June 23, 2002 – Federal District Judge Thomas K. Moore has criticized in unusually harsh language U.S. Immigration procedures at Cyril E. King Airport, where some passengers are asked to show proof of U.S. citizenship before flying to the mainland or Puerto Rico.
Either flight constitutes travel from one U.S. location to another, with no intermediate stops elsewhere.
"I conclude," Moore wrote in a lengthy opinion, "that the systematic, unnecessary, ineffective, intrusive and oppressive immigration departure control point at the Cyril E. King Airport … is not compatible with the Fourth Amendment."
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, a part of the Bill of Rights, guarantees protection against "unreasonable searches and seizures."
Accordingly, Moore last week suppressed the confession of a citizen of Guyana, Camille Pollard, that she lied about her citizenship. Pollard made the confession after she was detained and questioned by Immigration and Naturalization Service officers as she attempted on May 13, 2001, to board a plane for New York. She had arrived at the St. Thomas airport aboard a Cape Air flight and had been admitted to the Virgin Islands by other Immigration inspectors just a few hours earlier.
Moore said Pollard's admission, which came after she was told of her Miranda rights, was the result of an "unreasonable seizure."
Pollard was charged with falsely representing herself as a U.S. citizen, a federal crime for which, if convicted, she could be fined or sent to prison for up to three years, or both. It is not known whether the U.S. Justice Department will appeal Moore's ruling to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
The significance of Moore's decision goes far beyond Pollard and her criminal case, inasmuch as the judge's 80-page opinion and decision constitute an attack by a member of the federal judiciary on the operations of the INS in the Virgin Islands. For starters, the procedure at St. Croix's Henry E. Rohlsen Airport is the same as on St. Thomas: Passengers departing for Puerto Rico or the U.S. mainland must first demonstrate that they are U.S. citizens or aliens with a valid U.S. visa.
Some Virgin Islanders complain they are discriminated against, in that visitors from the mainland often can display a U.S. driver's license while territorial residents must show a passport or birth certificate.
Moore's opinion calls the INS operation in the territory "schizophrenic." His opinion says, in effect, that the Virgin Islands is part of the United States, with the right to question the papers of anyone from another country seeking to enter the country. But once having been admitted, a foreigner should be able to travel freely within the nation, including to and from the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Furthermore, Moore wrote, if the INS insists it needs the departure checkpoint to apprehend illegal immigrants, it hasn't made the case that it cannot do so when they enter the territory.
Moore acknowledged the need for increased security as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the mainland. But, he wrote, "I nevertheless must conclude that the operation of this non-border, internal Departure Control checkpoint is inconsistent with both our well settled principles of equal protection under the law and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures."
The opinion makes only a passing reference to the operations in the territory of U.S. Customs, long a puzzle to many tourists. Congress has placed the Virgin Islands outside the U.S. Customs Zone, while Puerto Rico is inside that zone. Local residents and visitors to the islands must therefore go through Customs when they travel to the mainland or to Puerto Rico. For the convenience of everyone concerned, the process often takes place at the V.I. airports in what is called pre-clearance.
Moore, a 64-year-old Republican who is near the end of his 10-year term on the federal bench in the Virgin Islands, is no stranger to cases that excite strong local passions. He currently has under study a lawsuit brought by St. Thomas self-styled philosopher Krim Ballentine, who contends that the territory's U.S. citizens are being denied their constitutional right to vote in presidential elections and to enjoy voting representation in Congress.
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