The Department of Homeland Security has been searching the mobile phones and electronic devices of travelers at U.S. airports and will continue to do so, announced Secretary John Kelly on Wednesday.
Amid talks of the intrusiveness of such searches, Kelly addressed the Senate Homeland Security Committee, saying that searching phones and other devices has proven valuable in the fight to keep terrorists out of the United States.
Only a small fraction of the 1 million people who enter the country every day are affected, he pointed out.
Noting that device searches are “not routine, it’s done in a very small number of cases,” Kelly said, “If there’s reason to do it, we will do it. Whether it’s France, Britain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Somalia, it won’t be routinely done at a port of entry.”
According to Kelly, last month’s number of illegal immigrants stopped and apprehended at the border hit a 17-year low since President Donald Trump took office.
Critics have said that such searches dissuade people from visiting the United States and could constitute an invasion of privacy for Americans traveling abroad.
Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said that there have been several news reports of law-abiding citizens whose electronics were searched without a warrant.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, more than 390 million arrivals were processed in fiscal 2016. Agents performed 23,877 electronic media searches or 0.0061 percent of the total. In 2015, 4,764 electronic media searches were conducted on 0.0012 percent of the 383 million arrivals.
Border agents are currently allowed to search phones and other electronics if a traveler’s statements seem suspicious. According to Kelly, such searches have caught pedophiles as well as suspected terrorists.
Paul pointed out that there’s a fundamental difference between searching someone’s bag or searching their cell phone. “The spirit of the Constitution is that if you’re going to seize my phone, you’re going to have to go to a court and get a warrant,” he said.
Last month, travelers flying to the U.S. from 10 airports in the Middle East and North Africa were ordered to store any large electronic devices in checked baggage after intelligence reports suggested a risk. Kelly said that this practice could be expanded if needed.
“I want to make sure that what we’re doing is effective,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). “The people who are going to get caught up in this aren’t going to be terrorists because if they were, they’d be smart enough to bring a new phone.” She recognizes the need for security but has concerns about this method.
According to Kelly, fewer than 17,000 undocumented immigrants were apprehended at the border in March, “a 71 percent decrease from the 58,478 caught in December 2016, the last full month before Trump took office.”
He noted that the border wall will be an important factor in keeping those numbers down.
“It won’t last unless we do something again to secure the border –- the wall or a physical barrier,” said Kelly. “Physical barriers do work if you put them in the right places.”
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Kelly: full-scale border wall unlikely