F.3d 597, 600 (9th Cir. 2007).

[7] U.S. Const. amend. IV.

[8] United States v. Ramsey, 431 U.S. 606, 619 (1977).

[9] Tabbaa v. Chertoff, 509 F.3d 89, 92 (2d Cir. 2007).

[10] Id.

[11] Id.


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