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L.A. City Attorney's Request For LAX Security Clearance Met With Kafkaesque Denial From Customs

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Protesters at LAX on January 31, 2017. (Photo by Julia Wick/LAist)
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In the hectic weekend following the implementation of President Trump's original travel ban, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer made headlines when he was was rebuffed by customs officials after showing up at Los Angeles International Airport to get answers and meet with detainees. Despite spending hours at the airport on the night of January 28 (and into the morning of January 29) seeking basic answers about how many people were being detained and whether officials were complying with a court order that would prevent any of those detainees from being deported, federal officials were "unable and unwilling to provide any information" Feuer with any information.

An official U.S. Customs and Border Protection security seal would have provided Feuer with access to the detainees. He applied for a security seal the following week so that he would be able to access secure areas at LAX in the future. "In these uncertain and precarious times, who knows when it might be needed again," City Attorney spokesman Rob Wilcox told LAist.

On Friday, the City Attorney announced that CBP had shot down his request, denying him future unescorted access at LAX.

In a one-page letter, Mitchell Merriam, CBP's port director for LAX, thanked Feuer for his correspondence, offered him a five-sentence description (some of which were very long sentences) about how CBP is tasked with protecting the nation's borders, and then gave him less than a sentence of explanation about why his request was denied ("your request is not cognizable under 19 C.F.R. Part 122, Subpart S").

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Letter from U.S. Customs to City Attorney Mike Feuer
The C.F.R. in question is the Code of Federal Regulations, which is basically just a giant book of all the general and permanent rules that govern U.S. federal agencies (as written by said agencies). Part 122 of said C.F.R. lays out air commerce regulations, and Subpart S lays out the law on access to customs security areas. "Cognizable," for those of us who are not lawyers, just means "capable of being known," according to our friends at Merriam-Webster. Okay, we can follow that.

But here's where things get weird: unlike a customs detention area, the C.F.R. is readily available to the public. And, uh, it pretty clearly states that local government officials can request security clearance seals (19 C.F.R. Part 122, Subpart S, Section 122.182 c and e, as quoted by the City Attorney in his appeals letter, and easily findable here).

Furthermore, that little ditty known as Subpart S also CLEARLY states that if CBP wants to deny access, they must "give written notification to any person whose application for access to the Customs security area has been denied, fully stating the reasons for denial and setting forth specific appeal procedures" (emphasis ours).

Now, go back to CBP's letter to Feuer and do some close reading of the third paragraph where the City Attorney's request is denied ("is not cognizable..."). This should be a relatively easy task, since there are only ten words explaining the refusal, and two of them are actually numbers and one is just a single letter. Customs is essentially telling L.A.'s chief prosecutor that the reason he can't have access is because a section of federal code that lays out who can have access exists. They don't even bother to reference a subsection! It's federal code, there are subsections upon subsections! That's not a fully stated reason; it's barely even a bibliographic citation. What is this, Kafka International Airport?

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As Feuer writes in his appeal letter, as City Attorney, he has "broad responsibilities directly relevant to LAX." Specifically, his office serves as counsel for LAX, providing wide-ranging legal support regarding LAX operations (they even have an office on site). As the city's chief prosecutor, Feuer is also responsible for prosecuting offenses at and around LAX.

“When the City Attorney of the nation’s second largest city cannot gain access to all areas of the airport located in his jurisdiction, something is terribly wrong,” Feuer said in a statement Friday. “I went to LAX in January because I wanted to secure the release of the detainees. I also wanted very direct answers to basic questions. A security clearance would have provided me with access to the detainees so I could have assessed their situation and well-being.”

As mentioned above, Feuer is currently appealing the CBP's decision.

Related: L.A. City Attorney Said He Was Blocked From Meeting With LAX Detainees
L.A. City Attorney Files FOIA Request Over LAX Detainees