Passengers Allege Harassment by Customs Officials at Newark Airport

Orthodox Jewish passengers flying from Newark Airport to Israel Monday are complaining of harassment by a Customs and Border Patrol official, the latest in a series of complaints about CBP officers at that airport.

The passengers told Hamodia that the officer shouted at them for no apparent reason, and interfered in questioning being conducted by other officers. One passenger says the officer even asked why he possessed dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship.

Passengers traveling internationally who are carrying more than $10,000 must declare it at the CBP office in the airport. The $10,000 limit is per family or traveling group, not per individual. Before boarding, CBP officials may randomly pull passengers off the line and question or search them for money; those found to be carrying more than the limit are in violation of the law for not having declared.

At the 1:30 p.m. El Al flight to Tel Aviv Monday, a passenger who spoke with Hamodia and asked to be identified only as Yaakov, says the offending officer began shouting, “Remember, now you can still say you have money, but if I catch you with more, I will bring the full force of the law!”

“I asked him, ‘Why are you shouting at me?’ ” recalled Yaakov, who says the officer replied, “You won’t tell me what to do; you won’t teach me how to do my job.”

Yaakov says he then asked the officer for his “name or ID number,” but the officer replied, “After we finish.”

The officer then asked Yaakov how much money he was carrying. Yaakov replied, “About $2,000,” and then asked, “Why is this always happening?” Yaakov, who frequently flies to Israel, believes that Orthodox Jews are targeted at Newark, whereas problems have not arisen during his many flights from JFK. He says two-thirds of the passengers on this particular flight were frum Jews.

Yaakov says that the officer, who was shouting throughout the ordeal, told him to keep quiet and sign a document affirming that he was not carrying more than $2,000. The officer then asked Yaakov why he had both U.S. and Israeli passports.

“I replied, ‘What do you mean “why”; I have because I want to have.’ He said, ‘The American government only answers to American passports. I said, ‘I didn’t ask you what the American government answers to. This is what I have. I am allowed to have what I have.’ ”

Yaakov signed the document, and then the officer brought him into a side room to search his belongings. There was an Orthodox family in that room being searched by a female officer, but the male officer searching Yaakov began shouting at them as well, screaming, “We have a right to do what we do; keep quiet,” according to Yaakov.

“The officer searched me, and found that I had $2,100,” says Yaakov. Continuing to shout, the officer said, “You said you only had $2,000.” Yaakov replied that he had said “about $2,000,” and the officer said, “Next time, you say exactly how much you have.” Yaakov countered, “Show me where the law says that I can’t say ‘about.’ ” The officer was silent.

He then began taking apart everything in Yaakov’s luggage, on the floor. After everything was dumped out onto the floor, the officer told Yaakov to put it all back in. Yaakov said he was unable to bend due to knee problems, and the officer then returned the items to the suitcase.

Yaakov then asked, “Why do you keep shouting at me?” To which the officer responded, “Don’t tell me what to do; I’ll take you off the plane.”

When the ordeal finally seemed to be over, Yaakov asked the officer, once again, for his “name and ID number.” The officer replied, “Wait till we go outside.” Yaakov believes the officer said this because the female officer and the other family were still in the room, and the offending officer did not want them to hear what he was about to say. Once they left the room, the officer told Yaakov he could go. Yaakov said, “What about the number and name?”

“I’m not required to give it to you,” said the officer. “You can just say, ‘Customs officials.’ ”

A CBP official who spoke with Hamodia said that officers are not required to give passengers their names, as their names are written on their uniform badges. Yaakov told Hamodia he wasn’t able to see whether the officer – whom he described as a well-built, white male, around 50 years old and with blonde hair – was wearing a name tag, because he wasn’t wearing his reading glasses.

Other passengers on the same flight also reported bad experiences with that officer.

“At first, I was questioned, politely and professionally, by a female officer,” recalled one passenger. A U.K. citizen who lives in Yerushalayim and frequently travels internationally, he declined to give his name to Hamodia, for fear of retaliation by CBP authorities. “The woman asked me some reasonable questions, including about a third-party check I had in my wallet. Overhearing this, the other officer stuck his nose into our conversation, screaming, ‘You know you need a permit to pay money on behalf of other people.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if I do or don’t need a permit, but I didn’t pay money on behalf of anyone else.’ He said, ‘You just said you did that.’ I replied, ‘I didn’t say that.’ He then yelled, ‘That’s the way it is, whichever which way you want to take it.’ Finally, a third officer said, ‘He’s just telling you for the future,’ to calm things down.”

While the particular complaints from Monday’s incident were directed toward one officer, a number of allegations have arisen in recent years about the behavior of CBP officials at Newark Airport.

In response to a request for comment from Hamodia on the alleged behavior of the officer on Monday as well as the pattern of complaints at Newark, a CBP spokesperson said, “CBP treats all international travelers with integrity, respect and professionalism while keeping the highest standards of security.

“While we are not at liberty to discuss an individual’s processing due to the Privacy Act, our CBP officers are charged with enforcing not only immigration and customs laws, but they also enforce over 400 laws for 40 other agencies.”

Passengers may submit a complaint about the CBP at https://help.cbp.gov/app/forms/complaint