Immigrants and international visitors entering the United States via Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) may wonder what process they will go through after their plane lands. I’m an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles and recently had the opportunity to tour the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facility at the Tom Bradley International Terminal.
STEP 1: ARRIVING AT THE PORT OF ENTRY
Whenever anyone wishes to enter the United States, they must first pass through a port of entry and be processed by United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP). CBP falls under the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The men and women with whom you will interact are referred to as CBP “officers”. Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is one such “port of entry”.
There are roughly three categories of international travelers who land at LAX daily. The first group consists of those passengers for whom Los Angeles is the final destination for the air travel portion of their journey. The second group consists of those passengers who are connecting to other flights at LAX, either to other US destinations or destinations abroad. Passengers in this group will still be required to collect their luggage and proceed through US Customs prior to re-checking it at their departure terminal. The third group** consists of passengers who will re-board the same plane for continuation of their flight to a non-US destination.
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No matter which category you fall into, you will be required to officially enter the United States before continuing on. This means that passengers who are “transiting” the United States (i.e. only entering the US in order to get to another destination) must be admissible, and may need a special visa, in order to do so. “Admissibility”, in the context of US immigration law, is a legal term and not something this article will explore. Any number of things could make you inadmissible including, but not limited to, criminal history, health conditions, or prior US immigration violations. You must ensure that you are admissible to the United States BEFORE beginning your journey. If you are not admissible to the US, or do not have the necessary travel documents, you may not be allowed to continue on your way. You may be detained in the United States or be sent back to where your came from! The US no longer allows travelers to pass through the airport without being formally admitted.
Due to the high volume of international air traffic arriving at and departing from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) at any given moment, your plane may not taxi directly to the Tom Bradley International Terminal, which is the main processing facility for CBP at LAX. Several of the domestic terminals have their own, smaller, CBP stations and can process arriving international passengers during certain hours of the day (for these passengers, the details of the main facility may not apply to them, but the general process will be the same). During off-hours, or if you deplane away from a CBP station, you will be bussed by airport employees to the Tom Bradly International Terminal. You will enter the terminal through special doors (as if you were entering the terminal through a jetway) and then mix with the passengers who are deplaning directly at the international terminal. If your plane pulls up directly at Tom Bradley, you will deplane and follow the path indicated by airline or CBP personnel. No matter how you arrive at the CBP station, you should never attempt to veer off the designated path, as you could be charged with attempting to illegally enter the United States. Pay attention, as the boundaries of the path may not be clearly marked! You must follow the directions of airline personnel precisely. You will then proceed down escalators to the main CBP station.
STEP 2: PRIMARY PASSPORT INSPECTION The Customs and Border Protection station at Tom Bradley Int’l Terminal (TBIT) at LAX, Los Angeles is vast, modern and intended to serve upwards of 20,000 international passengers per day. It is one big space and rivals the size of an airplane hangar. It is impressive. Passengers descend into the station via escalators and proceed to “primary” passport inspection. Primary inspection resembles the check-out area at American supermarkets, however there are roughly 65 lanes with larger areas at either end for special processing. Newly arriving immigrants (i.e. those with new visas and packages from US consulates and embassies abroad), designated refugees, and disabled passengers will proceed to one of the special processing areas. Everyone else will proceed to the appropriate waiting lines marked “US Citizen”, “LPR” (permanent resident) or “visitor”. Once it is your turn, you will approach the counter and hand your passport and other travel documents to the officer. He or she will scan your passport (or enter the number into the computer) and check it for any stamped visas. Non-US Citizens will have their photograph taken and be fingerprinted for the US Visit system. You will wait at the counter while your fingerprints are run through several law enforcement systems such as FBI, Interpol and US immigration. This is done fairly quickly. If there is record of you in the CBP system, your immigration history will be reviewed. The officer may also review the pages in your passport to see your travel history. After the officer has completed this process, he or she will likely question you about where you were, where you’re going, and everything in between. Expect seemingly random and extensive questioning. The important thing to remember is not to panic. Stay calm and be respectful. Give the officer every reason to admit you to the United States in the one or two minutes allotted to you in the primary passport inspection area. Fidgeting, babbling, or failing to look the officer in the eye may result in unnecessary further scrutiny. If the primary passport inspection officer feels that you are clearly admissible to the US, he or she will stamp your passport and, if you are a non-immigrant, issue you an I-94. You should keep this form in a safe place as it is evidence of both your admission date and the date by which you must depart the US. You will then be sent to the baggage claim area, located directly behind primary inspection. However, if you are one of the unlucky few who does not get admitted here, do not panic yet! The officer can only admit those persons who he or she believes are absolutely admissible. Any question the officer has about you, your documents, or your story will automatically result in a referral to secondary passport inspection one. While the primary officer may have the tools to resolve whatever question he or she has about your admissibility, he or she does not have the time to figure it out. Thus, complicated cases will always require further processing.
Step 3: SECONDARY PASSPORT INSPECTION ONE The primary officer will note the computer as to why he or she believes you are not admissible and you will be escorted to secondary passport inspection one. After checking in with the officer at the door, you will have a seat and wait to be called. It is possible that the elderly or those with medical conditions will be called before you. The wait at secondary one can be hours. When it is your turn, you will be asked to approach one of five stations at the counter. At this point, the officer at secondary passport inspection one will be able to devote the time necessary to admit those aliens with complicated issues. Many people are admitted after secondary inspection one and can proceed to claim their baggage and clear customs. However, depending on what the problem was, they can expect to be referred to secondary processing on subsequent visits.
Step 4: SECONDARY PASSPORT INSPECTION TWO Those who are referred to Secondary Passport Inspection Two may be entering troubled waters as this is the last door, both literally and figuratively, at the port of entry. Failure to be admitted here will cause you to either be detained by immigration officials or sent back, with or without an expedited removal (ER) on your record. You may feel panic coming on, but resist it! You can still be admitted to the US at secondary two! First, forget what you’ve seen on television or in the movies with regard to the US criminal justice system. Normal American “due process” does not apply at LAX (or at any other border for that matter). You do not necessarily have a right to an immigration attorney, unless you are being held for certain criminal matters. I cannot recommend whether you talk or remain silent, as I do not know the details of your case. However, your silence or non-cooperation at this point will most certainly not help you to be admitted. You also do not have the right to make a phone call, although you may be allowed to let loved ones know where you are. If you are held for more than 24 hours, you are also entitled to notify your consulate. However, you are not entitled to have visitors in the secondary two area.
You enter secondary passport inspection two directly from secondary one, down a narrow hallway. You will first be escorted to a small room where you and your belongings will be inspected by a guard of your same gender; the process will be witnessed by another guard of your same gender. You will then sit in a waiting room.
There are a handful of officers who are regularly assigned to secondary two; thus your case will likely be handled by an experienced officer. You will meet with the officer at her or her desk, and be asked a lengthy and detailed set of questions. The officer first checks to make sure you aren’t an American citizen. He or she then checks to see whether or not you have a valid green card. The officer will, eventually, make a determination about your admissibility and consult his or her supervisor for approval. Any action other than admission will require concurrence from a second supervisor. Thus, while it takes only one CBP officer to admit you to the United States, it takes at least five to prevent your admission.
If you are not admissible into the United States at secondary passport inspection two, one of several things may happen. If the officers believe that you are probably admissible, but just missing some documents, you may be given “deferred inspection”. With deferred inspection, you are not admitted but rather allowed to enter the United States temporarily in order to fix whatever problems you have. You will be instructed to report to the “deferred inspection” facility (currently in downtown Los Angeles) at a certain date and time to complete the admission process. Certain aliens and permanent residents may also be allowed to enter temporarily and be given a Notice to Appear (NTA) for removal proceedings at a later date before an immigration judge (IJ).
If not offered deferred inspection or given an NTA, you may be offered the chance to withdraw your application and return home on the next available flight. Withdrawing your application is advantageous as you will not have a deportation on your record. Another option is that you will be given “expedited removal” and returned on the next available flight. With expedited removal, you are not entitled to an attorney or to argue you case before an immigration judge. This removal may also bar your return to the United States for at least five years. The last option, and the most dire, is that you will be detained by immigration officers and placed in deportation proceedings before an immigration judge.
Those who are detained, or whose flights home do not depart in the near future, will be turned over to the Detention & Removal Operations (DRO) arm of ICE (Immigration & Customs Enforcement). DRO makes stops at the LAX CBP station at 11am and 11pm daily. Those who are awaiting flights will be given room and board at a downtown detention facility and returned to the airport in time for the flight. Those who would not make it back to the airport in time for their flight will be required to wait in the secondary passport inspection two office. While it is rare, people have been known to wait in the office for up to 36 hours for their flight home. Any airline not willing to carry an inadmissible passenger back to their departure city will be fined by CBP.
Aliens who fear for their safety if they return to their home country will undergo a special process called asylum, which is not discussed here.
Step 5: Baggage & Customs
Once admitted, or even allowed entrance, by an officer, the traveler will collect his or her bags and proceed though customs. During customs, you will be required to declare possession of certain items and your bags may be checked for food, drugs, weapons and other contraband. Evidence of future immigration violations and fraud is also seized during the customs process. For instance if you told the officer during your passport inspection that you were here to visit Disneyland for a week, the customs officer finding a stack of 100 resumes hidden in your bag will likely ruin your day.
You should check your passport and travel documents prior to leaving the CBP area in order to ensure that the officer did not make a mistake. Once you clear customs, you will be directed out of the CBP station and proceed to the terminal’s “arrivals” area.
**The third category of passenger, those non-immigrants who get off the plane in Los Angeles simply so that it can be serviced prior to the next leg of their trip to a different country, may be allowed to process through the “transit lounge”. Although they will undergo the same scrutiny as described below, they will do so in a private waiting area reserved only for them. Further, their luggage will probably not even be unloaded from the belly of the plane.
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