October 5, 2008

Keene artist had hard time getting back into US

Keene artist struggles to get back into US


KEENE VALLEY -- Keene Valley resident Jerilea Zempel was detained at the U.S. border this summer because she had a drawing of a sport-utility vehicle in her sketchbook.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers told Zempel they suspected her of copyright infringement.

She was released after more than an hour in custody at the Houlton, Maine, port of entry from New Brunswick, Canada.

Her release came only after she persuaded border guards she was an artist doing a project that involved a crocheted SUV as a statement against America's dependence on oil and love for big vehicles.


Zempel's adventure began when she was returning from the Cultural Capital Festival in Sackville, New Brunswick, where her submission was an SUV cozy on a rented Hyundai Santa Fe.

"I wanted to turn an oversize, macho, gas-guzzling vehicle into a technological ghost by shrouding it in a white, fuzzy cover reminiscent of women's handiwork from another time, another place."

After the festival, Zemple headed for home in her own Toyota Prius hybrid and stopped at the border crossing on Interstate 95 in Maine.

"What happened when I re-entered the U.S. made me ponder what my lowly art project could mean in a larger political sphere.

"And it gave me an idea for a title: the Homeland Security Blanket."


Zempel's passport showed she'd been to Africa, Australia, Central and South America, Mexico, Turkey and Europe in the last nine years.

"U.S. citizens who've traveled to the places I've been need to be looked at. A half hour at the computer gave the agent cause to put me into another suspicious category, meriting a full car search. She (the agent) took my keys and went through my car.

"After going through my (laptop) computer, digital camera, cell phone, business cards, suitcase, reading materials, boxes of yarn and crochet tools, she returned with my sketchbook.

"I was taken to a room and told to sit on a bench with handcuffs at both ends. But they did not handcuff me."


Zempel had drawn an SUV covered by a cozy, with its mirrors marked as "ears."

"My sketchbook puzzled her," Zempel said. "It was a cartoon sketch. They couldn't understand what I was doing. She said, Just what were you doing in Canada? We think you're engaged in some kind of copyright infringement."

She said she and the CBP agent then had a "lively discussion" over Zempel's status as an artist and a professor at Fordham University in New York City.

"I had to spell Fordham for her. She left the room to see if she could find me on the college's Web site."

While she was out, Zempel found her college ID and showed it to the agent when she came back.

"Somehow being a college professor made it all OK. She said, Welcome back to the U.S.' I was allowed to leave."


Zemple said that before the incident she didn't know border guards could search computers and other digital devices "without reasonable cause ... I was surprised to learn all your civil rights are suspended. It was a form of intimidation."

U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) recently introduced a bill that would prevent Customs and Border Protection officials from conducting border searches and seizures of laptops and other electronic devices when U.S. citizens return from international travel unless the agents have justifiable reason to do so.

Customs and Border Protection spokesman Theodore Woo said he could not discuss the specifics of the interview process Zempel went through.

"CBP officers may, at times, inspect a person's belongings to determine whether or not items are admissible or are illegal."

Woo didn't say how a sketch of a car could trigger a border guard's suspicion of copyright infringement. But he did say agents are trained in trademark and copyright laws.

"It's a part of a CBP officer's training. Time is set aside for intellectual-property-rights training."

The agency's role is to keep the country's borders safe while at the same time enforcing many rules and regulations, he said.

"If somebody brings in artwork, it's not necessarily the artwork but (whether) it's intended for a specific use, such as a commercial nature. It doesn't mean the drawings themselves are bad, but what they'll be used for."

He said Customs and Border Protection is in more than 300 ports of entry and processes 1.5 million people a day.

"We appreciate passengers that appreciate we have a job to do. We stress that our officers are professional."

Zempel said that even as she was being questioned, the border officer "was very cheerful. She was very pleasant."

The problem, Zempel said, is "I wasn't doing anything suspicious. I was doing something unpredictable."