DHS Head Backs Phone Searches of Those Entering U.S. at Airports

  • Homeland Security can require travelers to turn over devices
  • Kelly says illegal immigration has fallen under Trump

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The Department of Homeland Security will continue searching the mobile phones and electronic devices of travelers at U.S. airports, the agency’s leader said as lawmakers of both parties questioned whether the anti-terrorism tool is unlawfully intrusive.

DHS Secretary John Kelly, speaking Wednesday to the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said such searches are valuable in the fight to keep terrorists out of the U.S. and that they affect a fraction of the 1 million people who enter the country every day.

The electronics searches are "not routine; it’s done in a very small number of cases," the retired Marine general told lawmakers. "If there’s reason to do it, we will do it. Whether it’s France, Britain Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Somalia, it won’t be routinely done at a port of entry."

Kelly appeared before the panel to announce that the number of undocumented immigrants apprehended at the border last month reached a 17-year low since President Donald Trump took office.

Critics of the searches say they discourage visitors from coming to the U.S. and amount to an invasion of privacy that could ensnare innocent Americans who traveled abroad. Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, pointed to multiple media accounts of law-abiding citizens whose electronics were searched without a warrant.

The practice is increasing: U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it processed more than 390 million arrivals in fiscal 2016 and performed 23,877 electronic media searches, or 0.0061 percent of the total. A year earlier 4,764 electronic media searches were conducted on 0.0012 percent of the 383 million arrivals.

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Current standards allow border agents to search phones and other electronics of anyone whose statements appear to betray inconsistencies, and Kelly said agents have used searches to nab pedophiles as well as suspected terrorists. Failure to comply could result in devices being seized by federal authorities and the person not being admitted to the U.S.

"There’s a difference between searching my bag and my cellphone," Paul said. "The spirit of the Constitution is that if you’re going to seize my phone, you’re going to have to go to a court and get a warrant."

Trump’s administration has been criticized for anti-terrorism initiatives including a travel ban on six predominantly Muslim countries that has been blocked by federal courts. The administration last month ordered travelers flying to the U.S. from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa to store large electronic devices in checked baggage, a policy Kelly said was based on intelligence reports and could be expanded if needed.

Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said she recognized the need for security measures but raised concerns about the electronic searches.

"I want to make sure that what we’re doing is effective," she said. "The people who are going to get caught up in this aren’t going to be terrorists, because if they were, they’d be smart enough to bring a new phone."

Kelly told the committee that in March fewer than 17,000 undocumented immigrants were apprehended at the border, a 71 percent decrease from the 58,478 caught in December 2016, the last full month before Trump took office. Still, he said, the U.S. needs to build the border wall sought by Trump.

"It won’t last unless we do something again to secure the border –- the wall or a physical barrier," he said. "Physical barriers do work if you put them in the right places."

— With assistance by Mark Niquette

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