Yes, immigration officers use Google to verify your background

There’s a story making the rounds this week about Celestine Omin, a Nigerian software engineer who was asked to answer programming questions by immigration officers at JFK airport to prove that he really was qualified for the job he claimed to hold on his visa. It is awful in many ways, of course, but the part that really caught my attention was the part where he claims, “the questions looked to him like someone with no technical background Googled something like, ‘Questions to ask a software engineer.'” That’s a ridiculous way to check up on someone, of course, but it is also not at all hard for me to believe.

I had a nearly identical experience in October 2014, the morning after the KLM MD-11 retirement flight.

I did that trip as a quick turn, assembling a roughly 24-hour itinerary to fly Newark – Montreal – Amsterdam – Newark. I took only my messenger bag with a camera, laptop and a clean t-shirt and underwear. I breezed through the Global Entry kiosks at Newark to the Customs exit where the agent was either suspicious or confused, suggesting to me twice that I go get my bags before presenting myself. And he was none to happy when I smiled and just stood there. I handed over the Global Entry receipt and explained that I was a journalist covering an event and was only gone 24 hours so I had no bags. I made an impression, but not a good one. I was escorted to the secondary screening area at Newark’s Terminal C where I did my best to not fall asleep waiting for whatever would come next.

I was not sent into the “Green Room” which is definitely a good thing. It meant that I got to watch as the agent spent 20 minutes on his computer. Turns out he was looking for questions to ask me about the MD-11 and why its retirement was an event worth covering. And I know that 99% of the “research” performed by the agent came from Wikipedia, mostly because I had read the same exact article less than 12 hours prior and was able to recite back specific bits to him, the parts I knew he was looking for as he led the questioning.

All of which is to say that US CBP agents have been playing this game of hoping to come across as knowledgeable enough about topics to catch actual experts in lies for a long time now. I am not sure if the frequency of the incidents is increasing or if we’re just hearing about it more now or if CBP officers are all hoping to hit the “big catch” brown person these days.

I do know, however, that trying to judge someone’s knowledge on a topic by reading a wikipedia article is a pretty bad way to get ahead of them. If for no other reason than that odds are the presumed interloper probably read that same bit of information online.

Added bonus: The recent “security” efforts are costing the US tourism industry millions of dollars already with an expected impact into the billions. That’s an industry that supports millions of jobs (~9% of total employment) and 8% of the US GDP. All to try to keep a French historian, famed Australian kids’ book author, a web programmer and many others out of the country.

Also worth noting, I suppose, that Belgium almost denied me entry under similar circumstances a couple year prior to the Newark incident. Much like with Omin’s story, the agent interviewing me closed out our conversation by stating that he was unconvinced but overruled by the supervisor.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


    1. I will not lie to immigration officers. I know better than that. But I hesitate every time I enter the country to use the word “journalist” in my answers. Far more than I used to.

      1. Exactly. It almost seems like they’re trying to put themselves out of business.

  1. I haven’t been Googled but I have been verbally tested with aircraft-related questions after answering “aviation journalist and editor” to the question about what business brought me to X country. Some male officers, at PHL in particular, have been downright inappropriate. You’re from “little tits”?

    1. I was verbally quizzed at EHAM. Questions about database marketing, CRM integration, Oracle databases, why I carry 2 laptops, examples of marketing campaigns. I was also demanded to present a business card. And in the end I was told they did what they did because I was out of breath when I got to the gate. Told them it’s b/c Delta agent told me to run to the gate even if I was at the airport 2+ hours prior to scheduled departure!

      1. Lititz, PA, I presume? Gross and really inappropriate and no way the offending will get anything more than a “good one, Lou.”

  2. I’m inclined to believe the Australian and the Frenchman came here on tourist visas, when the purpose of their trip was work-related, and they should have had different visas. The Aussie said she started crying as soon as she was taken to the secondary interview. Kinda pathetic. The secondary interview is not an uncommon occurrence, and it’s certainly not an indication of imminent expulsion.

    1. Secondary interviews are incredibly uncommon. Far less than 10% and probably less than 1%. And her statement clearly says she cried when she got to her hotel room, not the interrogation room. And the US Government apologized to her, so probably not on the wrong visa, either. Added bonus: the Visa Waiver Program covers visitors who would otherwise require the B-1 visa to enter for a conference. So as an Australian or French citizen with a valid ESTA they did have the correct documentation to visit for a conference which is what both were reportedly planning.

      Feel free to share data to counter those observations but without such I’m going to pretty much dismiss your observations as having no basis in reality.

  3. A friend of mine who works for US government agency but was on vacation had to call up that agency’s website while abroad, to show that his name was listed, as proof that he really did work for them. This was on a trip to Israel and if I recall correctly involved a security officer (not immigration) as he went to board the flight into Tel Aviv from another country in that region. Officer apparently was noticing all the stamps in his passport and having trouble believing he had legitimate gainful employment. The agency’s website proved he did.

  4. This really sucks… I wonder if they’ll treat me like this traveling with my family. Being brown right now is probably a very dangerous thing.

    1. The author isn’t brown and none of what CBP is doing lately is new. The did all of this stuff under the prior administration, it just didn’t make the news much because it couldn’t be blamed on Trump-inspired racism then.

  5. If you’re a US citizen, you’re admissible whether you’re a journalist or not. You should just refuse to answer their questions. They may yell at you and threaten to keep you there forever but then will ultimately let you go in an hour or so.

  6. Ever watched border security. They have Australian, Canadian and US versions of the show (all on Netflix). Good glimpse into their day to day stuff. Guys just doing his job. People will lie their ass off on a daily basis to get into the country.

  7. Sort of related,….I was returning from a month long trip to Asia. I had stayed at a few Conrads and had quite a collection of Conrad Bears. My travel partner and I also had many, I mean many SD cards. About 25 or so cards, most were 32gb. I was going to vlog the trip and later decided that I really needed a vacation. So, one of us gets the dreaded X mark and we have to go to secondary screening by CBP. We’re in the same household, so our bags were co-mingled. Questioning starts with: where did you go, for how long, purpose of trip? So, they start searching our bags. This was done out in the open. We questioned as to what they were looking for? So, the 3 CBP agents started questioning about the Conrad bears. Who were they for, why did we have the bears? They took all of electronics away for examination, including the SD cards. We waited over an hour while this was going on. Luckily our connecting flight was over 3 hours from when we landed. After all this, the CBP agents said that was all.

    Days later, I was talking with a friend, who told me, that men carrying toys must have a likely explanation for carrying those toys. Yes, we do have grand children and we did tell CBP agents that fact. Coming from Thailand with all those SD cards, also made us look like child pornographers. CBP runs those cards thru a program searching for pornography. Since most of the cards were new and blank, that search went fast. If the cards had been previously used and formatted the old images would still be there. A 32gb, previously used card can take much longer to scan.

    Lesson learned take only new SD cards on vacations and don’t bring back suspicious amounts of toys.

  8. The lesson here is to say as little as possible. Don’t get chatty with your answers to their questions. Anything you say can and will be used against you.

  9. That isn’t good but in some recent cases like the former Norwegian PM and Australian children’s author with US immigration, they should actually be quicker to Google or look at LinkedIn to help verify identity.

  10. Bureaucracy / idiocracy out of control. Abolish it and go back to rent a cops. Much easier to fire them when they fail to do their job!

  11. I really don’t understand the problem.

    Immigration officers in all countries ask questions, in my opinion, and none, to date, have been inappropriate. It is not reasonable to expect them to be an expert in medicine, law, software, etc. So they rely on the internet. Big deal.

    I’ve also been grilled by El Al security prior to a being a late addition to one of their flights. He was polite and I understood his concern. I answered his questions honestly and as best as I could. Big deal.

    I guess if you are a proponent of open borders, some or all of this may bother you.

    Yet, if you respect the fact that countries have borders and that a non-citizen has no right to enter a country without that country’s permission, and that any given country may have security concerns, what’s your acceptable alternative for border agents to follow?

    1. I do not favor wholly open borders. I do, however, favor reasonable immigration policies that allow the vast majority of those who wish to cross the ability to reasonably and comfortably do so.

      The problems here are two-fold:
      1) The belief that a couple minutes of searching on Google or Wikipedia will be enough to catch someone who is even remotely prepared to try to fool the officers.
      2) The “fun” CBP officers take in the process.

      If they are professional about it, akin to your El Al reference, that changes things significantly. I also firmly believe the threat profile is wildly different for El Al flights and someone arriving at immigration counter.

      Closed borders are bad for business and bad for security. They do not work for the long-term health and prosperity of the country. The current levels of jingoism will hurt the United States far more than help it. And as someone who deals with it and writes about it on a daily basis I plan to continue pointing that out, often with relevant personal experiences.

      1. USA is not alone in fear of what can cross borders and how easy it is to do so, Europe continues to face similar concerns of border control and protection.

      2. @ Seth

        Thank you for your reply.

        While I appreciate and value your opinion and assertions, it’s just that… with no data to support it. Like with most things and changes, time will tell.

        My hope is that people will be tolerant of change. Let’s see how it works. On the flip side, I would hope that authorities can monitor what works and what doesn’t and make appropriate alterations.

    1. Not really a deterrent.

      Evil doer one comes to US says she is a brain surgery. The officer asks her what an “extended bifrontal craniotomy” is and she doesn’t know and entry is refused.

      Evil doer two having talked to one says he farms tomatoes and has spent a month googling tomato farms and worked on a tomato farm in preparation. The officer learns how to plant tomatoes. Evil doer gains entry.

      These types of actions are in no way deterrents to evil doers. At best they are annoyances which are quickly thwarted by evil doers.

  12. Yeah US immigration control has been bad enough for foreigners since 9/11. It’s going to seriously dent the economy if it gets worse. It’s going to be difficult to stage large intl. conferences or sporting events in the US with things heading the direction they are going.

  13. Not looking forward to coming to LAX later this year for Apex. With a passport full of stamps from the UAE, Bahrain etc post-Trump they’ll have a field day. I do have a US journalist visa, but we’ll see where that gets me. Is Guantanamo nice that time of year!

  14. Both TSA & CBP have caused billions of tourism/business dollars to be spent elsewhere. Even domestically, I fly as little as possible despite loving aviation due to the hassle of it. I know of two survivors of sexual assaults who refuse to fly fearing a TSA hand in their crotch.

    Ultimately, the terrorists *have won*. You can’t go into a sporting event, performing arts hall, or even Disney without going through a metal detector & having your items pawed through/x-rayed. All for a threat which is virtually & statistically non-existent. Even at Sandy Hook Elementary, on the day of the shooting. The big story there which was missed was that 95% of the people in the school that day survived unharmed. 95%! BUT…fear sells advertising and fear gets votes from Kettles, so the rest of us have to suffer.

    I do echo the comments that people should watch the Border Patrol series on NetFlix /YouTube and see how the various countries handle immigration and customs and what those agents and officers are having to decide in relatively short periods of time.

    As far as officers using Google, I’d be screwed! I don’t exist online. No MyBook, FaceSpace, or anything like that. I even requested that my employer keep me off their website. My credit reports, despite much churning abuse, still don’t have my address on them.

    Ironically, the worst grillings I get are from the Canadians who seem to think anyone under 40 is there to steal their jobs and mooch off their healthcare system.

  15. I work in a very, very similar field, and I’ll often pull up google to verify someone’s claimed background or expertise. Often (most?) of the time in fields that I have little or no experience with. But here’s the thing, I’m not necessarily looking to play gotcha, or pretend to outsmart the other person. It’s often just to see *how* they answer a question. Is it rote and memorized, or more causal and off the cuff? Do your answers display a depth that would be expected from an expert in a field, or more like the a few hours of cramming?

    You don’t always have to be and expert in a truth to tell that someone is lying.

    At the end of the day, as someone suggrsted above, a CPB officer can’t be an expert all at once in Victorian English literature, microbiology, the sport of kabbadi, and integrated chip manufacturing processes. And dedicated imposters will surely be able to fake their way through easily researched questions. But shouldn’t these officers at least make a good faith effort to verify these stories when something may seem a bit off? While it all may seem absurd given you actually are who you claim to be, the fabricators are caught more often than you may believe.

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