It’s dinnertime at Washington Dulles International Airport, and Officer Steve Whittaker has found himself surrounded by a feast at the international-arrivals checkpoint — a pungent meal he has no plans to enjoy.
On a stainless-steel table, beef kabobs give off a spicy scent as they cool. A roasted chicken is wrapped in crinkled foil, one greasy drumstick visible. Halved apples and mangoes sit in a large bucket, browning in the air.
Peering into a dark carry-on suitcase, Officer Whittaker, an agricultural specialist, pulls a salted fish longer than his arm from a plastic bag, its shrunken eyes staring on either side of a gaping mouth.
“There’s a little bit of a risk with this job,” he says, sticking his gloved hand around the fish’s jagged teeth. “But it’s interesting. I get to see the world without going anywhere.”
Officer Whittaker, 54, is one of 250 officers with the Dulles branch of Customs and Border Protection. Their job? Protect the country from foreign threats, be they animal, vegetable or narcotic.
Welcomes and warnings
All travelers on international flights pass through the 400,000-square-foot arrival terminals around the clock, which means the protection agency has officers on site 24/7. Because of a merger in 2003 after the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, officers at the different inspection stations — narcotics, agricultural and admissibility — can help one another.
“We enforce more than 400 federal, state and local laws,” said CBP supervisor Christopher Downing. “We keep the economy flowing. That’s pretty much who we are.”
Last month, Dulles customs officers found $130,000 worth of cocaine hidden in 12 chocolate bars and juice boxes. The 4 pounds of illegal drugs probably would not have been found if the officers weren’t thorough in their search through passengers’ belongings, a department spokesman said.
Officers armed with latex gloves, cutting tools and a lot of patience man the narcotics stations at the terminal. Whether it’s a random search or a check directed by declaration papers, each officer methodically inspects each piece of luggage and container that passes.
Not every bag has just clothing and tchotchkes. It’s not uncommon for an officer to find containers full of food, homemade medicines packaged in recycled motor-oil containers, or even a full steering wheel, complete with 3-foot-long drive shaft.
Though hesitant to give away all of the department’s strategies, CBP supervisor Scott Struble said when it comes to passengers who might be attempting something illegal, the goal is “to try to know their story before they get here.”
If there’s a problem with visas or passports, travelers are shuffled to a row of chairs where they wait for officers to investigate their circumstances and determine whether they are to be welcomed or sent home at the airline’s expense.
Passengers wanted for crimes are flagged by customs officers before landing so that officers can meet their plane when it touches down.
A Chester, Md., man wanted on two charges of sexual assault of a minor was arrested in September by officers who met his flight from Turkey.
A prohibited taste of home
The work of the CBP officers can easily grab headlines with the right narcotics seizure or criminal arrest. But an agricultural inspector’s job well done doesn’t always occur in the spotlight — nor does it always smell good.
One recent evening, CBP Officer Agnes Smith bravely stuck her face directly into a plastic bag fresh off a flight from China. It turned out to be shredded squid that hadn’t been refrigerated for hours.
At a nearby table, fellow Officer Jennifer Jones, a K-9 handler, stood over a suitcase overflowing with random packages of meat and one zippered plastic bag with a chunky red liquid inside.
On the other side of the luggage, a short, plump woman had begun to shed crocodile tears. She mumbled quietly, sweat beading on her forehead, as she watched Officer Jones remove much of the suitcase’s meaty contents and set them aside for incineration.
“There’s no one else you can blame for this,” Officer Jones said matter-of-factly. “Your friend’s mom is not the one who has the bag. It’s your bag.”
The bag was sniffed out by Officer Jones’ partner, Hudson, a 6-year-old beagle trained to find hidden fruits and meats. The woman was making her way through the arrivals gate just off a flight from Russia.
While some of the flora and fauna that pass through the checkpoint might seem odd traveling fare, many passengers are hoping to bring a “taste of home” with them, Officer Whittaker said.
Sometimes, that taste of home should stay there.
The officers at the agriculture checkpoint refer to a “hot sheet” sent from the assistant port director detailing the list of prohibited foods that must be confiscated and destroyed.
Fresh guavas from Africa might seem like tasty souvenirs, Officer Bandara Ratnayake explained, but the fruit flies that have laid eggs inside are a threat to American crops that have no immunity. The same goes for tree bark, flowers, rice and mangoes, all of which can house pesky insects.
A rotation of meats, plants and seeds ends up on the hot sheet, so the officers must stay informed of potential threats and what they look like. The specialists train for 10 weeks, and they also are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree in one of the biological sciences, such as entomology — the study of insects — or botany.
You are what you pack
Hot sheets can change on a daily basis, and officers have some discretion about handing out fines to unknowing passengers. The endangered-species list, however, is much more ironclad.
Items made from these species are often exotic and beautiful, but anyone who attempts to bring them across the American border faces a hefty fine, according to Kelly French, an inspector for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office at Dulles.
Depending on the infraction, a person could face a fine ranging from $350 to $100,000, or several years behind bars.
Officers at Dulles have recovered a multitude of items, including a full leopard pelt complete with claws, genuine tortoise-shell hair clips and a belt made of elephant hide.
While confiscated food items are destroyed at the end of the day, endangered-species items are recorded separately from the usual seizures at the agricultural checkpoint and kept as evidence.
“I’ve already made seizures of a charred monkey, and there’s been a bunch of endangered reptiles,” said Anthony Quigley, 32, who’s been working as a Dulles CBP officer for less than a year. “It looked like ‘Jurassic Park.’ “
Officer Jones, 41, remembered finding a goat’s head and skin in a bag.
“It was rotten, maggoty,” she said. “It looked like a person skinned the goat, threw it in a bag, and left.”
Last year, the agricultural specialists at Dulles inspected nearly 140,000 passengers and their luggage, enough to fill more than 300 Boeing 747 airplanes.
About 9 tons of plant products and nearly 6 tons of animal products were seized.
The expert inspectors stopped 110 creepy crawlers from entering the country and disinfected just under 2,500 shoes. The total dollar amount of civil penalties was $41,675.
“I like to say we’re part law enforcement, part psychologist and part sociologist,” supervisor Downing said. “We might have a language barrier, but we still have a job to do.”
• Meredith Somers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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