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Body Cavity and Cellphone Searches at the Border

Published: February 20, 2019
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Among the weirdest aspects of America’s system of immigration controls is what this system permits federal officials to do to American citizens who choose to vacation or conduct business in a foreign country. It permits them to order American travelers, upon reentering the United States, to completely disrobe in order to permit federal agents to closely examine and scrutinize their body cavities. It also permits them to order American travelers to turn over their cellphones to federal agents for examination. If the cellphone is password-protected, American travelers are forced to disclose their password to federal agents.

Since we all have been born and raised under this system, hardly anyone questions it. It’s just naturally assumed that the government should possess this authority whenever an American is returning from an overseas trip.

In actuality, however, this is truly a bizarre and dysfunctional power that the federal government has appropriated under its system of immigration controls.

Why should the selection of a foreign country for a vacation or a business trip subject an American citizen to any kind of government search at all? What’s the rationale? What’s the difference between vacationing and doing business in California and doing the same in Mexico? Why should choosing a foreign country cause American citizens to be subjected to the possibility of intrusive searches?

Statists might respond, “Because they might be bringing drugs into America, Jacob,” to which we libertarians would respond, “Yeah, and so what?” Why should that possibility cause American citizens to be subjected to intrusive, warrantless searches at the hands of federal agents?

For one thing, the drug war is a moral abomination, a deadly, destructive, and racially bigoted government program that needs to be thrown into the trash heap of history. Under basic principles of a free society, people have the right to possess, ingest, or distribute any substance they want, no matter how dangerous, destructive, or harmful. For another, vacationers to California might be bringing drugs back to Virginia. We don’t subject those travelers to intrusive body searches and cellphone searches.

There is also something important to note about cellphones. Oftentimes they contain the most private aspects of a person’s life. Why should federal agents be permitted to examine, copy, and record such things simply because an American has chosen to vacation or conduct business in a foreign country?

When an American traveler drives from Virginia to California and back, he freely crosses state borders without having government agents ordering him to disrobe and have his body cavities searched and without being forced to surrender his cellphone for examination. The same principle applies to Americans who are traveling from Virginia via plane or train.

Now, close your eyes and conduct this thought experiment. American citizens from Miami travel to Anguilla in the Caribbean for a winter vacation. When they land in Miami upon returning to the U.S., they simply grab their luggage and proceed on without anyone having the authority to conduct a search of their body, their luggage, or their cellphone, just as though they were returning home from California.

Would the United States fall into the ocean if that were to happen? Of course not. It would simply mean that federal officials would no longer wield the authority to treat American citizens as lowly serfs.

In fact, let’s extend the thought experiment even further by extending the same principle to foreign travelers who are vacationing or conducting business in the United States. Why should they be subjected to body searches and cellphone searches? Would the United States fall into the ocean if federal agents lacked the authority to treat foreign travelers as lowly serfs as well?

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