On their guard

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers greet people with authority

Story by Ardyce Czuchna-Curl - Photos by Jeff Brady

A day in the life of a U. S. Customs and Border Protection officer in Skagway may not be as dramatic as that of a colleague at Kennedy Airport, but the work here is just as important.
“We’re now one agency with a joint mission, under the Department of Homeland Security,” said George Smurawski, Supervisory Officer who has been in Skagway since December 2002. “Formerly two agencies existed: the U. S. Immigration and Naturalization Service under the Department of Justice and the U. S. Customs Service under the Department of Treasury. The motto of the agency now is ‘One face at the Border.’”
“It’s relatively quiet here,” Smurawski said, “but approximately 250,000 individuals cross here each year, most of them from May to September. This includes cruise ship passengers who ride the train or take a bus tour and return to the U. S.”
Much of the day is spent routinely checking IDs as vehicles enter from Canada. Passports are the desired form of identification, but Canadians and American citizens may show a birth certificate and a government issued ID. Visitors from countries from which a visa is required are sent back if they don’t have one.
Smurawski said the U. S. has a reciprocal agreement with 27 countries where their citizens may enter with just a passport. Citizens from all other countries must have a visa. For example, citizens of the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany and Spain are not required to have a visa; citizens from India, Nigeria and Brazil must have one.
Robin Robinson, Customs and Border Protection officer here since 2002, whose specialty is immigration, says a section of the law states if individuals can establish they are 50 percent Native American blood, they may not be refused admission to the U.S.
The standard of proof rises according to the purpose of the visit. A driver’s license or government issued ID is sufficient for a regular visit. To work and reside in the U. S., Native Americans must establish proof of heritage with a letter from their First Nation and a long form birth certificate identifying their parents.

Vehicles line up on a busy Tuesday, June 8, at the Skagway Port of Entry. Officers processed about 300 vehicles and 2,500 people on this day.

A number of changes have come about here since the 9/11 incident.
Boyd Worley, Interim Port Director, who has been in Skagway since 1976, said, “We’re now staffed 24 hours a day and we’ve doubled the size of our staff from 6 to 12, and two officers are on duty at all times.
“Since 9/11, it may take a minute or two longer to clear customs. Wait time is usually 3 to 5 minutes although it could be 15 minutes during busy time.”
“Now every license plate of every vehicle is recorded into our system by law,” Worley said. “When there’s an orange alert, we have to query the name and date of birth of everyone in the vehicle who goes through. That can hold up traffic.”
Worley has been on interim status since the combination of agencies, and has reapplied for the Port Director job.
“More inspections of vehicles and trunks are conducted during orange alert times,” Smurawski said.
“In general we’re more aware by necessity,” Worley said. “We look at more faces in the car. We call this selectivity, not profiling. Profiling has racial implications.”
Worley said they now have portable radiation detectors which are hyper-sensitive. Chemotherapy sets them off; so if a person has gone out for cancer treatment, it’s a good idea to have a receipt from the doctor.
Worley said their number one challenge is to be on the lookout for terrorists. “We have to work smarter, not harder. Terrorists might think this (small town) is a good place to bring stuff in. Drugs are the number two thing we’re looking for. We have to detect who’s telling the truth and who’s lying.
“People (who are waiting) sometimes get upset and honk their horns; but most realize that isn’t helping” Worley said. “I hope we are polite. I’ve heard said ‘rudeness is a weak man’s imitation of strength.’”
Officer Robinson said there are three chief reasons one might be refused entry: 1) Poor medical history with an illness such as SARS, 2) Financially unable to support oneself; and 3) Arrest and conviction of a criminal offense.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people are law abiding,” Robinson said. “It’s quite an involved matter when we refuse someone admission and we may get all keyed up. Then we have to remember to slow down for the next visitors.”
That’s one of the challenges for Robinson, who said in typical police work much of an officer’s time is spent dealing with violators; but much of the customs and border protection work is done with people who are coming to enjoy themselves.
Another duty of officers is to go aboard and check IDs of the crew of Serenade of the Seas when it comes into port Wednesday mornings. This is necessary because this ship comes to Skagway directly from Vancouver, BC.
The passengers are not subject to security checks because they’ve already gone through such checks as have the individuals and crews arriving on the other cruise ships.
A woman calls from Canada asking what papers will be required for her to bring in expensive equipment, much of which she will be giving away for an art class she will be teaching in the U. S. She is assured that although she must declare the equipment, no duty will be required. Most goods made in the U. S, Canada or Mexico are not subject to duty.
When the White Pass&Yukon Route train returns from Fraser or Lake Bennett, officers go aboard and check IDs. Passengers need to be prepared with passport or birth certificate and another form of government ID the same as all other travelers.
Smurawski said some time ago there was confusion about whether photo copies would serve as IDs. “Copies are not okay,” he said, “but that now has been explained to the cruise ships and other tour companies.”
Helping people is what Smurawski likes best about his work. “Many don’t think about what they need to enter the country,” he said. “For instance, a Canadian marrying an American citizen may be surprised to learn she needs to file paperwork before she can become a resident of the U. S.”

An officer checks IDs from a motorist entering the U.S. from Canada.

The officer can help couples with paperwork and advises couples to check on this before they get married.
He can also advise Canadians who want to work in the U. S. “Canadians wanting general work in the U.S. must have their employer file a petition for a visa,” Smurawski tells them. “The employer does all the work. The employer must start with the U. S. Department of Labor and provide a statement saying no U. S. persons are available for the position. There might be no one available for a nuclear physicist position, but that would not be true for a dishwashing job.
Exceptions exist for some Canadian professions, but still the employer will need to complete immigration paperwork. If the person quits the job and finds another, the new employer must go through the same process.”
Smurawski can help with the processes. He explains individuals cannot just come and live here, and it might take up to six months to acquire and complete paperwork necessary to become a permanent resident.
Individuals wishing to buy property, invest money or own and operate a business are told there are no restrictions, but non-U.S. citizen business owners may not work in the country without completing immigration paperwork. Smurawski and his staff can help with the documents.
Food imports can create challenges because the regulations change frequently. Currently no chicken or eggs can be imported from British Columbia. Oranges grown in the U. S. may enter, but fruits from overseas are not allowed at present. This usually isn’t a problem. Word got around quickly when suspect tangerines from China showed up in Whitehorse and were confiscated. Part of the agency’s job is to educate the public. “We put a notice in the post office and an article in the Skagway News about the fruit,” Smurawski said.
Earlier beef was a problem, but restrictions now have been lifted on it for personal use. “The problem is someone brings in beef and part of it gets thrown in the garbage,” he said. “Garbage is trucked down South where a farmer feeds food waste to his animals, and so the worm spreads. Volume creates the problem. We can’t control it once it leaves here.”
Permits for weapons are required for citizens from any country other than the United States. Such individuals arriving with weapons without a permit will be turned back or their weapons will be confiscated and destroyed.
Smurawski suggests anyone planning to bring anything questionable into the U.S should stop on their way out of the country and ask about restrictions.
“We’re not here to harass people,” Smurawski said. “We’re here to protect the U. S.”