Nat Heatwole was a junior at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. A double-major in political science and physics, he was probably like many Yale students.
Guilford is a Quaker college with a history of pacifism and civil disobedience that dates to the Civil War. Although Heatwole is not a Quaker, he shares many of the tenets of their religion, such as a belief in pacifism and civil disobedience.
Heatwole was known at Guilford for his political activism. As a freshman, he refused to register for the Selective Service and returned a blank registration form and a letter explaining his opposition.
Heatwole knew the penalty for not registering for the draft. If prosecuted, he would serve five years in jail.
Five years is longer than many students spend in college and is almost a third of an 18-year-old’s lifetime, Heatwole said in the Guilfordian, Guilford’s campus newspaper.
And now, Heatwole may have to spend ten years in federal prison.
Heatwole wanted to test airport security and protest the new security legislation that has transformed airport security since September 11, 2001. In October, he smuggled box cutters and other banned items in compartments in two airplanes’ rear lavatories. He later notified authorities by e-mail of his actions. In the e-mail, he told federal agents he went through normal security procedures at airports in Baltimore and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. Heatwole stated that his crime was an “act of civil disobedience with the aim of improving public safety for the air-traveling public.”
He was charged October 13 with taking a dangerous weapon aboard an aircraft and was released without bail.
Just before the Heatwole story made top news, my editor asked me to uncover stories of smuggling at Yale. After hearing Heatwole’s story, I was convinced that I could find someone at Yale who had smuggled banned items on an airplane but perhaps were not caught. At a school with an 8 percent international students body, surely illegally-imported Cuban cigars, French bottles of wine and Persian carpets were common.
One night during a heavy rain storm, I trekked across campus armed only with a notebook and a list of contacts, leads, and suspected smugglers — including an alleged list of members of the so-called Turkish Mafia at Yale. I was hesitant to start talking to people. Would students really admit to smuggling? What if this alleged Turkish Mafia had a strong distaste for snoopy reporters interfering with their business?
As it turned out, people were very willing to talk. Many international students related their experiences passing through U.S. Customs and obtaining their visas and green cards from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. People spoke passionately about changes in the politics of immigration and customs since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
One thing was missing from our conversations. Out of the 17 people with whom I spoke, nobody had smuggled items except for candies, cookies, and a chili pepper. No wines, liquors, beers, pets, plants, Cuban cigars, Persian carpets — none. Why was there no smuggling? I proceeded to investigate.
Students weigh in on customs procedures
My first stop was the dorm room of Brad* from Australia. “Smuggling? Are you serious?” he asked. He assured me he was not a smuggler, but he did want to share his experience with the U.S. Customs Service.
“The U.S. is much stricter at airports than in 1999 when I last came to the U.S,” he said. “It took an hour or more to clear customs.”
Brad shipped most of his belongings during the summer, and the boxes took three and a half months to travel by sea, he said. According to him, all mail traveling from Australia to the U.S. by sea passes through ports in France, and the French customs service inspects every shipment. Then the boxes are again opened and inspected by U.S. Customs officials, who, in Brad’s case, even removed protective wrapping around certain fragile items — but nothing was damaged.
“Overall, I’m very impressed by the customs service,” he concluded.
On the other hand, some lawmakers are not so impressed with the U.S. Customs Service. U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (NY) issued a report that said cargo inspections at JFK Airport in New York have dropped 40 percent from their peak two years ago. He urged the U.S. Customs Service to investigate and hire more workers.
Schumer’s comments are motivated by the significant change that the U.S. Customs Service has undergone since the Sept. 11 attacks. In the turbulent days after the terrorist attacks, the government made decisions that completely shut down borders for several days. Over the next several months, the Bush administration put air marshals on planes, positioned the National Guard at airports, moved to improving screening procedures, and put the Coast Guard on full-time alert. Two years later, officials have implemented calmer, coordinated and streamlined security measures at airports and border crossings, according to Dennis Clark, the federal security director for the Transportation Security Administration at El Paso International Airport.
“Right after September 11, we did things that were uncomfortable for people,” he said in the El Paso Times. “Now we say, ‘We realize people want to travel. That industry has to work.’ We want first-class customer service.”
Many Yale students would disagree that they received first-class customer service.
“When I came back from a trip to Brazil, we stopped through the United States on the way home to Canada,” said Greg*, a Yale student from Canada. “My luggage was taken through customs. Everything was opened up. They even opened up my toothbrush case and went through the bristles. It was ridiculous.”
Greg was not surprised that I had not discovered any smuggling.
Large, scruffy mobsters
Later that night, I was crossing Old Campus and happened to run into Lisa*, a Yale freshman from Mexico. I was not planning to interview her, but on a whim I decided to pose the question. Trying to sound as casual as possible, I asked, “Have you smuggled anything before?”
I was expecting the shocked retorts I had heard from Brad, but, as a matter of fact, she had smuggled: chili peppers from her native Mexico. She also brought cookies on the airplane on her trip to Yale.
“Food or sweets is the worst thing that an international student would bring,” she said.
I asked if Lisa knew of any other students who had smuggled anything. She couldn’t think of any except for, she joked, the guys in the suite downstairs who smoke marijuana. But then she remembered the Turkish Mafia and their hooka.
“I don’t know how they managed to smuggle that,” Lisa said, referring to the hooka. “You should talk to Aysegul Altintas, who is very hard-core Turkish Mafia.”
I went in search of Altintas, whom I imagined to be a large, scruffy mobster who might be played by Marlon Brando or Al Pacino in a movie.
When I met her, she definitely did not seem like a gangster. I asked about the Turkish Mafia, and she laughed. She invited me in and clarified who the Turkish Mafia really were.
Some students from Turkey were sitting together in Commons on their first day at Yale, she explained. They wanted to save their seats while they got food, so one student wrote “Turkish Mafia” on a sheet of paper and left it on the table. The name stuck. There was no Turkish gang, she assured me.
Relieved and disappointed, I asked about the hooka.
“You shouldn’t say ‘hooka,'” Altintas explained. “It is a water pipe, and the traditional name is a Nargile.” The water pipe consists of a water pot placed on top of burning coal and tobacco and sealed inside a closed container. Users inhale air from the container through a tube. The Nargile is not specific to Turkey, said Altintas, and is popular in Israel and Pakistan. She knows Pakistani students at Yale who also own a Nargile.
Altinas said that the Nargile was brought into this country legally.
“It has nothing to do with drugs. It is not illegal,” she said, which was not quite correct. Hookas are often used to smoke marijuana, not just tobacco.
I then asked if she knew of any students from foreign countries who had brought illegal items into this country when they came to Yale. Sweets and cookies, but nothing else, she responded.
Pirated CDs and Persian carpets
Next, I went to talk to Omar*, a Pakistani student, who said he had smuggled pirated CDs. Omar had presented these CDs to U.S. Customs inspectors, but the inspectors did not take notice. I inquired further, but then Omar admitted that bringing pirated CDs to the U.S. is not illegal unless one imports them in large quantities or for commercial sale.
Omar told me about his friend at Yale who brought a Persian carpet from Pakistan to the U.S. He bought the carpet for about $300 in Pakistan. On the U.S. market, the carpet sells for $3,000 to $4,000. I asked Omar if the carpet was smuggled, but Omar responded that the carpet was shipped legally and that the duty had been paid.
Unsuccessful again in my mission to uncover smuggling, I asked about Omar’s experience with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“It was very quick. At the airport, I went into a room. They asked me what my name was, ‘Why are you here?’ and fingerprinted me. They didn’t open any bags. They were polite and courteous.”
The INS required a second interview a month later in Hartford, CT.
“When I went back, they fingerprinted me again, asked what I was here to do and what I wanted to do. It was more a formality than anything else.”
These procedures are part of Special Registration, a new process required by foreign nationals from certain countries who plan to stay for extended durations inside the U.S. Those who fall into two call-in groups must interview with an INS officer and be documented with fingerprinting and mug-shots. Students from certain countries must complete Special Registration if they have not been recently interviewed by the INS.
The screening process of international students by the INS is rigorous — too rigorous, some say. At the start of the school year, many international student advisors at universities around the country feared that the federal government’s new systems for screening foreign nationals would delay the arrival of many international students. They were especially concerned that the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), the government’s database of international students and scholars, would result in delays and bureaucratic tangles.
The Yale Daily News reported on Sept. 5, 2003 that three foreign students, who were denied visas last year, were finally granted visas before the start of this school year and matriculated as freshmen. The article cited increased border security procedures following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as the primary reason for the visa denials. Ann Kuhlman, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars, said in the article that the system appears to be working more smoothly this year, and no Yale freshmen were prevented from matriculating this year because of visa problems. However, a Chinese student who intended to enroll this year at Princeton University was denied a visa by American officials in Beijing, according to an Aug. 27 article in the Daily Princetonian.
‘Four years of Yale education versus a carpet’
I did not get the sense that changes in the U.S. Customs Service completely accounted for the dearth of smuggling at Yale. The U.S. Customs Service has grown since Sept. 11, 2001 as a result of governmental restructuring and increased funding. However, I had heard many students, both American and international, recount stories of other people — especially their parents — bringing back illegal quantities of red wine, cheese or pirated video games. The U.S. Customs Service, one student said, cannot be 100 percent effective even with sufficient funding and expert administration.
These findings lead me to conclude that the primary reason for the lack of smuggling is a fear of deportation or denial of one’s visa.
“International Yale students come from good families and good backgrounds,” Altintas said. “It is very hard for a foreign student to study at an American university. It is a rigorous selection. So, I don’t think you will find any smuggling.”
I recall Omar explaining why he doesn’t know anyone who would risk smuggling a Persian carpet into the U.S. If a foreign student were caught, according to Omar, he could be deported immediately.
“If a student is coming here — four years of a Yale education versus a carpet — why would he go for the carpet?” Omar said.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those interviewed.
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