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A Customs and Border Patrol agent examines confiscated material under a microscope at Los Angeles International Airport. CBP agents are increasingly asking travelers for their social media passwords and can search social media accounts, according to an Indian American-organized forum. “We worry that these things will increase as the Trump administration settles in, and CBP becomes more emboldened,” Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, San Francisco Bay Area, told India-West. (Getty Images)

FREMONT, Calif. – Customs and Border Patrol agents at U.S. airports are increasingly asking travelers for their social media passwords and searching their social media sites, said panelists at a “Know Your Rights” Forum here March 11.

CBP agents have the right to search through your luggage and all your electronic devices, including laptops and cell phones, and make copies of anything they find, said Magan Ray, board chair of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California at the panel discussion, which was jointly sponsored by several Northern California civil rights organizations, and spearheaded by Indian American immigration attorney Kalpana Peddibhotla.

Ray advised travelers to write down the name, badge number and agency of anyone searching their belongings, and also to write down critical numbers on a separate piece of paper, in case a cell phone is confiscated.

Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, San Francisco Bay Area, told India-West there has been an uptick in agents asking for passwords, especially for cell phones. New policies came into effect at the end of President Barack Obama’s administration,” she said, adding: “It’s problematic to blame everything on Trump. He inherited some bad policies.”

“But we worry that these things will increase as the Trump administration settles in, and CBP becomes more emboldened,” said Billoo. “CBP can ask you for anything,” she said.

U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents have the right to not have to provide their passwords or other information the CBP may ask for, clarified Billoo, adding, however, that refusing to provide such information could result in additional questioning and longer detentions at the airport.

Employment-based visa holders and tourists must provide all information the CBP asks for, or risk immediate deportation, she said.

The ACLU notes that the government and courts have determined that travelers who are being searched by the CBP are not protected by the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable search and seizure. The civil rights organization has said it disagrees with this position.

The ACLU advises traveling with as few electronic devices as possible, and clearing sensitive information off the device before traveling, and uploading it to a cloud-based account.

At the panel discussion, Ray and Billoo suggested clearing devices of personal photos before traveling, and sweeping clean social media accounts.

“Airports and borders have fewer protections, even for citizens and legal immigrants,” said Ray. “Even if you’re entering with valid papers, customs officials can stop and detain you and ask about your immigration status,” she said.

If a U.S. citizen is selected for a longer interview, they do have the right to have an attorney present, said Ray. Legal immigrants and those with non-immigrant status, such as tourists and employment-based visa holders, including H-1Bs, H-4s, and L-1s, however, do not have the right to have an attorney present when held at an airport or border, she explained.

If facing deportation, immediately ask for asylum so that you’re not shipped back on the next plane back, advised Ray.

Billoo advised travelers to keep their cell phones charged during a flight and immediately text family members once a flight has landed.

Family members should start to be concerned if a person has not emerged within two hours, she said, recommending that travelers share their attorney’s phone number with family members, in case they are held for an abnormally long period of time.

Billoo cautioned that it is almost impossible to get an attorney to a person who is being detained by CBP. She also noted a spike of increased scrutiny on domestic flights, noting that anyone with the code SSSS on their boarding pass is going to be subjected to a secondary screening.

“You are within your rights to decline to answer questions about race and religion,” noted Billoo.

One questioner noted anecdotally that some engineers traveling to the U.S. on an H-1B visa had been pulled aside and asked to answer 10 questions related to their professions.

Ray said pilots have broad authority to pull off anyone aboard a flight whom they deem a risk to national security.

“The power of the president is not unchecked,” said Priya Murthy, policy and advocacy director at SIREN – Services and Immigrant Rights Education Network — based in San Jose, Calif. The long-time Indian American civil rights activist laid out two of the Trump administration’s executive orders and three proposed orders targeting the immigrant community.

One of the biggest challenges to all immigrants – both legal and undocumented – is the reinstatement of the Secure Communities. Five days after taking office, President Donald Trump issued an executive order titled, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” which allows police to act as immigration officials and ask for proof of residency from anyone they detain. Trump has threatened to cut off federal funding from “sanctuary cities” that do not participate in the program, which has been criticized for racial profiling.

Trump also issued the “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements” executive order, which expands the number of people who are considered deportable, and greatly expedites the removal process, allowing people to be deported before they have seen an immigration judge.

A proposed executive order would make deportable those legal immigrants who have received federal aid, said Murthy, explaining that while this rule is already in place, the proposed order greatly expands the types of benefits that could make a person vulnerable to removal.

Several organizations are working with school boards to make the data of parents, children and school workers secure from usurpation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, and also putting in protections “so that ICE can’t simply waltz onto campus,” said Murthy.

The panelists also discussed the second travel ban, which was to have gone into effect March 16 but was blocked nationwide Mar. 15 by a federal judge in Hawaii. The new ban asked to halt all refugees for 120 days and limit the number of refugees the U.S. takes in each year to 50,000.

The travel ban also temporarily barred citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days. Unlike the first ban, green card holders will not be impacted, and anyone holding a valid visa before Jan. 27 can also enter.

Billoo stated that the new ban – which she termed a Muslim ban – would not keep the country safe and expressed concern that more countries would be added to the ban.

ACLU Northern California board member Michael Chase discussed the rights of people confronted by law enforcement or ICE officials on the street, at their homes, or at the work place. He noted that people have the right to ask for a warrant signed by a judge before opening the door to an ICE official; such warrants can be slipped under a closed door, he advised.

A warrant for removal or deportation does not automatically allow ICE to enter a home without consent, said Chase, noting that ICE officials rarely have warrants signed by a judge.

He advised people not to discuss their immigration status if detained by law enforcement while on the street or in a car, and also advised people to retain their right to remain silent.

The event was co-sponsored by the South Asian Bar Association; The Sikh Coalition; the League of Women Voters - Fremont, Newark and Union City; the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area; the Iranian American Bar Association; the Afghan Coalition; the Pakistani American Community Center; the Bay Area Bangladesh Association; and the Bay Area Telugu Association. India-West also co-sponsored the event.

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