Newark, NJ – Confusion about how much money can be legally taken in and out of the United States without filing an official declaration through Customs and Border Protection has been wreaking havoc in recent weeks for passengers flying out of Newark Liberty Airport on El Al, creating a plethora of flight delays on the Israeli airline and causing many passengers to miss their flights.
Borough Park resident Miriam Berger said that she and her husband were about to board a December 8th El Al flight to Tel Aviv when they were pulled over on the jetway by a CBP agent who asked them to sign a form verifying how much currency they were carrying at the time.
The pair, who were headed to Israel to celebrate several family simchos, listed the approximately $6,000 in cash they were carrying and were then directed to a room where they were detained and questioned. According to Mrs. Berger, the room was filled almost exclusively with Chasidic passengers, most of whom were Israelis returning home.
All were told that they were forbidden to use their cell phones or to converse amongst each other.
After their luggage was removed from the plane and searched, Mrs. Berger and her husband were informed that the amount of checks and cash that they were carrying had exceeded the CBP’s $10,000 limit on negotiable monetary instruments.
Because the couple didn’t realize that the total amount allowed included both checks and cash, they were unaware that the amount of currency they were carrying exceeded the maximum permitted and had inadvertently underreported the amount on the CBP form, prompting agents to seize thousands of dollars.
“We had no idea that checks are considered to be the same as cash,” Mrs. Berger told VIN News. “Had we known we would have mentioned the checks.”
When it became apparent that they were in danger of missing their Thursday afternoon flight and might not arrive at their destination in time for Shabbos, Mrs. Berger’s husband asked for permission to contact his attorney.
“He was instantly and illegally handcuffed,” said Mrs. Berger. “I was immediately warned, ‘if you don’t stop crying you’re next.’”
Eventually Mrs. Berger was allowed to board the Thursday afternoon flight, where she said that El Al crew members told her that the lengthy delays due to CBP searches were taking place on a daily basis. Her husband was released later in the day and booked on a flight leaving Newark later that night.
Since her flight Mrs. Berger has spoken with several Chasidic travelers who reported similar incidents. One traveler, an 80 year old man who has difficulty standing because of phlebitis, asked CBP agents to let him sit down during his detainment, pulling up the leg of his pants to show them his inflamed leg.
“He was told, ‘We can stand so you can stand,’” said Mrs. Berger.
Eager to spread the word to fellow travelers to prevent them from experiencing the same difficulties she and her husband encountered, Mrs. Berger has been traveling to Newark every Thursday morning to warn travelers of the severe consequences they can face if they fail to accurately report the value of all checks and cash that they may be carrying.
Mrs. Berger said that she has also reached out to several agencies and elected officials to express her concern that Chasidic travelers are being targeted on Newark’s El Al flights.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who spoke at length with Mrs. Berger, said that he paid a visit to John F. Kennedy airport on January 27th and was told that no similar issues were taking place there. Hikind paid a second visit to Newark airport on Wednesday, meeting with El Al executives as well as several high ranking airport officials.
“It was a great conversation,” reported Hikind. “We spoke about working together, reviewing what happened in the past and making changes for the future.”
The notion that CBP agents are targeting El Al passengers and profiling Chasidic passengers is completely untrue, said Hikind.
“I was told by multiple sources that this is not just happening on El Al,” said Hikind. “They are checking passengers on Lufthansa, passengers coming from Mexico and quite a few others.”
The afternoon El Al flight, however, may be subject of greater scrutiny simply because of timing, explained Hikind.
“It is the first international flight of the day leaving Newark so there are plenty of agents on hand for that flight because there are no other international flights at that time,” noted Hikind. “And once they have been finding that there are many people who have are carrying more money than allowed without reporting it, customs agents are likely to keep on checking that flight as long as they see that there is a problem.”
The issue stems from a lack of awareness, according to Hikind, who said that he himself has learned a lot about carrying money and checks out of the country while investigating this issue.
“People need to know the basic facts,” said Hikind. “It is okay to have more than $10,000 in cash and checks, but you have to report it on the official form. People also need to know that this has nothing to do with taxes or the IRS. This is just a matter of following the rules.”
Some difficulties may have arisen in the past when people have been evasive or less than truthful when questioned by CBP agents.
“Customs agents are trained to pick up on lies and if you aren’t being truthful, you are going to have problems because you just lied to a government agent,” said Hikind. “These people are doing their jobs, looking for drug dealers and people who are laundering money, and they have every right to ask you how much money you have. If you don’t know how much money you are carrying then just tell them you aren’t sure. But always tell the truth.”
Hikind is planning to implement a multi-stage plan to better educate the public on currency requirements for travelers.
In addition to having official CBP reporting forms available at his office, he hopes to have travel agents in the Jewish community include a page with every itinerary in English, Hebrew and Yiddish explaining the pertinent regulations.
Hikind said he also will be working with El Al, which loses tens of thousands of dollars because of delayed flights, to better educate the public on regulations for bringing currency in and out of the United States and with Chareidi media outlets in Israel so that collectors coming to America understand how to fill out the required forms if they are carrying funds in excess of $10,000.
New York/Newark Port Director Adele Fasano was completely unaware of any allegations of abuse or mistreatment of passengers on the El Al flights, reported Hikind.
“She was very adamant that behavior of this kind would not be tolerated,” said Hikind. “She asked us to provide her with the details and dates when these incidents happened and went as far as saying she will discipline and possibly fire agents who were involved because every traveler has to be treated with the utmost respect.”
Hikind encouraged anyone who feels that they were subject to harassment by CBP agents to contact his office at 718-853-9616 so that details can be forwarded to the authorities at the CBP.
Officials at Newark Liberty Airport said that they were unauthorized to comment on the matter.