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Make no mistake; Customs, Immigration are different

I often hear the process of entry to the U.S. referred to as "going through Customs." Less frequently, I hear it referred to as "going through Immigration."The fact is that they are two separate funct...

Daniel Joyce
Daniel Joyce

I often hear the process of entry to the U.S. referred to as “going through Customs.” Less frequently, I hear it referred to as “going through Immigration.”

The fact is that they are two separate functions, and every person must undergo some sort of Customs and Immigration review. Persons entering the U.S. normally encounter only one inspector who has authority over both functions, but one should keep in mind two separate things are going on.

The focus of the question may be different, depending on whether the inspecting officer is from U.S. Customs or Immigration.

The U.S. Customs Service is part of the Treasury. Its primary focus is on the entry of goods, not people. Its responsibilities are to inspect and collect duties on certain goods entering the U.S., and to prevent the entry of unlawful goods. In the case of truckers, the tractor-trailer unit itself, as well as the load being carried within, are both subject to inspection and clearance by U.S. Customs.

The inspector will want to make sure the equipment is being used lawfully in international commerce, and not in violation of the cabotage laws. The Customs official will also want to make sure all goods are manifested, inspected and declared properly, and ensure all appropriate duties have been paid. For these reasons, truckers are more likely to encounter U.S. Customs officials on entry.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is concerned about people, not goods. At the border, the INS reviews individuals for admissibility and documentation requirements. Regardless of admissibility, a person can’t enter the U.S. unless he or she has proper documentation.

At a minimum, this involves proof of identification and citizenship, and, where required, appropriate visas for the intended purpose of entry.

Canadian citizens and landed immigrants from commonwealth countries are generally exempt from passport and visa requirements for entry to the U.S. as a visitor, but they still need to prove their nationality if asked. In some cases, additional documentation is required, such as proof of a residence and employment in the home country, to substantiate the person’s status as a temporary visitor to the U.S.

For truckers, this can involve evidence of the international nature of the trip and proof of employment by a Canadian carrier.

Some people are inadmissible even if they have appropriate documentation. The most commonly encountered grounds of inadmissibility are for previous criminal law or Immigration law violations. In those cases, the individual must apply for and receive a special waiver of inadmissibility in order to gain entry.

Most people encounter the INS inspectors when arriving by passenger car at land ports of entry. Most individuals arriving by car do not encounter Customs officials unless they have something to declare, or unless further inspection is required.

At smaller ports of entry, Customs and INS officers alternate at primary inspection. When questions arise, the person is referred inside to secondary inspection, completed by the officer best suited to handle the individual circumstances. At large ports of entry, passenger cars are inspected almost exclusively by INS officers, while Customs officers usually staff the truck lanes.

To avoid the redundancy and inefficiency of going through two inspections procedures upon entry, the inspecting officer takes on a dual role even though he or she works for only one agency. The INS inspector will usually focus on admissibility issues such as citizenship and the purpose of the entry.

It is usually secondary, if at all, that he or she will ask if you are bringing in weapons or other contraband, or if you have anything to declare. Any issues that require more review will be referred to secondary inspection.

The Customs inspector will focus primarily on the load clearance, and may not even inquire about admissibility issues beyond citizenship. I have seen cases where an inadmissible driver has made numerous entries to the U.S. over several years until the fateful day when the Customs inspector enters the driver’s name and date of birth into the computer, and finds that the driver is inadmissible due to a criminal record.

The driver complains about his bad luck, saying “I never had a problem before.” Well, the driver did have a problem before, but the problem didn’t surface. Maybe he feels unlucky that day, but truth be known, he was lucky all those times in the past to avoid a detailed INS inspection.

It may be helpful to keep the Customs and INS functions separate in your mind as you cross the border.

If you are entering in a truck with a load, the inspector is probably going to concentrate on load clearance.

If you are in a passenger car, the inspector is probably going to concentrate on your citizenship and the nature of your trip.

It is a common feature of human nature to try to analyze the nature of the question at the same time you are trying to respond to it.

You want to give the answer that shortens the process and allows you to go on your way quickly. Often, this makes you seem evasive and uncertain, when in fact you have nothing to hide.

One of the main features of this column over the years has been to equip drivers and others to understand the issues before they reach the border, so they can confidently and truthfully respond in a way that puts them on their way without any problems. n

– Daniel Joyce can be reached at Hirsh and Joyce, Attorneys at Law, at 716-564-2727.

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