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— Among the more embarrassing incidents that fulfilled that prediction was the detention two years ago of Ronald Noble, the Treasury Department's own undersecretary for enforcement. "Noble - who is black - was waiting in line to board a flight for an Interpol meeting in Europe" at Dulles Airport when the tecs ii system "mistakenly fingered [him] as someone trying to smuggle money out of the country," the Intelligence Newsletter reported. Although Noble was quoted at the time as vowing to review tec ii's criminal-profiling system, reports of Customs Service database problems have continued to surface. This past March, for example, the Washington Times quoted several Customs sources as claiming that "a new multimillion-dollar database introduced last November is so faulty that [the Service] has no idea what has been seized or even the storage locations of impounded goods."

Despite this history, no local mechanism exists to enable a citizen to check on the accuracy of his or her particular tecs ii records, according to Bobbie Cassidy, the Customs Service's San Diego spokesperson. Cassidy says inspectors aren't even supposed to confirm or deny "the presence of anything in the computer," let alone to disclose what the record says. "It's Privacy Act, and it's law-enforcement sensitive," Cassidy stated. If someone thinks that the system might contain false information about him, all he can do is to write the Customs Service's headquarters in Washington, D.C. "Even then they might not get a direct answer," Cassidy warns, adding, "I don't know how those [inquiries] are responded to."

If someone has a complaint about the way a secondary search is conducted, Cassidy recommends that he ask to see a supervisor immediately. The advantage of doing this "is that the supervisor can very easily determine who the inspectors involved were," whereas if the search subject waits to write a letter "then it becomes very difficult to find out which inspector was involved." While someone can complain about the manner in which a search was conducted, Cassidy points out that it's fruitless to complain that a search was conducted with insufficient cause. She says the "border search authority" cited in the federal code is the broadest granted to any law enforcement agency in the country. "Searches can be conducted without what the state and local officers would call 'probable cause.' " Instead, "mere suspicion" is all that's necessary to trigger a search that can go as far as "taking people to a hospital for x-ray examinations or a cavity search." Cassidy adds that "the fact that people are coming in from a foreign country provides the 'mere suspicion.' "

By that definition, Alma and Heraclio will continue to be suspicious in the eyes of the government. They say their lives are rooted on both sides of the border, and they can't imagine breaking those bonds. If the computer system continues to point an electronic finger at them, they'll have to endure the resultant searches somehow. Even if the error is found and expunged, Alma sounds mournful about the harm that's been done. "I'm trying to teach my girls not to feel strange wherever they live, here or there. But now, seeing this, what's in their minds? It's sad because it's like losing something that we had for all our lives."

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