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Flying While Black

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If you're a Black woman and you've ever traveled outside of the U.S., or plan to, you must know about Cathy Harris. The embattled customs agent, profiled in the February issue of ESSENCE magazine, is soldiering on in her fight against the random detention of Black women travelers at U.S. airports.

Harris is also pressing still for a resolution to her case of workplace harassment. During several nightmarish years at the U.S. Customs Service, Harris says that she routinely was sexually harrassed by her mostly White supervisors.

Those same supervisors, Harris and her lawyers say, ratcheted up their attack when Harris went public about the scores of Black women she watched customs agents target. They were patted down, stripped searched, and, in the worst cases, forced to undergo invasive medical exams. After she blew the whistle on her bosses, Harris was suspended without pay in October 1999.

Meanwhile, the agency's own data confirmed that Black women were singled out more frequently than any group of passengers, but they were the least likely to be found holding drugs or other contraband.

She will survive
As Harris awaits a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission decision on her formal complaints, she continues to recover from the ordeal, which she says forced her into clinical depression and resulted in her suburban Atlanta home lapsing into foreclosure.

Though back at work as a customs agent -- and expecting next month to have her agency-issued weapon returned to her -- a proposed termination of Harris is officially still pending. Still, the divorced mother of two collegiate daughters said she is standing stronger than ever.

"Everything is happening in divine order," she said. "I am walking every day and losing weight and toning up. I am taking vitamins and feeling good. Ready to go back on overtime and make me some money." Harris's book Flying While Black: A Whistleblower's Story (Milligan Books) is scheduled to be released in February.
What you must know before traveling abroad

Meanwhile, the U.S. Custom Service is still immersed in what the recently -departed Commissioner Raymond Kelly called a wholesale revamping of how the agency conducts business, prodded, in part, by Harris and a federal class-action lawsuit filed in Chicago by more than 1,300 Black women. Since then, the U.S. Customs Service has adopted several important changes. But before you fly, know your legal rights:

    * Customs supervisors must approve physical searches, including pat-downs and strip-searches of passengers. Rank-and-file agents cannot make that decision.

    * You can request an X-ray body scan instead of a physical search.

    * Only agency lawyers, conferring with port directors, can order medical examinations of detained passengers. (These examinations may include cavity searches.)

    * If you are held for at least two hours, you may ask a customs agent to contact a lawyer or anyone else you choose.

    * Customs officials must consult the local U.S. attorney's office when holding anyone, without arrest, for more than eight hours.

    * If you are held for a medical examination, you must be reimbursed for airline, accommodation and other expenses if nothing is discovered.

    * Make sure to record the date, flight, time and badge number of the officer involved in your detention.

    * Ask for a customs "comment card" with information about who to contact at the Customs office.

    * If you feel you've been unjustly stopped, searched or detained, you can file a formal complaint by contacting a Customer Satisfaction Unit at airports or by writing the same unit at U.S. Customs Service, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20229. You can also contact a lawyer.

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