Local residents complain about airport detention

THE JOURNAL NEWS


NEW ROCHELLE — When border agents stopped Maria Muñoz Kantha at JFK International Airport last week, they allowed her to call one person — New Rochelle City Councilman Roberto Lopez, a personal friend who was coming to pick up her and her husband.

Lopez knew the trauma of being detained in the airport simply because his last name raised a flag. He had been detained the last three times he re-entered the country after vacationing in his native Mexico with his family.

Both were stopped apparently because their names are similar to what the U.S. Customs and Border Protection terms "persons of interest." They are annoyed at having to wait in the hands of guards they say treat them brusquely while refusing to answer questions.

Muñoz Kantha was detained for an hour and a half Saturday afternoon while returning from a week in the Dominican Republic, she said. Her husband insisted on accompanying her to a room where she was told to wait. She felt like a hostage, she said.
"I was mortified. I was traumatized. I was angry," Muñoz Kantha, an activist and doctor of social work, said in her New Rochelle home yesterday. "I was stripped of my rights." You are at an international border crossing, you have NO rights plain and simple. If you don't like it don't cross the border.
Lucille Cirillo, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection, said officers often detain people because their names are the same or similar to others whom officers have been told to look out for. She said the agency asks that people be patient with the checks.

"Our primary mission is to prevent terrorists and terrorist weapons from entering into this country, and we take this very seriously," she said. "We are here to serve the American public, and it is a difficult job that we have." Yes and we take our jobs very serious.

Muñoz Kantha and Lopez said they are proud Americans and understand the need to protect the borders. Muñoz Kantha was born a United States citizen 53 years ago in Puerto Rico. Lopez, 42, became a citizen in 2001 and was elected to the New Rochelle City Council in 2003.

But both said they were bothered by the officers' attitudes.

"They talk to you like you're stupid. They talk to you like you don't understand, and it's insulting," Lopez said. He said he was detained while returning with his wife and three children both at JFK and La Guardia airports. Last year, officers spoke sharply to him even as he tried to explain to his 7-year-old daughter that she could not come with him into the room.

"My daughter thought I was going to get arrested or that I had done something wrong," he said.

Cirillo said officers are trained to treat people "with professional courtesy." She said people who feel they are being mistreated can ask for a supervisor, or write to the agency's Washington headquarters.

Muñoz Kantha said an officer at JFK told her the clearance could take up to 10 hours. Cirillo said the process includes clearing travelers' information with an agent in Washington. The process can take time, but she said, "We don't want to detain anyone any longer than we have to."

Lopez learned last year that he was being detained because of his name after he enlisted the help of U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey, D-Harrison, who obtained an answer from the Homeland Security department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office.

"The troubles Mr. Lopez is experiencing are the result of this type of near match with information ... on other persons who have the same or similar name and date-of-birth as him," reads a letter to Lowey from the agency.

In a statement released by Cirillo, CBP encouraged travelers "to carry identification that include middle names and any specific information that would differentiate them from individuals with similar names."

Lopez said he offered the CBP officers his driver's license, credit cards and other forms of identification, but they would not look at them.

Muñoz Kantha said an officer refused to let her call a lawyer or Lowey but allowed her to call Lopez because he was her ride home. When she began to explain what was going on, the officer ordered her to hang up.

She estimated that 100 others were being held in the room, and that almost all appeared to be Hispanic. Many spoke no English,Hmmm I wonder, could they be illegal..... Maybe that is why they were there.... she said.

"(The officers) yelled at them in English," she said. "They did not have one translator. They yelled at them like they were deaf." Sorry this is AMERICA, and the offical language is ENGLISH!!!!!

Cirillo said the agency has bilingual officers. For people who speak less-common languages, such as Urdu, translators are available by phone, she said.