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What Every Immigrant Should Know about CBP’s Scope of Authority

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection, (CBP), is the agency tasked with patrolling U.S borders and areas that function like borders. According to federal law, CPB has authority to board vehicles and vessels without a warrant and search for people without immigration documentation, “within a reasonable distance from any external boundary of the United States.”

A “reasonable distance” is defined as 100 air miles from any external boundary of the United States. This means CBP has authority along the entire U.S. coastline. Therefore, most of the largest cities in the United States such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago fall in this region. Some states, such as Florida, lie entirely within this border band, so its entire populations are impacted.

What are your rights if you encounter CBP outside of a port of entry?

The 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects against arbitrary searches and seizures of people and their properties, even in this expanded border area. As a general matter, these agents’ jurisdictions extends only to immigration violations and federal crimes. Keep the following rights and obligations in mind when encountering immigration officers:

  1. You have the right to remain silent, regardless of your immigration status, or tell the agent you’ll only answer questions in the presence of an attorney. Your silence alone isn’t sufficient to support probable cause or reasonable suspicion for an arrest, detention, or a search of your belongings. You do not have to answer questions about your immigration status. Be aware, however, that CBP agents may question you for a longer time based on your silence. One exception applies to individuals in the United States with permission for a specific reason or a limited amount of time. One example of this is individuals present in the United States with a “nonimmigrant” visa. These individuals are required by law to provide information about immigration status if asked. While you still have the right to choose to remain silent or produce documentation, you may face arrest

  2. An immigration officer must have “reasonable suspicion” or “probable cause” in order to detain you. An agent must have specific facts about you that make it reasonable or probable to believe you’re committing or have committed a violation of immigration law or federal law. Your silence, race, or ethnicity alone is not sufficient to meet this standard. You can ask the officer the basis for reasonable suspicion if you’re arrested.

  3. You have the right to say no to search of your belongings or your person. Neither you nor your belongings can be searched without “probable cause” or your consent.

What if I do not have status in the United States?

Someone can be subjected to expedited removal if they encounter CBP within this 100-mile border zone and entered the United States without inspection or admission within the last 14 days, among other criteria. Expedited removal is a summary deportation that bypasses a hearing before an immigration judge.

If you’re told you’re subject to expedited removal, but you do not fall within this category, because for example, you entered the United States more than 14 days ago, you should let the immigration officer know and ask for your opportunity to speak to an immigration judge. Additionally, if you fear persecution if returned to your country of origin, you should inform the agents immediately.  

Where, outside of this 100-mile border zone, might I encounter CBP?

  1. Buses and trains. CBP often boards buses and trains either at the station or while in transit. Generally, officers will board and ask passengers questions about immigration status and/or ask passengers to furnish immigration documents. Questions should be brief and related to verify lawful presence in the United States. Keep in mind you have a constitutional right to remain silent.

However, your silence may cause the officers to persist in their questioning. If this happens, you can ask if you’re being detained or if you’re free to leave. Remember that the agents must at least reasonable suspicion you’ve committed an immigration violation in order to detain you. If you’re detained, you’re entitled to ask the basis for your detention and the officer should answer. Similarly, if you or your belongings are searched, you’re entitled to ask the agent his or her basis for probable cause.

Keep in mind the 4th Amendment permits law enforcement to business areas that are open to the public. In non-public areas, a warrant, consent or exigent circumstances is required in order for law enforcement’s entry to be constitutional. Given you need a ticket to board a bus or train, these areas are considered non-public. Activists such as the ACLU are working diligently to inform companies, such as Greyhound, it’s not legally obliged to consent to warrantless and unjustified raids on its buses outside of the 100-mile border zone.

  1. Immigration checkpoints. These checkpoints are often established along the interior of the United States at both major and secondary roads. Every motorist is stopped and asked about his or her immigration status. No suspicion is needed to stop and ask you questions at a lawful checkpoint, but questions should be brief and related to verifying immigration status. Officers can also visually inspect your vehicle. Some motorists will be sent to secondary inspection areas at the checkpoint for further questioning. Do not flee from an immigration checkpoint, as this is considered a felony.

  2. Roving patrols. CBP sometimes drives around the interior of the United States pulling over motorists. The Supreme Court requires CBP have reasonable suspicion the driver or passengers in the car they pulled over committed an immigration violation or a federal crime. If you’re pulled over, an agent’s questions should be limited to the suspicion they had for pulling you over, and the agents shouldn’t prolong the stop for questioning unrelated to the purpose of the stop. Any arrest or prolonged stop requires probable cause. In this situation, both the driver and any passengers have the right to remain silent and not answer questions about their immigration statuses.


Encounters with any law enforcement agencies can be intimidating and scary; however, you should always remain calm and be courteous. If you believe your rights have been violated, please contact the Atlanta immigration attorneys at Antonini and Cohen.

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