In August, an exclusive story in The Washington Post made sure IJ’s newest report, Jetway Robbery? Homeland Security and Cash Seizures at Airports, really took off. The report is a first-of-its-kind study quantifying just how often Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agencies seize cash at airports—and just how much currency has flowed into the federal government’s coffers as a result.
It took a multiyear legal battle to get this report off the ground. When IJ filed our initial Freedom of Information Act request in 2015, seeking all records of property seized and forfeited by Customs and Border Protection, the agency refused to comply. IJ sued the agency in federal court and, four years later, finally obtained the data we requested. We quickly discovered why the agency was so anxious to keep its database under wraps. These new data confirm airport cash seizures are big business: Between 2000 and 2016, DHS agencies seized more than $2 billion across more than 30,000 seizures.
IJ supporters are familiar with clients like Anthonia Nwaorie, a Houston nurse who had more than $40,000 seized as she was boarding a flight to her native Nigeria, where she planned to use the money to build a free medical clinic for women and children. Her only “crime” was failing to file a form that she had no idea even existed. Such paperwork violations account for half of all currency seizures and over a quarter of the total value seized—more than half a billion dollars.
The study also casts doubt on proponents’ argument that forfeiture fights crime. Less than a third of all cases were accompanied by an arrest, and only one in 10 involved an arrest when the government alleged a reporting violation. This suggests most such cases are mere paperwork violations without any other indication of criminal activity. And of the cash that is ultimately forfeited by the government, the vast majority is taken without any judicial oversight.
Federal law enforcement agencies are tasked with protecting Americans and finding and punishing criminals, but these findings suggest DHS airport currency seizure and forfeiture practices instead put innocent Americans at risk. IJ is making sure Congress gets the message: It’s time to end this jetway robbery.
Jennifer McDonald is IJ’s senior research analyst.