Passengers of a domestic Delta flight from San Francisco to New York were told to show their identity documents to uniformed agents of the Customs and Border Protection agency upon their arrival at John F. Kennedy airport on Wednesday evening.

 

CBP officers are border agents, whose statutory authority is generally limited to international arrivals.

CBP agents inspected passenger identifications on the jetbridge by the door of the aircraft. A CBP spokesman insisted to Rolling Stone that this action is “nothing new” and that there is “no new policy.” But the unusual – and legally questionable – search of domestic travelers comes days after the Department of Homeland Security outlined its plans to implement President Trump’s sweeping executive order targeting millions of “removable aliens” for deportation.

Upon deplaning from Delta Flight 1583 in New York, passenger Anne Garrett tweeted, “We were told we couldn’t disembark without showing our ‘documents.'”

My flight from SFO to JFK. We were told we couldn’t disembark without showing our “documents.” pic.twitter.com/9ugQspTqeX

— Anne Garrett (@annediego) February 23, 2017

Another passenger, Matt O’Rourke, snapped a similar picture. O’Rourke tells Rolling Stone that the Delta flight attendant alerted passengers, “You’ll need to show your papers to agents waiting outside the door.”

“She was weirded out by it,” he says. The agents, O’Rourke says, said nothing to him, but took his ID and scrutinized it for nearly 30 seconds before letting him pass. He describes the experience as “a little bit alarming.” Only later did O’Rourke find himself asking, “Why is a customs agent doing this search? The flight didn’t enter from another country.”

In a statement to Rolling Stone, a spokesperson for CBP said the agency had been asked “to assist in locating an individual possibly aboard Delta flight 1583” who had been “ordered removed by an immigration judge.” The spokesman added that CBP agents “requested identification from those on the flight” but that ultimately “[t]he individual was determined not to be on the flight.”

Rolling Stone asked CBP to point to its statutory authority to stop and examine the identity documents of deplaning domestic passengers. The spokesman sent a link to a document titled CBP Search Authority. The document refers to CBP’s authority to inspect international arrivals. Specifically, it cites 19 C.F.R. 162.6, which states, “All persons, baggage and merchandise arriving in the Customs territory of the United States from places outside thereof are liable to inspection by a CBP officer.” The CBP document adds: “CBP has the authority to collect passenger name record information on all travelers entering or leaving the United States.” (Emphasis added.)

Asked to clarify CBP’s authority over domestic passengers, the spokesman replied that “at this time this is all I have.”

Rolling Stone asked CBP to clarify whether the CBP document search was truly a “request” – or instead a legally binding demand by the agents. The spokesman again could not clarify CBP’s legal authority, warning only, “It is always best to cooperate with law enforcement, so as to expedite your exiting the airport in a timely manner.”

Rolling Stone asked the New York Civil Liberties Union for its understanding of the law in this incident. NYCLU Staff Attorney Jordan Wells writes that “CBP does not have carte blanche to refuse to let people off a domestic flight until they show ID.” His advice: “While one may choose to produce identity documents to avoid further hassle, it is important to remember that in the United States people have a constitutionally protected right to remain silent.”