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Quite some comments exist that in the end it is the individual immigration officer that has the final call to let you enter the US or not and that there is no way of objecting that decision.

Given the major effects of such a decision - you have a denied entry on record, complicating future visits - I find it hard to believe that a single person has the power to bring such much havoc to others. I can't believe you get denied entry because the immigration officer might have some domestic issue.

So is it an urban myth, or does entering a country remain some sort of lottery?

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If it's a lottery, it's a lottery with good odds. –  Relaxed Jun 25 at 12:34
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Note that generally speaking US politics and legal thinking often emphasizes the rights of citizens (or “US persons”, which includes permanent residents), as opposed to broader “human rights” so that a treatment that might seem (relatively) arbitrary or invasive is not necessarily seen as a problem as long as it is reserved for foreigners (cf. the whole “but we don't spy on US people” rhetoric as a response to the Snowden leaks). –  Relaxed Jun 25 at 12:40
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@Relaxed: yes and no. On a literal level you might have a point but most countries in the world tend to practice "my citizens deserve special protection all the time, and everyone else can fend for themselves". Likewise, most citizens of those countries have no problem with the double standard. You can see this in the world news all the time. –  Dan S Jun 25 at 23:49
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Is this specifically about the US or in general? If it's about the US you should change the title to read "the country". "a country" suggests any country. –  Szabolcs Jun 26 at 0:24
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Also, this doesn't apply to U.S. citizens; U.S. citizens can never be denied entry to the U.S. –  user102008 Jun 26 at 1:53

5 Answers 5

up vote 23 down vote accepted

Following is the official text detailing powers of immigration officers.

The key para within this is:

(2) to arrest any alien who in his presence or view is entering or attempting to enter the United States in violation of any law or regulation made in pursuance of law regulating the admission, exclusion, expulsion, or removal of aliens, or to arrest any alien in the United States, if he has reason to believe that the alien so arrested is in the United States in violation of any such law or regulation and is likely to escape before a warrant can be obtained for his arrest, but the alien arrested sh all be taken without unnecessary delay for examination before an officer of the Service having authority to examine aliens as to their right to enter or remain in the United States

They have the powers to deny you entry but this again is tracked, recorded and in most situations the immigration officers are very vigilant not to allow their personal beliefs and apprehensions dilute the facts of the case at hand. It is true that they might not be polite with you or behave in manner showing respect - but when it comes to denying entry - they would be very careful not to be seen as biased or prejudiced.

One has ability to contact legal agencies and USCIS in case of apparent misconduct.

This would then become a fight which one can take it to a finish if one is committed enough. But yes as mentioned in the question here - there are chances of one being denied entry with no proper reasons which depends on the type of immigration officer one encounters

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Yes, they have the power, but:

  • it is all recorded, and somewhat appealable (you may not get in this time, but next time)
  • an agent showing a pattern such as always denying fat people, or people of a certain religion, would risk discipline, there is supervision and management
  • most of them are good decent people who believe they are protecting their country, and not just from "terror" or "job stealing" but from things like food diseases and pests.

All these jobs have qualifications to get them, and oversight. If you watch Border Security etc you will see agents going to their supervisors and laying out what they've found, for example. It is true that an agent having a bad day may feel that you're lying, and refuse you even if you're not. It's not true that this makes entering a country into a lottery.

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...always denying fat people.. - this is the worst kind :) –  Ayesh K Jun 25 at 14:03
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Especially since watching Border Security, most of the US customs officers I see are ... erm, how shall I put this politely ... slightly above their ideal BMI. –  CompuChip Jun 25 at 21:49
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I can't say I'm particularly impressed with US border security. They are paranoid and idiosyncratic, but at the same time I don't think they get much additional effectiveness for that. Once in line I overheard another traveler say "whenever I come back to my country [USA] I'm treated like a criminal" which is kind of how it feels. Coming back from a trip to Iran the border agent kept insisting I didn't look like my passport picture. I felt like telling him he was a moron but just waited for his pointless delusions to abate. UK is almost as bad. –  Dan S Jun 25 at 23:54

The power to deny entry lies with just about every immigration official in every country, it is not unique to the USA. Even with proper visas, the immigration official has the final say to allow or to deny your entry.

As others have pointed out, there are procedures to be followed before a denied entry occurs and most of the time there are avenues of recourse (such as having a supervisor included in the conversation or requesting a redress before your next trip).

I would hazard a guess that the number of people denied entry because the immigration officer was having a bad day or some other such nonsensical reason would be miniscule. Most denied entries are based on a solid reason, inability to show financial support, improper documents, old offenses still lurking in the databases, aggressive attitude towards in immigration officer's questions, etc.

If you meet the requirements for entry, then you really have nothing to worry about. If you are entering with borderline qualifications, then it can be a bit of a lottery. If you are entering with improper documents, then it is a brick wall.

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I guess it is matter of interpretation, but I would consider an officer following strict guidelines and rules when denying entry not a case where the individual have the power. In that case the power lies with the system. –  andra Jun 26 at 9:35
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Getting into semantics here. Granted the "power" is vested in the "system", but that system authorizes the "individual" to make the decision to allow or deny entry while providing that individual with guidelines for making those decisions. So effectively the individual officer has the power to deny entry. –  Tom Jun 26 at 13:45
    
@andra the system lays out the rules to be followed, the individual decides whether to follow them and has final authority. Of course you can question that decision in which case another individual (usually a superior) will review that decision and make his own, again based on those same rules. –  jwenting Jun 30 at 7:07

Regardless of the rules, from personal experience I can say that in practice one individual officer can indeed arbitrarily block your entry when they are having a bad day.


A german friend of mine was accepted at a US university, and went to the Embassy in The Hague (Netherlands).

She had prepared all documents to apply for the visa and after having them reviewed, the officer (a woman who seemed to dominate the department) simply said No.

Upon asking what the problem was, perhaps whether any documents were missing she simply answered:

I Just don't believe that you are going there to study

After this arguments did not help and my friend was left speechless.

She contacted the university, got a letter of recommendation from them and they helped her get a new appointment.

This time procedures made sure that her case was not handled by the same person. The officer helping her was less intimidating.

Whilst reviewing the documentation all seemed well, until the dominant woman appeared again, gave her a quick look and simply said No.

After this the guy handling the case looked very embarrassed, stopped examining the documents and rejected my friend. After the dominating woman left he whispered:

I'm sorry but you shouldn't apply here again. Perhaps your school can make the visa for you


So, to conclude: Even if you have all proper documentation, you can still get rejected without (what I would consider) a proper reason. I won't go into detail on how this impacted my friend but always make sure you have a plan B in place, and think twice before betting on being allowed into the US.

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It's not quite the same situation, it's a visa application and not an entry refusal at the border. Furthermore, it's just not “any reason” but a well-grounded refusal, namely because the trip is deemed not be justified. Obviously, the agent's assessment might be unfair but the reason is clear. Similar provisions exist elsewhere and visas get refused, nothing new here. –  Relaxed Jun 27 at 6:35
    
@Relaxed: if there exists a means by which an official can refuse something, which is a purely personal opinion and need not be supported by evidence, then in practice that's the same thing as officials being able to refuse for no reason at all. Because they can always just put down this "magic" reason regardless of the real reason, and the lie could never be proved and probably never detected. Such situations are naturally corrupting, which is why it's important to detect them and apply appeal/review/oversight. I agree of course, that visa applications aren't the same thing as border entries. –  Steve Jessop Jun 29 at 11:56
    
@SteveJessop Indeed but then the real issue is that getting a visa is always contingent on a specific purpose and you don't always have any practical recourse against a visa decision. If you have some way to appeal the decision, then the courts can evaluate the reason and it very much makes a difference. On the other hand, if appeal is not possible or impractical, then whether the agent officially needs some evidence to support the reason given is just as irrelevant. (Also officials have to think of using the “magical” reason in the first place, which is ironically not always the case…) –  Relaxed Jun 29 at 12:03
    
@Relaxed: well, in this case it seems (and I find it a bit surprising) that you have an ad hoc means of "appeal", which is just to re-apply and hope for a different official. I wonder whether it would with hindsight have been a better move to re-apply through the US consulate in Düsseldorf, which is only 2-3 hours from The Hague. Maybe the consulates don't handle visas, so it would have had to be Berlin or Brussels? –  Steve Jessop Jun 29 at 12:07
    
@Dennis: "procedures made sure that her case was not handled by the same person" -- apparently procedures didn't make sure of that. They just made sure that the official pretended the case was handled by someone else, while in fact handling it herself again. –  Steve Jessop Jun 29 at 12:12

This policy does exist, as has been previously mentioned. It is important to understand that the reason this policy exists is to delegate the appropriate authority to act to the individuals who have the sworn duty to protect the country's borders. The policy is intended to give authority to the officers on the "front lines" of the border, interacting with the travelers. It allows for situations where things just don't "feel right".

Consider the case from the incidents of September 11, 2001:

[US Customs and Border Patrol Officer] Jose Melendez-Perez received applause from the commissioners and spectators as he described how on Aug. 4, 2001, he refused to allow Mohamed al-Qahtani, whom some commission members described as the probable 20th Sept. 11 hijacker, to enter through the Orlando airport based almost entirely on a gut feeling the man was lying.

"I felt a bone-chilling, cold effect," he said. "He gave me the chills."

Credit: Baltimore Sun, Sept. 11 hijacker raised suspicions at border

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