Matt O'Rouke witnessed something unusual Wednesday night while he was getting off his domestic flight from San Francisco to John F. Kennedy Airport: Customs and Border Protection agents checking the IDs of every single passenger who exited the plane.
"I don't think they had a clipboard or a list,” O'Rouke told The Gothamist. "I think they were just looking at everybody's ID. They did it really carefully. You could tell they weren't just looking for a name. They read my entire ID and looked at me the entire time."
A spokesman for CBP told Gothamist that such checks are "not a new policy" and that it is "not unusual for us to assist our fellow law-enforcement agencies."
CBP declined to comment on which agency it was working with on Wednesday, but said collaborative agencies might include Homeland Security, or any local or national law enforcement agency. The spokesman also said that CBP was seeking an individual, who, it turned out, was not on the flight.
Actually, it's entirely unusual for law enforcement officials to demand the IDs of every passenger exiting a domestic flight.
"This raises a lot of questions," says immigration attorney David Leopold. "What's the precise authority under which they were operating? That's what I want to know."
UPDATE: CBP sent a follow-up explanation, saying the agents were assisting ICE.
The agency "was contacted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) yesterday, February 22, 2017, to assist in locating an individual possibly aboard Delta flight 1583 from San Francisco International Airport to JFK. This individual was ordered removed by an immigration judge. To assist our law enforcement partners, two CBP officers requested identification from those on the flight in order to help identify the individual," he added. "The individual was determined not to be on the flight."
If the agents were looking for someone in particular, why did they have to check everyone's IDs. And if they had some sort of reasonable suspicion or probable cause, they didn’t cite anything specific.
While it's true that border agents have wider investigative authority within 100 miles of the border, as New York Civil Liberties Union attorney Jordan Wells told The Gothamist:
"CBP does not have carte blanche to detain people for questioning without suspicion just because they step off of a domestic flight within 100 miles of a border. [...] It is not an always-and-everywhere police force."
Put another way, it's not a Constitution-free zone.
Unless, Trump's turning us into a country where people are compelled to carry IDs at all times. And if that's happening, we're headed to a very, very dark place.
Ward Oliver, supervising attorney for the Immigration Law Unit at the Legal Aid Society, stressed that the incident seemed highly unusual, and consistent with the regime laid out in the new DHS memos.
"I can't say that I've ever heard of this happening at Kennedy Airport before," he said. "To me it seems pretty clear to me what they are doing, in light of the order.”