When a woman faced fines for a kid's chocolate, we asked a customs officer: What else can get you in trouble?
With all the stop-looking-at-my-privates noise being made at airports these days, it’s easy to overlook the real victims of Homeland Security crackdowns: the children. Specifically, the children who are expecting their toy-filled Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs.
The CBC recently reported the tragic story: A Canadian woman, by the near-symmetrical name of Lind Bird, was driving across the U.S. border when she was stopped for a random search, which randomly turned up the most randomly illegal contraband of all time — a chocolate egg-toy that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has determined is a clear and present danger out to choke American children. The border patrol officer threatened a $300 fine, Ms. Bird politely gave up the Kinder Surprise, and, after an extended hassle including signing off on a seven-page letter authorizing U.S. authorities to destroy (read: snack on) the confiscated goods, she tried to pick up the pieces and get on with her life, scarred by a government that has that kind of time and money to throw around, but not enough resources for universal healthcare.
Fun-making aside, I was struck by this story, because, well, how the hell was she supposed to know? Most people know you’re not supposed to bring fresh produce or meat across borders, but a particular kind of candy bar?
Curious to see what other innocuous-seeming things will get you in trouble with Customs and Border Protection, I looked on the cbp.gov website. And looked. And looked. Thirty minutes and 14 browser tabs later, swimming in impenetrable acronyms like APHIS and FAVIR, this is what I was able to ascertain: that the suspension on pepper from the Arava Valley in Israel has been removed. Whew! Also, that no pet birds, peaches or St. John’s Bread may come in from Bermuda.
“Well, that’s fair,” Anthony Bucci, public affairs specialist for Customs and Border Protection, said to me when I noted how hard it was to find detailed contraband information on the agency’s website. He pointed me toward its “Know Before You Go” brochure for general guidelines, but also admitted that there actually is no publicly available, comprehensive list of products that can’t come over the border. But, he contends, that’s because it changes constantly, and he described to me the incredible complexity that governs what officers can and can’t allow in the country.
“Lots of products are seasonal,” he said. “For instance, we’re coming into Valentine’s Day. We’re going to be processing a lot of flowers, and depending on what they are and where they happen to come from, certain ones might have pests. So our officers have to be well trained to look out for certain flowers that come from certain parts of the world.” That seasonality also goes down another layer — at times, Canada for instance might get its mandarin oranges from parts of the world where they are fine to bring into the U.S. But around the holidays, when they are traditional and referred to as “Christmas Oranges,” they’re not considered safe.
In a less than optimally efficient (but charmingly quaint) move, the CBP does put out press releases and travel advisories on its website alerting travelers to what some of those newly or temporarily forbidden products are. Some of the more recent rulings: for Jewish travelers during Sukkot, leave your twigs of willow where you found them, people. But your twigs of myrtle, palm fronds, and ethrogs (huh?) might be let in, depending on a pest inspection. On the other hand, if you happen to be coming home from the Hajj, rest assured that your pile of sand from Mecca and Medina can come into the U.S., as long as officers have determined that there’s no dirt mixed in. Yum!
“So what are some things that travelers didn’t get the memo on?” I asked Mr. Bucci.
“If you can imagine it, someone’s tried to bring it in,” he said, before recounting, just for instance, a recent suitcase officers found with “four finch-like birds, sedated in wooden cages.”
Customs officer Sachdeva (she preferred not to use her first name for security reasons), who is posted at Kennedy airport in New York, understood, though, why people would be tempted to sneak in food: “Pretty much across the board, travelers will try to bring in food from their home country, thinking that they can’t get it back in the U.S. It’s tough, especially with older people, who don’t understand why you’re taking it away. They eat it every day in their country, and they’re bringing it here for their grandkids. Now, if it’s a cooked product, we usually don’t take that. But there are some exceptions. We get guinea pigs all the time, and cooked or not they can carry rabies, so we take those.”
Hearing this, I tried to put myself in the shoes of someone who might fly around with a roasted guinea pig in her bag, and, well, I didn’t find it that hard to imagine. (Confession: I have had a ham taken from me before, and it hurt.) And I could imagine someone getting really bent out of shape if the guinea pig her grandmother roasted for her was accused of having rabies. “So, Officer,” I asked, “do you remember any particular times where you took something away from someone and they got really upset?”
She paused. Then she said, “Well, I mainly deal with narcotics. So, yes.”