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Woman Banned from US: A Cautionary Tale For Travelers And Global HR Staff

Drugs and Smartphones Don't Mix Well

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A woman from British Columbia, Canada, was issued a lifetime ban at the U.S. border after U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) officials found an email conversation with her doctor on her smartphone that indicated she had survived a fentanyl overdose. Fentanyl is a powerful opioid pain medication that sometimes is illicitly manufactured and used as a recreational drug, causing many overdose deaths.

The 28-year-old woman did not have a password on her smartphone, which allowed agents to search its records. After searching for over two hours and finding incriminating emails, agents questioned the woman, who admitted to previously using illegal drugs, including cocaine.

This type of barrier to entry should raise red flags with anyone who travels globally for business, and especially with Global HR professionals, who need to disseminate a warning to their traveling employees that the searching of electronic devices is allowed as part of inspection practices at all U.S. border points of entry.

Warrant-less searches on phones are also allowed at the U.S.-Canada border – a practice defense lawyers are trying to end, but that is still in force. CBP’s guidelines are clear: “foreign nationals may be inadmissible into the United States if they are found to be drug abusers or addicts.”

However, there is no uniform definition of what constitutes “drug abuse” or “drug addiction.” CBP officials make on-the-spot determinations as to whether a given individual is a drug abuser or addict.

Foreign nationals who come to the U.S. under a visa waiver program in general have waived their right for a review or an appeal of CBP’s findings, decision, and actions, including when denied entry as purported drug abusers.

Once denied entry as a drug abuser or addict, getting permission to enter the United States is a long and expensive process. Waivers that temporarily allow entrance cost $585 in application fees and take about six months to be issued.

The bans also affect casual and medical marijuana users, with Canadians reporting being banned from the United States for admitting to smoking marijuana, which is legal in some Canadian provinces and in some U.S. states.

In the case above, the woman was banned because she had admitted to using illegal drugs before; but if she denied being a drug user, agents could still charge her with fraud or misrepresentation since officials had already gone through her phone and found evidence. If the woman had a password on her phone, she could have declined to put it in when asked by officials. However, that would have likely ended up with her being turned away from the border that day.

In most other countries, employers cannot directly ask employees whether they use or have used drugs and therefore are at risk of being turned away at the U.S. border. In order to avoid travel disruption and possibly considerable embarrassment, it might be useful to raise awareness among employees in advance. Through travelers on their way to South America or the Eastern Pacific, for example, should be warned too.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • If you happen to be a drug user, abuser, or addict, consider canceling your trip(s) to the United States. Use teleconferencing or send a colleague instead. Painful and embarrassing, but safe.
  • Do not travel with a computer or a smartphone that has access to personal or business emails where drugs were discussed, even in a medical context, or discussing other people’s use, or as a joke.
  • Bear in mind that using drugs that may be legal in your country (and even inside the U.S.) may still be grounds for being turned away.
  • If you must take opioids for medical reasons, always carry a current medical prescription with a transcript in English, ideally endorsed by a U.S.-certified doctor.
  • If questioned by CBP officials about past drug use or abuse, answer truthfully, as agents may be in possession of shared intelligence unbeknown to you.
  • If your computer or smartphone is searched by CBP officials at the border, be graceful about it, as there is nothing much you can do; such searches are perfectly legal. Courtesy and submission may save your day.

Do you have any other suggestions to share with your colleagues? Shoot us an email at eric@gbvmag.com and we will update the post accordingly.

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