Customs agents accused of targeting people from nations not in Trump’s travel ban

Lawmakers, lawyers, and migrants say federal agents are misusing a form to get travelers to relinquish visas and green cards.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Reed Saxon
CREDIT: AP Photo/Reed Saxon

Amid the chaos and heartache caused by President Donald Trump’s executive order blocking immigrants and refugees from seven majority-Muslim nations, stories have emerged of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents pressuring visa holders to sign away their rights and exit the country.

When Trump unveiled the executive order, he said it would ensure “extreme vetting” of immigrants and refugees from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. There is nothing in the text of the order about an I-407 form—the document that immigrants sign when they want to renounce their U.S. residency, waive their right to a hearing with an immigration judge, and leave the country. Yet the New York Times, L.A. Times, the Spanish-language news wire EFE, and other news outlets are reporting accusations that CBP officers are inappropriately pressuring visa holders from the seven banned countries to sign that form upon arrival.

ThinkProgress has learned that citizens of nations not listed in the executive order are being targeted, as well.

Immigrants, attorneys, Mexican government officials, and U.S. lawmakers are accusing CBP of coercing legal permanent residents (green card holders) and visa holders into renouncing their visas and leaving the country, without giving them a full explaination of the repercussions.

Hustled onto a flight home

The same week the executive order was signed, a 37-year-old industrial engineer arrived in Houston, where she had a layover on her way to attending her cousin’s 30th birthday party in Los Angeles.

The woman, who ThinkProgress will identify as Jeni after she requested anonymity because she is involved in ongoing legal proceedings, was born and raised in Juarez, Mexico, right on the border with the United States. Jeni said she has been traveling to the U.S. with a visitor’s visa since her childhood. In dozens of trips over three decades, she told ThinkProgress in a phone interview, she never had Customs agents do more than check her suitcase and ask her a few questions. This time, however, agents brought her into a separate room, where they questioned her for hours about her family, work history, and previous visits. She said they patted her down, fingerprinted her, and photographed her.

Jeni said agents accused her of overstaying her visa on a trip nine years ago, which she denied. They then accused her of working without permission on her last U.S. visit, when she volunteered for The Odiyan Center, a Buddhist retreat center in California.

Excerpt from a transcript of Jeni’s interview with CBP officers in Houston, obtained by ThinkProgress.
Excerpt from a transcript of Jeni’s interview with CBP officers in Houston, obtained by ThinkProgress.

The Odiyan Center confirmed to ThinkProgress that Jeni had volunteered there in 2016 and had not worked for pay. While it is illegal for immigrants like Jeni with a B1/B2 visitor’s visa to do any work — paid or unpaid — that benefits a commercial enterprise, the Buddhist center does not qualify as such. The visa does allow holders to volunteer for “a recognized religious or nonprofit charitable organization.”

After the interview, Jeni said the CPB officers handed her a stack of forms and told her: “Hurry up. Your flight is leaving. We’re going to send you back to Mexico. If you don’t sign, you will go to a detention center until we can find another flight for you, and we don’t know when that will be.”

Jeni said the agents did not explain to her what the forms meant and did not inform her of her right to consult with a lawyer. When she reviewed the documents later, she discovered she had forfeited her visa and is now banned from returning to the United States for the next five years. She will not be able to visit her family members in Los Angeles, and she fears the ban will hurt her future career prospects.

“I’m an industrial engineer, and most manufacturing companies are international,” she explained. “At past jobs, they have asked us to go do trainings in the United States. I obviously now won’t be able to do it, and maybe that will be an obstacle for me getting a job.”

Jeni said she will continue talking to lawyers and the Mexican consulate in El Paso, Texas about her options for challenging the travel ban, but she is not optimistic about her prospects. She observed that if she was so readily misled into signing away her rights—despite being fluent in English and a frequent traveler—then CBP may be taking advantage of many other travelers who might be more easily confused.

“I’ve had a visa since I was a kid. It’s not like I don’t know the process,” she said. “I’ve never done anything unlawful, but here I am.”

The I-407 form: A troubling pattern emerges

Accounts from members of Congress, immigration attorneys, and the Mexican government confirm that Jeni’s story is not an isolated incident.

“They’re deliberately misleading people,” said a Mexican government official about CBP agents. The official, familiar with consular affairs, spoke with ThinkProgress on the condition of anonymity, citing the current sensitivity of U.S.-Mexican relations. “They are offering an option that shouldn’t even be on the table.”

Official CBP policy dictates that an I-407 form should only be offered if the visa holder has spent more than a year outside the United States, has failed to file income taxes, or has committed a crime serious enough to warrant deportation. Additionally, the Inspector’s Field Manual for Customs and Border Protection reads: “The inspecting officer must never coax or coerce an alien to surrender his or her alien registration document in lieu of a removal hearing.”

Yet the Mexican government official said he has received reports of Mexican visa holders who were handed the I-407 form at airports and told, “You should do this.”

“The way it was told to us by those who encountered it,” the official said, “was that they said: ‘Here’s this paper, and if you don’t do this, there will be some sort of backlash.’”

“Here’s this paper, and if you don’t do this, there will be some sort of backlash.”

The official noted that Mexico has more direct traffic with the United States than any other nation, so any slight policy change will invariably impact their citizens. But he also wonders if Mexicans are being singled as a result of the increasingly hostile political environment. With a commander-in-chief known for calling Mexicans criminals, rapists, and “bad hombres,” federal officials on the ground may feel empowered to discriminate.

“This enables others in government or just average U.S. citizens to keep treating Mexicans in a negative way,” he said. “And it seems some people in the position to do so are taking advantage of the atmosphere created by the executive order and the confusion that has reigned in some places in the country.”

Mexico is not the only nation impacted. Vivian Khalaf, an attorney with the Arab American Bar Association in Chicago, told ThinkProgress that CBP agents handed the form to a Jordanian client of hers when he arrived at O’Hare Airport in late January, and instructed him to sign it, despite the fact that he did not meet any of the criteria.

“He was only outside the U.S. for 10 months, but they questioned him for over an hour about why he spent so much time out of the country,” she said. “The CBP officer then told him that he doesn’t need a green card if he doesn’t intend to live here.” Khalaf had warned him before traveling not to sign anything at the airport, and the client declined to sign the form.

Not only is Jordan not on the list of countries that Trump singled out for “extreme vetting,” Khalaf told ThinkProgress that in 27 years of practicing law, she had never heard of agents pushing the I-407 form on anyone from any country who had been abroad for less than a year.

Marcelino Miranda at the Mexican Consulate in Chicago told ThinkProgress that while his regional office has received no reports of this happening since the executive order, they are putting out messages on social media “advising people to be vigilant.”

“We are warning people not to sign any documents and telling them that they have the right to call a lawyer or the consulate,” Miranda said. “And we tell people to report any case where they feel their rights are being abused or they are forced to sign something they don’t understand.”

Questions remain about undue pressure on migrants

CBP did not respond to ThinkProgress’ questions about the allegations of coercion, the number of visa holders who have been given I-407 forms since Trump’s executive order, and whether their policies regarding the forms have changed.

The agency has similarly stonewalled members of Congress who wrote to CBP in early February demanding answers to these same questions, citing reports from their constituents of “coercion and egregious violations of basic due process” at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).

“Applications of form I-407 appear to have been carried out in an abusive and illegal manner,” the representatives wrote, describing an instance in which an Iranian green card holder was coerced by CBP officials at LAX into signing the form and boarding a plane back to Iran.

“We called the Commander back, and she actually hung up on us. And we are members of Congress.”

“The response from CBP was absolutely horrendous,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) who went to LAX the day the executive order took effect and drafted the letter to CBP. “When we demanded to see CBP and get an accounting of what was going on, they said to call the Public Information Office. But when we did, nobody answered the phone. It was a dead end. So we called the Commander back, and she actually hung up on us. And we are members of Congress.”

More than a dozen other California Democrats then joined Chu in demanding CBP review all I-407 forms signed since the executive order took effect and report back to them on any documented cases of coercion.

“It just shows that this executive order is so sloppily executed and chaotic,” she said. “It created mass confusion and injustice on the ground. They’re threatening these very desperate individuals with indefinite detention until they get a court hearing. So they think, ‘Oh I’ll just sign this instead.’ A person could easily find themselves being deported through a supposedly voluntary process. In reality, it’s not voluntary at all.”

The letter of the law

Even for travelers from the seven countries outlined in the executive order, CBP’s use of the I-407 form may violate federal law. Sixty people from those countries sued President Trump and CBP in a Virginia federal court a few days after the ban went into effect, alleging that agents engaged in an “illegal scheme to mislead and pressure visa holders into signing away their rights.”

“Department of Homeland Security officials have been effectuating the ban by bullying these arriving immigrants into ‘voluntarily’ relinquishing their claims to lawful permanent residence into the United States,” the lawsuit reads. “They made neither a free choice nor an informed choice.”

The lead plaintiffs in the suit are two Yemeni brothers, Tareq Aqel Mohammed Aziz and Ammar Aqel Mohammed Aziz, who arrived on immediate relative immigrant visas on January 28 to reunite with their father, a U.S. citizen. The executive order went into effect while they were in the air.

“Their dream quickly and inexplicably converted into a nightmare.”

“This was a moment that they and their father had waited for and dreamed of for many years,” the lawsuit said. “But their dream quickly and inexplicably converted into a nightmare: instead of being permitted to transit to their connecting flight, Tareq and Ammar were handcuffed, detained, forced to sign papers that they neither read nor understood, and then placed onto a return flight to Ethiopia just two and a half hours after their landing.”

The lawsuit accuses CBP of violating the travelers’ constitutional right to due process and equal protection under the law by “coercing the relinquishment of rights” and lying to immigrants about the consequences of the I-407 form.

“An employee or agent of respondents falsely informed Tareq and Ammar that, if they did not sign the documents, they would be sent to Yemen and that they would be barred from returning to the United States for five years,” the suit claims.

Attorneys for the 60 deported individuals estimate that “dozens if not hundreds” have been similarly coerced into signing the forms in airports around the country, and say the illegal practice even continued after a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order.

Luis Truijillo, 72, crosses from Juarez, Mexico into El Paso, Texas. CREDIT: AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca
Luis Truijillo, 72, crosses from Juarez, Mexico into El Paso, Texas. CREDIT: AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca

Government officials and attorneys say the improper use of the forms is happening not only at airports but at U.S. border crossings— where tens of thousands of visa and green card holders enter every day.

“I was told that some immigration officers took away green cards. I checked with some colleagues and it seemed there were some people at the border,” said consular official Miranda. “But it was just a tiny, few number of cases out of all the thousands of people crossing the border.”

El Paso immigration attorney Melissa Lopez has also heard reports from reliable sources who regularly work with immigrants in El Paso.

“The first weekend after the executive order, on the bridge [between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas], two or three people were basically forced into signing the I-407 form, and made to feel that they had no choice,” she said. “Honestly, in the nine and a half years I’ve been doing this, I can’t ever remember hearing of this ever happening at a port of entry.”

Lopez, who works with the faith-based human rights group Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, stressed that she hasn’t been able to track down the people targeted by this practice to verify the claims. She assumes they are afraid to come forward and speak out about their legal situation.

Still, she is warning her clients and the broader immigrant community not to sign anything at the border crossing and to insist on seeing an immigration judge. Only a judge, not a CBP officer, she said, can determine whether someone has done something serious enough to warrant losing their residency. But what bothers Lopez is that CBP is not being up front about how they are interpreting the president’s new policy.

“The executive order made some officers feel emboldened to treat people differently.”

“The most concerning thing was that the executive order was only supposed to be focused on seven countries but we saw it affect Mexicans, who weren’t supposed to be included at all,” she said. “It very much seems like the executive order made some officers feel emboldened to treat people differently and make them feel they don’t have rights. It became an excuse for them to pursue improper actions against people, and gave them a free card to do whatever they wanted.”

Chu and her colleagues in Congress say they will continue to press the Department of Homeland Security for answers.

“We want to know what is actually in the directive given to Border Patrol personnel,” she told ThinkProgress. “We want to know how the executive order is being interpreted. Most importantly, we want to know how many I-407s were signed after the executive order and how many actually resulted in people deporting themselves. We want to know whether the acts of coercion are being stopped by the federal judge’s order that stopped the whole thing and whether the forms people did sign will be invalidated.”