Seventh public hearing of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks
Upon the United States
Statement of Jose E. Melendez-Perez to the National Commission
on Terrorist Attacks Upon The United States
January 26, 2004
I am a 26 year honorable veteran of the U.S. Army and am currently on my 12th year as an immigration inspector, now working for Customs and Border Protection under the Department of Homeland Security. I began my career with the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1992 where I was first assigned to Miami International Airport and subsequently transferred to Orlando International Airport, where I currently work.
My job requires me to know the difference between legitimate travelers to the U.S., and those who are not. This includes potential terrorists. We received terrorist and other types of alerts, such as on document fraud and stolen passports, prior to September 11, but we all consider these alerts in a different light now.
The national security element of my job means that training and experience is important. In my case, training for my job as inspector has been threefold. The first was my 26 years in military service, where I learned effective listening skills, observation of body language, and determination of motives. Second, when I joined the INS, I was required to attend training at the Law Enforcement Training Center where I received approximately (16) hours of training in interview skills, sworn statements, and document fraud. Third, my experience on the job as Immigration Inspector for the past eleven years has greatly improved my skills in detecting document fraud, observing body language and understanding different cultures, including Saudi nationals, many of whom come with their families via the Orlando International Airport on their way to Disney World. Saudi nationals were held to the same legal standards as everyone else. However, service wide they were treated with more “tact”. For example, in order to accommodate the Saudi culture, female Saudis unwilling to unveil were inspected by female inspectors, if available. This remains the case today.
In Orlando, as in any other port, an immigration inspector can only return someone foreign back home, for whatever reason under the Expedited Removal law, if the inspector is to be able to substantiate the recommendation. Supervisors for the most part support inspectors who have enough proof to substantiate removing someone. It is my belief that some supervisors in Orlando and nationwide remain intimidated by complaints from the public, and particularly by Congressional letters, about refusing admission to certain aliens. Because of these complaints, supervisors tend to be wary of supporting the inspector who recommends an adverse action against an alien.
I do not know how often people are removed from the United States, nor can I tell you before 9/11 how many Saudis entered the country or how many were refused. However, I can tell you that according to the records we have in Orlando, approximately ten Saudi nationals have been turned around for various reasons. In regard to the incident on August 4, 2001 which I am about to talk about, I note that another inspector on duty that day made a comment that I was going to get into trouble for refusing a Saudi national. I replied that I have to do my job, and I cannot do my work with dignity if I base my recommendations on refusals/admissions on someone’s nationality.
The primary inspection officer is the first official that an international traveler comes in contact with. The officer’s responsibility is to verify the passenger’s travel documents for validity, the purpose of their trip, and check entry/exit stamps for past travel history. In addition, inspectors query databases for passengers who maybe on a lookout list for various reasons, (i.e., terrorism, criminal records, outstanding arrest warrants, etc.). Before 9/11, some of the databases available in 2001 were: (a) TECS-Treasury Enforcement Communication System, (b) CIS-INS Central Index System, (c) NAILS-National Automated Index Lookout System.
The Encounter on August 4, 2001
On August 4, 2001, I was assigned as a secondary inspection officer at the Orlando International Airport. My supervisor alternates inspectors between primary and secondary inspection, and on this day I was assigned to secondary inspection. At approximately 1735 hours, I was assigned the case of a Saudi national who had arrived on Virgin Atlantic #15 from London, Gatwick Airport. As Saudis coming through Orlando to travel to Disney World are common, I had plenty of line experience with Saudis. In this particular case, the subject was referred to secondary inspection because the primary inspector could not communicate with him and his arrival/departure form (I-94) and Customs Declaration (C-6059B) were not properly completed.
I first queried the subject’s name, date of birth, and passport number through the above systems with negative results. Subject’s documents appeared to be genuine. A search of subject and his personal belongings were also negative. Subject was enrolled in IDENT and photographed. In addition, a complete set of fingerprints was taken on form FD-249 (red).
Through my INS training and military experience, my first impression of the subject was that he was a young male, well groomed, with short hair, trimmed mustache, black long sleeve shirt, black trousers, black shoes. He was about 5’6”, and in impeccable shape, with large shoulders and a thin waist. He had a military appearance. Upon establishing eye contact, he exhibited body language and facial gestures that appeared arrogant. In fact, when I first called his name in the secondary room and matched him with papers, he had a deep staring look.
I had the impression of the subject that he had knowledge of interview techniques and had military training. Upon my initial review of the subject’s paperwork and documents, I noticed that he did not have a return airline ticket or hotel reservations. Upon learning that the subject did not speak English (or at least that is what he wanted us to believe), I contacted an Arabic interpreter from the Department of Justice’s interpreter’s list.
My first question to the subject (through the interpreter) was why he was not in possession of a return airline ticket. The subject became visibly upset and in an arrogant and threatening manner, which included pointing his finger at my face, stated that he did not know where he was going when he departed the United States. What first came to mind at this point was that this subject was a “hit man”. When I was in the Recruiting Command, we received extensive training in questioning techniques. A “hit man” doesn’t know where he is going because if he is caught, that way he doesn’t have any information to bargain with.
The subject then continued, stating that a friend of his was to arrive in the United States at a later date and that his friend knew where he was going. He also stated that his friend would make all the arrangements for the subject’s departure. I asked him if he knew when his friend was to arrive in the United States and he responded that he was to arrive in three or four days. I asked him what the purpose of this trip was and how long he wanted to stay. He responded that he would be vacationing and traveling through the United States for six days. At this point, I realized that his story did not seem plausible. Why would he be vacationing for only six days and spend half of his time waiting for his friend? It became apparent that the subject was being less than truthful concerning his true intentions.
At this time, I again asked him where he was going to stay. He said, “A hotel”. I then told him that without knowledge of the English language or a hotel reservation he would have difficulty getting around Orlando. He answered that there was someone waiting for him upstairs. When asked the person’s name, he changed his story and said no one was meeting him. He said he was to call someone from his residence that would then contact someone locally to pick him up. I then asked the subject for the person’s phone number and he refused to provide it stating that it was, “…none of my business”. He stated that it was a personal matter and that he did not see any reason for me to contact that person. The subject was very hostile throughout the entire interview that took approximately 1-½ hours.
Subject was in possession of $2,800.00 United States dollars and no credit cards. This amount did not appear sufficient for a six-day vacation plus a hotel room and return ticket since a one-way ticket to Dubai, where he originated from, would cost approximately $2,200.00 USD. When confronted with this fact, he responded that his friend was going to bring him some money. I then asked, “Why would he bring you some money”? He replied, “Because he is a friend”. I then asked, “How long have you known this person”? He answered, “Not too long”.
I said to myself, I’d like to place him under oath. I wanted him to understand the consequences of making a false statement. He agreed to be placed under oath, but when I asked the first question, he said, “I won’t answer.” The Arabic interpreter said to me that something was not right here.
At this point, I gave my supervisor a synopsis of the case and explained my suspicions that this individual was malafide, (i.e., that his true intent in coming to the United States was not clear and he appeared very evasive). After presenting the case to my supervisor, he felt that Assistant Area Port Director (AAPD) should be contacted for further instructions. Normally, second line supervisors such as AAPD are not contacted in such matters, but because of the facts that we had provided no specific grounds for removal, higher up confirmation was needed. My supervisor then proceeded to call the AAPD at home to explain the case and get concurrence for removal. After my supervisor presented the facts to AAPD , he then asked to speak directly with me.
The AAPD asked numerous questions concerning the case. I explained that apart from not having a return ticket and possibly not having sufficient funds, the subject appeared to be malafide. I further explained to the AAPD that when the subject looked at me, I felt a bone chilling cold effect. The bottom line is, “He gave me the creeps”. You just had to be present to understand what I am trying to explain. The AAPD then asked if I had tried to place him under oath. I replied that I had tried to place the subject under oath, but the subject refused to answer my questions. The AAPD then stated that under Section 235.1 (a) (5) of the Immigration Nationality Act an applicant could be required to state, under oath, any information sought by an Immigration Officer regarding the purpose and intentions of the applicant in seeking admission to the United States. The AAPD further stated that he was convinced from what I had stated and my beliefs about the subject that the individual was malafide and should be allowed to withdraw his application or be set up for Expedited Removal.
I then proceeded to advise the subject that he did not appear to be admissible to the United States. He was offered the opportunity to voluntarily withdraw his application for admission. Subject chose to withdraw and signed the I-275. Along with another immigration inspector, I escorted subject to his departing gate for his removal. Before boarding the aircraft, the subject turned to other inspector and myself and said, in English, something to the effect of, “I’ll be back”. On August 4, 2001, subject departed foreign via Virgin Atlantic flight 16 to London with connecting flight to Dubai.
On September 11, 2001 while attending a meeting with the Warden at the Central Florida Processing Center (Department of Corrections) concerning the use of their range, a corrections officer came in and advised the Warden of the incident that had just occurred in New York City. As I watched the television, I could not help but think of the two cases I had processed in August concerning Saudi Nationals. I immediately contacted the Orlando Airport (I do not remember which officer I spoke with) but I asked them to look up the cases and contact the FBI agent assigned to the airport.
To the best of my knowledge, immigration officers made copies of this August 4, 2001 incident and provided that paperwork to the FBI. The FBI has never interviewed me. I do not recall ever speaking with GITMO officials. INS headquarters contacted me once. I have had no other contact with intelligence or law enforcement officials. Outside of legacy INS, the only government contact I have had about this incident came from the September 11 Commission this past fall, from your border team investigating the incident.
Mr. Melendez-Perez is currently a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Inspector at Orlando International Airport, Orlando, Florida. Prior to the formation of DHS, he was employed by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) from November 15, 1992 to April 30, 2003.
He is a retired member of the United States Army where he served honorably for over 26 years. He served 2 tours of duty in Vietnam, 1965-1966 and 1969-1970. He was later assigned as a first sergeant to the U.S. Army Recruiting Command for approximately 15 years.
After his separation from the service, he began his career with INS in November 1992 at Miami International Airport as an inspector, and later as an inspector at Orlando International Airport. He has recently served for 6 months at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, Glynco, Georgia providing assistance to the fire arms program.
During his government service, Mr. Melendez has received training in interview skills, sworn statements and document fraud, as well as in effective listening skills, observing body language and determining a person’s needs and/or motivations.