A famous scene from Up in the Air shows George Clooney’s routine in speeding through the security lines at an airport. Expedited security screening programs like TSA PreCheck or CLEAR were not even available then, but George’s character clearly had a system for getting through those lines expeditiously.  He then says: “It’s these types of systematized friendly touches that keep my world in orbit.”  I love that scene!  What I have come to understand about travel perks is that even people who only travel two to three times a year can become highly emotional about those perks.  This is especially true with the Trusted Traveler Program when a person does not know why he or she has been rejected or revoked from the program. Trusted Traveler Programs include Global Entry (airports), SENTRI (dedicated primary lanes into the United States at Southern land border ports), NEXUS (dedicated processing lanes at designated northern border ports of entry) and FAST (a commercial clearance program for known low-risk shipments entering the United States from Canada and Mexico).  The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can help move you through the line at the airport or port of entry as a Trusted Traveler.

But then, sometimes it is taken away and the biggest problem with that is Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP’s) lack of transparency.  CBP’s typical rejection or revocation reads as follows.

  • We regret to inform you that your membership in Global Entry has been revoked for the following reason(s):
  • You do not meet the program eligibility requirements.

Most applicants have an understandably emotional reaction to this. Suddenly and for no discernible reason, their travel perks have been taken away. And they aren’t given any information about how they could fix whatever caused the revocation. The only recourse is to write to the Ombudsman through the online Trusted Traveler profile.  Most applicants reply basically stating ‘I do not understand why you revoked my membership.  I have not done anything wrong, and you have not told me why I don’t qualify.’

A typical Ombudsman’s office reply then follows:

  • Based on the information you provided, it has been determined that no change is warranted at this time….If you do not know why you were denied, then you will need to submit a request for personal records to the CBP/Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Division.

I find this type of response to be lacking, particularly as filing a FOIA request is often not fruitful.

I did file a FOIA for a client who had been revoked after an unexplained series of referrals to secondary inspection.  We wanted information on the referrals, which might have explained the revocation.  CBP simply replied directing us to file a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) TRIP.  DHS TRIP yielded no information on either the referrals or the revocation. DHS TRIP is a single point of contact for individuals who have inquiries or seek resolution regarding difficulties they experienced during their travel screening at transportation hubs.

Along with being opaque in general, the program has also taken on a darker, more political tone recently.  In February 2020, CBP announced that, “Effective immediately, residents of the State of New York will no longer be eligible to apply for or renew membership in U.S. Customs and Border Protection Trusted Traveler Programs due to state legislation that restricts CBP’s access to certain criminal history information maintained by the New York Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).” News coverage swiftly followed positing that this decision was retaliation against New York actions impacting then-president Trump. Thankfully DHS lifted this ban eventually.  In addition, a certain number of Iranian Americans, and others of Middle Eastern origin appear to have had their Trusted Traveler credentials revoked last year.  This appears to have happened around the same time as the Blaine Washington incident in early 2020.  I know others are often confused about why their credentials have been revoked, even a former CBP officer I know has been impacted.

You can lose your status in the program over what to some may seem to be truly minor issues because of this particular ground for ineligibility: ”Have been found in violation of any customs, immigration or agriculture regulations or laws in any country.” Customs violations include unpermitted agricultural products.  A traveler inadvertently carrying an apple may have no idea he is being written up for a violation, only to later receive an email stating he has just been revoked from the program.  Once you receive a customs violation, it apparently always stays on your file.  CBP does not appear to have a way to dispute such a violation.  You can file a DHS Trip Redress or its functional equivalent directly with CBP.  My experience with these is that you receive the same form response letter, regardless of the contents of your redress claim.

Any time spent in the United States can be problematic if an immigration violation occurs.  One example of this could include a person who fell out of status as an F-1 student visa holder, and later got reinstated.  That person could have then successfully received an H-1B visa, obtained legal permanent residency and become a naturalized U.S. citizen.  But, CBP will likely deny an applicant for the Trusted Traveler programs on that technical immigration violation.  That seems kind of unfair to me.

I’m not asking CBP to completely revamp the program, but what they need to do is a better job explaining to customers the reason for denials or revocations, along with expanding the resources dedicated to customer service.  An excellent customer service gesture by CBP could include more communication on items such as customs violations.  Even if CBP never purges the incident from its records, CBP could tell the customer he or she should wait a certain number of months and if the traveler has not had any negative incidents in that time, he or she could reapply to the program.  As it stands, no one knows how long the ‘punishment’ is for inadvertently carrying that apple.

We love our Trusted Traveler benefits.  And so does CBP.  This is a two-way street.  CBP receives revenue from the program and it allows CBP to use fewer personnel to inspect more travelers at an airport.  Since we all love this program so much, both sides should communicate more to continue to make this program a success.  Systematized friendly touches do keep the world in orbit.