An international journalists' rights watchdog group has accused U.S. officials of trying to restrict press freedoms by hindering the entry of foreign reporters into the United States.
The charge follows the recent detention and deportation of a British freelance journalist in what representatives of Reporters Without Borders said was part of a disturbing pattern of restrictions against foreign journalists trying to enter the country on assignment.
Journalist Elena Lappin was detained on arrival at Los Angeles International Airport on May 3 and expelled the next day for not having a press visa. She said she was interrogated, patted down, photographed, fingerprinted and taken in handcuffs to a detention center.
Twelve other foreign journalists, including six French nationals in one month, were detained last year and allegedly treated in the same manner by officials at LAX, according to the journalists group. Two other international reporters were allegedly detained and expelled from airports in New York.
"It's a deliberate restriction of press freedom," said Tala Dowlatshahi, U.S. representative for Reporters Without Borders. The group has asked the Department of Homeland Security for an investigation into Lappin's case.
We "have been gravely concerned about new Homeland Security restrictions, not only on journalists but on other individuals and communities that have been targeted in a country that prides itself on democratic freedoms," Dowlatshahi said.
Immigration and border protection officials denied that foreign journalists were being targeted for expulsion.
"It's not about the occupation of a passenger that's coming into the United States," said Ana Hinojosa, the director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection at LAX. "We are concerned that every foreigner has the proper visa to enter the country."
Lappin, 49, a naturalized British citizen originally from Russia, said she came to Los Angeles to write a freelance piece for the Guardian, a British daily newspaper.
At the airport, she said, she was asked the specific names and addresses of the people she was going to interview, and how much she would earn for the article she was writing.
Lappin said that she had no idea that journalists needed a special visa to work in the U.S., as she had traveled into the country several times in the past -- most recently in April 2001 when she flew into New York -- and had never been asked for a journalists' visa.
Lappin, whose husband is a U.S. citizen, said she had lived in America as a permanent resident between 1989 and 1993.
Hinojosa said that the requirement dates to 1952, but that immigration and border protection officials had been more vigilant about enforcing it since 9/11.
"All ports have been much more cognizant of passengers coming into the country and their intent and purpose," she said.
Virginia Kice, a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that although airlines had an obligation to ensure that their passengers have correct documentation to enter the U.S. before boarding the aircraft, it was also up to travelers "to do their homework."
Lappin said her situation became "unpleasant" when she was told that an immigration supervisor would deport her.
"I felt subhuman," she recalled. "I was treated like a criminal, handcuffed, fingerprinted and mug shots [were] taken. I suddenly had no rights. It was very, very humiliating."
Lappin said she was taken to a processing center in downtown Los Angeles and placed in a small cell with only a narrow metal bench to sleep on.
"I felt very awful there," she said. "The air was very hot. There was a TV in the corner that you couldn't control. There was a neon light up above that never went out. So you were never in the dark. The toilet was exposed to public view."
Lappin was put on a flight to London the next day.
Robert Menard, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, has written to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge to complain about Lappin's alleged treatment.
Kice said it was routine to search and handcuff detainees before taking them to a detention facility, because there was no way of knowing a person's predisposition to violence.
"It's for their safety, for the safety of our officers and the safety of any other individuals who might be in the vehicle," she said.
Kice said the facility to which Lappin was taken was a temporary holding center, where detainees were processed before being transferred to other sites equipped for long-term stays. She said stays there can depend on the time of day that the detainee arrives.
"A lot of it has to do with timing," Kice said. "Planes arrive at all hours. People come into our custody at all hours. Although we try not to inconvenience a person too much, sometimes they may end up spending 10 or 12 hours at the downtown center."
Lappin said her experience was particularly damning at a time when the U.S. was concerned about improving its global persona.
"This is so bad for the image of America," she said. "This presents the country in all the wrong ways. Here I am, a journalist from a friendly country, and I'm treated this way. Then one can only assume that people from less friendly countries are treated far worse."
Hinojosa said that her agency wanted to encourage visitors to this country, but she underscored the importance of heightened security measures.
"We want to continue to promote tourism and business to the U.S.," she said. "But at the same time, we have been a victim of terrorism, and we must protect ourselves."