Published in partnership with the Washington Post.
Tameika Lovell was retrieving baggage at New York City’s Kennedy Airport when two female U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers stopped her for a “random search.”
It was Nov. 27, 2016, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and the school counselor from Long Island had just arrived from a short Jamaica vacation. Lovell, who is black, had been stopped and felt profiled before, but this time a CBP supervisor began posing questions she hadn’t heard previously.
“Don’t you think you’re spending too much money traveling?” Lovell, 34, recalls him asking.
What allegedly happened next is outlined in a harrowing civil lawsuit Lovell filled in March in federal court. And the assertions aren’t unique, based on allegations in similar suits filed not just in New York but also in California, Arizona, Texas, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Inside a secure room, Lovell’s litigation asserts, one of the female officers searched Lovell’s belongings, presumably for illegal drugs, and asked Lovell if she were using a tampon or sanitary pad. The question upset her, but she replied “no” and complied when told to remove her shoes, lift her arms and spread her legs.
As the other female officer observed, hand on her firearm, the suit says, the first touched Lovell from “from head to toe,” before ordering her to squat. The officer squeezed Lovell’s breasts “hard,” and allegedly “placed her right hand into her [Lovell’s] pants ‘forcibly’ inserting four gloved fingers into plaintiff’s vagina” before parting Lovell’s buttocks with her hand “for viewing.”
Lovell was left “violated, shocked and afraid,” according to her suit, which accuses CBP officers of violating not only her constitutional rights, but the agency’s own handbook as well.
An August 1 Justice Department filing sought to dismiss CBP and individual officers, but not the U.S government, as defendants. Nevertheless, Lovell’s lawsuit — and 10 others since 2011 reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity — raise timely and unsettling questions about how far border and other immigration officers can go with their considerable power to detain people at the nation’s 328 ports of entry.
The existing rules can be shocking for travelers. Legal precedents grant federal officers at ports of entry the power, without warrants, to require people to strip for a “visual inspection” of genitals and rectums, and to submit to a “monitored bowel movement” to check for secreted drugs. At the same time, a CBP detention-and-search handbook instructs officers to record a solid justification for every single step beyond a frisk, and to respect detainees’ dignity and “freedom from unreasonable searches” and to “consider the totality of the circumstances … when making a decision to search.”
The handbook also warns officers against engaging in what could be considered either a “visual or physical intrusion” into vaginal or anal cavities.
Yet in these suits, innocent women — including minor girls — who were not found with any contraband say CBP officers subjected them to harsh interrogation that led to indignities that included unreasonable strip searches while menstruating to prohibited genital probing. Some women were also handcuffed and transported to hospitals where, against their will, they underwent pelvic exams, X-rays and in one case, drugging via IV, according to suits. Invasive medical procedures require a detainee’s consent or a warrant. In two cases, women were billed for procedures.
The suits underscore mounting criticism that accountability for officer conduct is too weak — at a time when President Donald Trump is beefing up the ranks of CBP officers and urging ever-tougher crackdowns at the border and other ports of entry. Settlements show that the government has opted to close some cases before trials that could require CBP court testimony; six of these suits have resulted in settlements that cost taxpayers more than $1.2 million in payments to plaintiffs by the U.S. Treasury Department. A Canadian traveler who sued lost a jury trial in 2013. Other cases continue to wind their way through the system.