Orthodox Travelers Report Profiling by Customs Officials at Newark Airport

NEW JERSEY -

Several members of the Orthodox community have reported incidents of what they labeled deliberate profiling and rough treatment at the hands of customs officials working at the El Al terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport in recent weeks.

Multiple individuals told Hamodia that just before boarding flights, they were approached by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers and questioned in an accusatory manner, taken into an interrogation room, and subjected to heavy questioning and searches for undeclared currency. In each instance, they claim, all the people chosen for these intensive investigations were dressed in a manner that made them easily identifiable as Orthodox Jews.

“It’s clearly profiling. Every single one they pulled over had a beard and peyos. … When I got to Eretz Yisrael I started talking to people and heard that everyone has had stories like this for the past two weeks,” said a Boro Park resident who was traveling for the wedding of a grandchild. “When the whole thing was over I told one of them [a CBP officer], ‘This was by no stretch a random search,’ but they didn’t respond.”

While boarding a flight on December 8, he said he was approached by officers and asked how much money he had on him. After answering the question, he was asked to sign a form testifying that the amount he claimed was accurate and was then taken to a side room, searched, and submitted to further questioning.

“They tried to degrade us and told us to put our bags and everything we had in our pockets on the floor,” he said. “They kept on saying that they are doing this to try to keep America safe, but how doing this keeps anyone safe is beyond me.”

The Boro Park resident’s wife said that from the first moment CBP officials began questioning, they took on an accusatory tone.

“Their whole approach was that we are criminals and now they have to check to prove it, like ‘Ah, we chapped you,’” she said. “When they told us to put our money on the floor, I asked, ‘The United States government can’t afford a table?’ and he looked at me like his next move was to arrest us.”

The woman said that several elderly Orthodox passengers were also among the group and that some were threatened in an aggressive manner.

Hamodia contacted CBP regarding the alleged incidents, but a spokesman would not respond to the issue with any specifics, saying, “We are not at liberty to discuss individual cases due to the Privacy Act.” He added that “CBP officers strive to treat all passengers with dignity and respect.”

Several travelers repeated similar stories. A resident of Yerushalayim who traveled from Newark two weeks ago said that he was one of several individuals selected for interrogation on the flight he took.

“When they approached us in the line to board the plane, they were very rude and aggressive. Once they got us in the interrogation room they were a little more polite, but everyone they pulled in was a frum Yid,” he said. “One person started to argue with them [CBP officials] and they put him in handcuffs. I behaved like a good little boy so they let me go easier.”

A Rosh Kollel from Eretz Yisrael reported a confrontational experience with Newark CBP last Thursday. He was returning from a fundraising trip with an associate who was also involved in efforts to help the kollel.

“The official that pulled us out of the line asked basic questions, but once they got us into the other room there was a Hebrew translator who started literally screaming at us and threatening us,” he said. “I had said that I was traveling alone, which is true since I was not with my family, but once they realized that my friend was holding money for me, they right away said, ‘Ah, you lied, you’re not alone!’ They tried to threaten us into admitting that we should have declared together; the translator kept yelling, ‘Whatever is his is yours!’”

The two were forced not only to empty their pockets, but to unload all the contents of their carry-on luggage, which were intensively searched. Shortly after the incident, the Rosh Kollel heard from the individual who had hosted him in New York that many others had encountered the same treatment at Newark.

When responding to our inquiry on the matter, CBP shared some guidelines relevant to taking money out of the U.S. While there is no limit on how much money can be taken out of the country, those carrying $10,000 in cash or “negotiable monetary instruments” (checks, promissory notes and the like) must declare the money. According to CBP, passengers are given multiple opportunities to correct reported amounts. CBP also stressed that all parties “traveling together” must declare together.