By Chris Hansen Correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/3/2008 9:01:39 PM ET 2008-08-04T01:01:39
TRANSCRIPT

This story originally aired Dateline NBC on Aug. 3, 2008.

At New York’s J.F.K. Airport, about 30,000 international travelers a day are processed by Customs and Border Protection officers.

They are guardians who have just minutes to detect the fugitive, the smuggler, or terrorist who is trying to enter the United States illegally, salted within this ever-changing crush of passengers.

The hard part for CBP officers, of course, is finding out who they are.

Take this gentleman with his back to the camera, for instance. He's well dressed, middle-aged, not somebody who would stick out in a crowd of travelers. But for a veteran Customs and Border Protection officer, something about the passenger just doesn't add up.

Officer Tommy Varsamas (on the job 9 years): This man arrived from Ghana today, coming for a vacation … I noticed he’s been here a lot and I started talking to him about his previous trips. And his answers just did not make any logical sense to me, I just couldn't follow him.

So officer Tommy Varsamas brought him into an area known as "hard secondary" for further questioning.

Varsamas: Is this yours?

Ghanan passenger: No.

Varsamas: So why do you have it in your bag?

Ghanan passenger: I just picked it up.

Varsamas: This is somebody's ID card.

Varsamas: When I can't comprehend the answer, something is wrong.

Varsamas: So tell me what is this you didn't tell me.

Ghanan passenger: It’s a receipt. An invoice receipt.

Varsamas: Well, what did you buy?

Ghanan passenger: Maybe it’s a phone.

Varamas: Maybe it’s a phone?

Officer Varsamas: So, I was telling him, listen you're a very smart man. You're older than me and you're and I told him, you are smarter than me, you are very crafty your words. But something just doesn't feel right with you.

Varsamas: When were you going back to Accra?

Ghanan passenger: The reservation I got is uh…

Varsamas: I see you looking at the date on that.

Ghanan passenger: No, no, no.

Officer Varsamas learns the man has been traveling in and out of the United States -- ostensibly for business -- since the early '90s. His last visit lasted several months.

Varsamas: Tell me more about your business trip. You spent five months doing some sort of mysterious business. I don't understand. Explain it to me.

Ghanan passenger:(no answer)

Varsamas: He attempted to explain to us his purpose here.

Varsamas: So you're telling me that you came here and bought something and sold it?

Ghanan passenger: Back home.

Varsamas: OK. What did you buy?

Ghanan passenger: A car, you mean?

Varsamas: A car?

Ghanan passenger: Yeah.

Varsamas: How many?

Ghanan passenger: Two of them.

Varsamas: OK, what kind of cars?

Ghanan passenger: A Honda and a uh...

Varsamas: What year was the Honda?

Ghanan passenger: 2002.

Varsamas: And how much did you pay for it?

Ghanan passenger: A thousand, two hundred.

Varsamas: Was the car stolen? They're usually more expensive.

Varsamas: It's a very good price for a Honda.

Ghanan passenger: Very much wrecked.

Varsamas: A wrecked car?

Varsamas: Under oath we have him saying that he came to buy two cars. He paid I think it was $1200, which is amazing for a 2002 Honda.

Varsamas: And how much does it cost to send it back to Ghana?

Ghanan passenger: Uh, a friend offered this thing onto his freight.

Varsamas: And he had it shipped for free back to Ghana and the man who had shipped the car, he doesn't recall his name, was a friend of his. Didn't know the phone number. This is all amazing stuff and highly unbelievable.

Varsamas: When was the last time you spoke to this guy who ships cars back to Ghana for free for you?

Officer Varsamas's inquiries are met with either silence or confusing spin. There's one question, however, that gets quite a reaction.

Varsamas: And when I asked him about it, he almost fainted. He just froze.

LAX: International arrivals

Across the continent, at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Customs and Border Protection officers process close to 9 million passengers a year. It’s a number so large that if they all came at once, the line would stretch all the way back to JFK.

The bulk of the international flights here are inbound from Asia and Latin America.

Right now, it's a flight from Guadalajara, Mexico, and two passengers in particular that have come to the attention of CBP officers.

Officer 1 on telephone: The two passengers are both males … OK. So, they are coming to pick it up? OK, thank you. Bye bye.

Officer 2: How many are there?

Officer 1: Two.

Officer 2: There's two.

Officer Jeff Garneau: They've been patted down. All of their bags have been checked.

Their visas check out, but both men stayed longer than legally allowed on previous trips. A minor offense, but it raises a number of bigger questions: What did they do when they were last here? How did they support themselves?

Jeff Garneau: They both have visitor visas, visas that allow them to come into this country. But not to live here, work here and get paid here.

Working in the United States would have serious consequences: immediate deportation.

Bruce Mulraney (Section Chief, Passport Control, 16 years experience): They will undergo what's known as a secondary inspection to determine admissibility. Officers will interview them. Place them under oath. Take a sworn statement. Exact the particulars to establish their identity … Right now they're just waiting to be interviewed. We don't have very good facilities for holding people for any length of time. But we provide some creature comforts. There is a television, we have food stuffs, both snack items, hamburgers, that sort of thing. This is an unpleasant experience for both the traveler and the officer. So we try to minimize the unpleasantness.

As they wait to be interrogated, one of the men holds up pictures of his daughter, who, he says, is a U.S. citizen. She's in the terminal, just a few hundred yards away, waiting for him. The man asks if he can see her.

Chief Gamez: They want to know if they can come in just for, to visit for a little bit, because he has a daughter.

Bruce Mulraney: I don't think so.

Officer Grant: He told me that he came in, that today his intention is to celebrate his birthday, which is March 2, and he's going to stay only for three weeks. I don't believe him.

Officer Brenda Grant, Port enforcement team (on the job 5 years): I’m going to interview him in Spanish and we're going to determine if he is admissible or not. I want him to tell me the truth. 99% they will not say the truth.

(translation from Spanish)

Grant: Is this the first time in the United States?

Passenger: No.

Grant: How many times have you come?

Passenger: About seven times.

Grant: Seven times? And what have you come for in the last times?

Passenger: I come to bring money to ... I have a daughter.

Grant: Why have you come now?

Passenger: Now, to visit, to be with my daughter.

Grant: Are you in possession of return tickets to your country?

Passenger: Yes.

Grant: You have a ticket to return to your country?

Passenger: Oh, if I have purchased a return ticket? No.

Grant: No? How much money do you have?

Passenger: About $110.

Grant: $110?

Little money. No return ticket. Officer Grant has heard enough. She's convinced the man is not just here to visit his daughter but to work illegally in the United States.

She discusses his case with fellow officers.

Officer Grant: He's just trying to evade the real truth.

Officer 2: Did he say he had any family here?

Officer Grant: Yeah, he has an aunt here.

Officer 2: That's it?

Officer Grant: And his girlfriend.

Officer 2: That's his brother.

Officer Grant: You see, he's lying.

Officer 2: I told you.

Officer Grant: he's lying. His brother just called. And he left a phone number where he said to return his phone call. So he has a brother by the name, Juan. Juan. And he didn't tell me. We have to confront him and we'll see how far he will go with the truth.

At New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport, a baggage search of the passenger from Ghana uncovers a small document with the potential for big trouble.

Varsamas: Tell me how long have you had this green card?

Ghanan passenger: Oh, uh, a year now.

Officer Tommy Varsamas: From having a green card or a passport in your hands for so many years and developing muscle memory, it just doesn't feel right, even if you don't look at it, it doesn't feel right. The other thing is the green cards have colors on the side. This doesn't have it. This has a die cut like it went through a machine where you pull and die pushes it, so this has been mass-produced in my opinion.

Varsamas: Did you know that it was a crime to have a counterfeit green card?

Passenger: Obviously, once it's counterfeit, it's ... Actually didn't know it was on me. Honestly.

Varsamas: It's a yes or no answer. Did you know?

Passenger: Yes

Varsamas: Have you ever used it?

Passenger: Never.

Varsamas: You want me to believe you?

Passenger: Yes, sir.

Varsamas: You're 10 years older than me, like I said you're smarter, wiser and you're very good with your words, but you actually expect me to believe that you paid $150 for a counterfeit green card, that you've had for over a year so you could bring it to America and not have enough money to conduct biz and you did not use this to get a job here?

Passenger: Never, never in my life have I ever used this.

Varsamas: Everything you've said does not make sense. Tell me, what's going to happen when I put this number in the computer and I get somebody's picture. Is it going to be a picture of somebody who looks like you?

Passenger: No. I don't think so.

Varsamas: Or is it going to be somebody else?

Passenger: I don't know what it's going to be, honestly.

The answer to that question comes by fax a few minutes later.

Varsamas: The number of the green card belongs to this person. Clearly it does not look like him. Very shady.

Officer Varsamas determines this woman is guiltless. The same cannot be said for the passenger from Ghana.

He will be sent home on the next available flight and banned from the United States.

Varsamas: He will not be able to come back for five years.

Back at LAX
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, officer Grant suspects this man from Mexico hasn't arrived just to see family but to work illegally -- and has done so before. If true, he too could be deported and kept out of the United States, and away from his daughter for up to 5 years.

Grant: When was the first time you entered?

Passenger: In 2003, I received the visa.

Grant: How long did you stay?

Passenger: That time, like a year and three months.

Grant: What were you doing for a year and three months?

Passenger: I was a gardener for the county.

It takes officer Grant just 31 minutes to get to the truth: that this young man had been working illegally in the United States.

Her decision is now clear and easy to make.

Grant: He worked. He overstayed. We're going to send him back to Mexico. He violated the immigration law twice. He's going to be barred for five years. He cannot return to the United States. Unfortunately, he has a daughter, a U.S. citizen daughter. And that's the sad part from this situation.

Bruce Mulraney, section chief, passport control: In most law enforcement positions you do bad things to people, but usually it's bad people you're doing it to. So in this line of work sometimes you have to do bad things to people who aren't bad -- someone trying to make a better life for themselves, for their family.

Adopted babies
But while one passenger is sent home, others are being admitted and granted entry even though they're incapable of filling out any forms or answering a single question.

Officer: And I’ll call you when everything is done...

Off to the side at LAX's passport control, in their own little lane, their own little world, are a handful of couples returning from China with their newly adopted children.

Officer: Do you know how many adoption families we have on this plane?

Bruce Mulraney, section chief: They'll travel to China. They'll formally adopt a baby. However, there's a section of law that states that if a person is adopted by U.S. citizens and then admitted to the United States as lawful permanent residents, they derive U.S. citizenship. So those babies came here as foreigners and left the building as U.S citizens. That's one of the miracles of immigration law, which can do just about anything.

It's a common occurrence here, but one that still raises smiles with veteran officers.

Mulraney: These children have hit the lottery in a manner of speaking by being adopted and coming to the United States. And it can kind of be a heartwarming experience for us. I mean, I get a kick out of it, myself.

Safe harbor
It's not only airports that are covered by Customs and Border Protection - it also polices the nation's maritime borders.

Donald Kusser, Assistant Port Director, Tactical Operations (17 years on the job): We are at the Los Angeles-Long Beach Sea Port, which is actually the largest sea port complex in the United States. Chances are there is something in your house that has actually come through this sea port.

It's a massive commercial hub. But the containers present a potential danger to national security, the perfect place to hide something dangerous - even a small nuclear weapon.

Kusser: The number one priority of CBP is to prevent terrorists and terrorist weapons from from entering the United States.

At these stations, officers screen the containers for radiation before they ever hit the U.S. highways.

Kusser: The main purpose of the radiation portal monitor is to interdict potential terrorist weapons, radiological dirty bombs or a nuclear bomb.

If radioactive material is detected, it will trigger this alarm.

Officer Keith Labranche (3 years working): Anything can happen at any time. You never know what you might see out there and we all have family out there, so we all want to make sure we do a good job and nothing gets in the public that might hurt someone.

And then...

Gamma alert, gamma alert … This is not a drill. This is a real alarm.

This truck has set off the detector. Now it's time to move -- and fast.

At the port of Los Angeles, something has triggered the alarm.

Officer Keith Labranche: We're going to go out there right now and grab the driver's information and container number.

Officer Keith Labranche knows that means there is some kind of radioactive material in the back of this truck. He's on the lookout for any threat to the nation's security.

Labranche: Anything that could be used to make a dirty bomb, or poison something--water supply, food sources--anything like that.

Labranche walks around front to the driver's window.

Labranche: Have your license? Thank you sir. When the gate arm pulls up, just pull forward to customs secondary. Thank you.

Labranche: We're going to conduct a radiation screening first. The container had a pretty significant spike in terms of radiation readings so we're going to run the container through our targeting system and see what we have for commodity.

Officers access the shipping list:

Ryan: Grinders, polishers and sanders, coming from China.

Sounds harmless enough, but there's only one way to find out. After a second screening with a handheld radiation detection device, he's going in.

Labranche: I’m going to go ahead and open the container to verify the commodity.

Labranche: You want to look for duffel bags, you want to look for holes in a container where maybe someone could come on inside the container, open it up, and pull out a single box, anything that may have a smell, anything that might be leaking.

Labranche: I’m going to open it up. Looks like an air ratchet used to attach the grinding wheels that we have listed inside.

The cargo checks out. No dirty bombs or terrorist weapons. Some imported items, like granite counter-tops, TV sets and those tools from China give off trace amounts of natural radiation which can trip the alarm.

Labranche: The final finding is it's normal, everything's consistent. Radiation matches up with the type of commodity inside so it's OK to let go.

Officer Labranche can stand down, but not for long. Some days the seaport's alarm goes off 600 times.

Labranche: It sounds pretty clichéd, but it just takes that one container to get in the U.S. somehow and anything could be in it and every can has to be screened.

Wheels of fortune
In Texas, CBP officers face other potential threats to the border.

Lopez: The port of El Paso is the second largest port on the southern border. Every day we process over a 100,000 people. And we process on an average about 40,000 vehicles.

Lopez: Our primary mission is antiterrorism and along with that mission we conduct all these other inspections we come across narcotics.

Chief CBP Officer Rick Lopez, uniform liaison (17 years on the job): It could from 8 up to 15 seizures a day. Come out here, talk to them, are they nervous, are they not? Where are they going? Picking up on some of the clues that maybe might lead to illegal activity. Picking up on some of these what I refer to as indicators, where an applicant comes in, he's grabbing the steering wheel, his knuckles white. It's hot as hell this evening. A grey Mercury Marquis has entered the checkpoint. It looks clean. Maybe too clean.

Lopez: The officer is doing a lot of interacting with the driver of the vehicle.

No high-tech tools here. The officer relies on experience and a basic, but powerful weapon in the war against drugs.

Jazz is a CBP detector dog, a German shepherd who’s been on the job for 13 months.

Officer Brenda Rubio, canine officer (6 years on the job): Jazz and I have been working together since July of 2007. She smells marijuana, hash, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and meth.

Rubio: Their noses are 10,000 times stronger than ours. The inspector called me over to this lane, he felt there were some inconsistencies.

Jazz is trained to alert her handler when she finds drugs. She does it by sitting down immediately.

Rubio: What I do, I just walk around the vehicle with Jazz. She alerted to the rear tire. There's a hit. Soon officers will find out if Jazz is right.

Out of darkness
The Sonoran desert is a sea of sand that spans from the southwestern U.S. to northern Mexico.

Pilot: This evening we're about to go on a patrol along the border between Arizona and Mexico in support of the United States Border Patrol, Tucson sector. We're just going to be looking for any illegal activity, and any requests for air support from search and rescue to vehicle pursuit. Anything could happen really.

There are no natural barriers separating the two countries, and few manmade ones.

Pilot: In an eight-hour shift, we encounter just about everything. Predominately it's of a human smuggling nature or narcotics smuggling.

To monitor this vast unpopulated frontier, the border patrol has immersed itself in technology like it was water in the desert.

Their arsenal now includes GPS, night vision, surveillance cameras, listening posts, and ground sensors.

Lee Albee, supervisory agent, mobile surveillance system operator (12 years on the job): The technology allows us to find the traffic as it comes across the border. This equipment is looking at wide swaths of the desert floor. And whereas it would perhaps take 10 to 15 agents to cover all this area on foot, we can cover the same amount of area with one of these pieces of equipment.

Six hours later, agent Lee Albee’s sensors get a hit. He radios a jeep patrol.

Radio: Keep going as quiet as you can. They're about three quarters of a mile south on that road.

Agent in jeep: Well, what we know is that there's a small group of three that are moving at a pretty quick pace.

Agent Joe Gonzalez: It looks like in addition to us, we've got a two-man unit in front of us that's going to be helping us out.

The jeep patrol closes in with the help of agent Albee’s GPS coordinates.

Radio1: I’ll give you numbers to line you up.

Radio2: 10-4. Send the grids.

Radio1: 31, 42.972. West is 111. 44.590. You guys are on the right road, just keep going.

As the agents close in, the sensors lose contact.

Agent Joe Gonzalez: The mobile surveillance system was able to track them to a real thick, brushy area and after that it couldn't get a signal.

Agent Joe Gonzalez: Right now, he's looking for footprints.

Agent Joe Gonzalez: 10 percent of the individuals we encounter in Tucson sector have previous criminal histories somewhere in the U.S. That's convictions ranging from shoplifting to multiple homicides, so we don't know who we're going to encounter.

About 30 minutes later, border patrol agents find them. Three men attempting to sneak into the country, one of whom has a warrant out for his arrest.

Agent Joe Gonzalez: The agents were able to get there, find the footprints, and follow the footprints to where the subjects were hiding.

A few miles away, sensors detect yet another group crossing the desert.

Agent: A group of five individuals, carrying large backpacks.

The chase is on.

In a given shift at LAX's international terminal Customs and Border Protection has about 150 officers working the line, processing an average of 8,000 passengers.

The person in charge of making sure a smuggler, fugitive or terrorist doesn't sneak in?

Sergio Espinoza.

Sergio Espinoza, Assistant Port Director: My responsibilities are managing our entire passenger operations for incoming international arrivals. We've got tons riding on our shoulders.

Right now there's a passenger Espinoza’s officers have flagged.

Sergio Espinoza: He came in from Laos, off of China. He's traveled to United States two times prior to this trip. He was headed to the Minneapolis area. Based on where he was coming from. Based on the fact he was traveling alone. We call it a cold stop, meaning, the officer just detected some anomaly, some type of behavioral issue he picked up on the passenger and sent him back to our secondary area for processing.

It was a good call. As officers start to search his bag, they unwrap illegal drugs--but not heroin or cocaine. Instead, this man was caught with anabolic steroids.

Sergio Espinoza: In this type of fashion in ampoules, injectable-type like forms, they're pretty much going to be used for re-sale.

Typically, steroids like these would be sold on the black market to bodybuilders. Even high school athletes.

Sergio Espinoza: He also has codeine and medicines that would require you to have a prescription. But more importantly, the schedule 4 anabolic steroids are definitely not allowable. So the next step is to call our investigative body, which is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), to determine to see if they want to accept the case for prosecution.

After spending two hours with ICE, the passenger is brought to the area known as "hard secondary" to answer a few questions from officer Brenda Grant.

Officer Brenda Grant: Very important you tell the truth. If you lie, you can be subject to criminal penalties.

Out of darkness
Back in the Arizona desert, border patrol agents are hunting for a group of men with heavy backpacks.

The Mexican border is really close by here, probably not more than a mile. There are five individuals the agents are tracking.

But they've gone beyond the range of this mobile-surveillance system.

Agents carefully search the ground for tracks--a method perfected centuries ago.

Chuy: Agents are trained to track footprints.

But then even the footprints fade away.

Chuy: They've probably been doing it a while. They know exactly the route and they know some of the tricks to avoid detection and apprehension.

A dog is brought in.

Chuy: The canine is a big help because not only can he detect narcotics, he can detect the scent of people walking through here as well.

An hour later: success.

Agent: We tracked them and eventually we came up on a group of five individuals who were carrying large backpacks on their backs, they dropped them and ran, we were able to capture one. The others made it back to Mexico.

The backpack are full of pot, 40 to 45 pounds each.

And the reason agents lost the trail in desert?

This low-tech device -- a simple handmade broom.

Chuy: They were using this brush right here from the mesquite tree to brush out their footprints as they were walking through, across the roads or anywhere else like that on the trail, just so the agents couldn't follow them.

The new tools are certainly needed here, but so, it seems, are the old.

Wheels of fortune
Back in El Paso, Jazz the detector dog has drawn the officers' attention to the rear tire of this car coming in from Mexico.

Agent Rubio: Her alert is to sit down so as soon as she got the odor of narcotics she immediately sat down.

Rubio: Can you bleed it for me?

Answer: Uh huh.

Officer: It's there.

Agent: Please step out of the vehicle. Put your hands on your waist.

Chief CBP officer Rick Lopez: We're going to perform some sort of pat-down search to confirm that there is no contraband on the person, and then we will secure them.

Someone, somewhere is trying to reach him, and his car will soon spill out its secrets

Back in El Paso, the too-clean grey Mercury Marquis is moved out of the lane for inspection.

Agent Lopez: The officer conducted a primary cursory inspection of the tires.

The tires are full of marijuana .

Officer: They didn't even put a bag in there, they just stuffed it in there. This is a field test kit. It does a chemical reaction to it -- the two chemicals. It shows for the properties of marijuana. It tested positive.

Inside, the driver is fingerprinted.

Officer: What this machine allows us to do is there is about four databases that it will check and it will come back and tell us if this individual has a prior record.

Officer: I submitted his fingerprints to our databases, they checked against all the databases that we have, there are no prior records.

Officer Lopez: We will secure him in a detention cell until the ice agents come in and start doing their investigation.

CBP officer: Now we need to find out just how much marijuana is stashed inside this car.

Lopez: A contractor that is going to come out and assist us in dismantling the tires and ah get to the contraband.

Officer: Anywhere where they have an open area in the vehicle in the compartment such as the fender wells such as a quarter panels we have even had cases where they do it inside the gas tanks. So even the seats they will take out the foam and put in the packages in there. Wherever there's a hold, that's where they will put it.

Officer: The individual has the two tires, the front one and the rear one on the right hand side, filled with contraband. Probably have somewhere between 25 to 50 pounds.

Lopez : We have to preserve all evidence so that we can make an exact weight.

Officer: 44 pounds? Even 4l pounds. You're the witness. That's 41 pounds that didn't get across. We'll take it.

Rubio: What a good dog, what good girl you are! Good job mama!

Lopez: When you intercept a narcotics seizure such like we did today and you know that marijuana or that cocaine is not going to make it out to the streets of the U.S. and you do feel that you are making a difference.

The suspect pleaded guilty to possession and received a sentence of 5 years probation.

Drug store
At LAX’s hard secondary, a Laotian passenger caught with steroids is about to be questioned by officer Brenda Grant.

Officer Grant: This question, I want to make sure you are truthful with me. OK? I expect you to tell me the truth: what is your true purpose in coming to visit the United States? What are you coming to do here?

Translator/passenger: To visit my sister.

Officer Grant: To visit your sister? For how long?

Translator/passenger: Three months.

Officer Grant: Do you have any children and what are their citizenship?

Translator/passenger: He has children.

Officer Grant: How many?

Translator/passenger: Seven.

Officer Grant: What is your occupation?

Translator/passenger: Unemployed.

It now becomes clear to officer Grant why this middle-aged father of seven has taken such an enormous risk.

Officer Grant: What did you bring in your luggage?

Translator/passenger: Clothes ... Medicine ...

Officer Grant: What kind of medicine was it?

Translator/passenger: He doesn't know the name ... He didn't know he had medicine in his suitcase until customs inspector opened it.

Officer Grant: Who packed your suitcase?

Translator/passenger: His wife.

Officer Grant: Who bought the medicine?

Translator/passenger: My wife.

It's a cringe-inducing excuse that clearly doesn't sit well with Grant.

Officer Grant: You are blaming your wife? That she packed all the medication that you were carrying it and then while you are here it was going to be a surprise that you were carrying that?

Translator/passenger: He says he's not blaming my wife. But the truth is his wife packed it for him.

Officer Grant: The truth is that I don't believe you.

Officer Grant: He told me from the interview that his wife packed his bag -- I don't believe him. I believe he bought the medicine to re-sell.

Officer Grant: How much did he pay for it (for the drugs?)

Translator/passenger: He paid $70.

Grant: He paid $70 for the steroids?

Translator: The whole thing.

Officer Grant: Now, before you told me you didn't know nothing about the luggage what was containing in that bag. I'm asking you again -- why are you trying to conceal information? I just want you to tell me the truth.

Officer Grant: Now, you are unemployed. Are you bringing these medicines in to re-sell here and make money?

Translator/passenger: He say, not exactly mean like that.

Officer Grant: OK, then what was he then?

Translator/passenger: Part of it he would use for himself, for his own. He take it himself and some he give to his to family and if somebody like a neighbor somebody that he knows.

Officer Grant: Here in the United States or in Laos?

Translator/passenger: Here. Here. Here. Then if they would want to buy he would sell it at a cheap price.

It takes officer Grant just 27 minutes to get this damning admission of guilt. Yet this passenger appears unaware that he just incriminated himself.

Officer Grant: Today, because you are carrying drugs, you are not admissible to the U.S. You violated immigration law.

The U.S. attorney's office declines to prosecute -- the seizure is too small. Instead the man will be deported.

Photographed and fingerprinted, he's placed on a flight home to return to his wife and seven children in Laos, broke and empty-handed.

His big roll of the dice was a bust.

Up in smoke
There are other, safer, ways for smugglers to make a buck sneaking in something that if discovered may not necessarily land them in jail or get them deported.

Espinoza: We're basically performing a blitz on a flight that originated in Cambodia to Tai Pei to Los Angeles. Upon reading the x-ray and interpreting what was being displayed, they noticed these boxes, and obviously they were many boxes of the same pattern, so they basically detected an anomaly.

That anomaly turned out to be foreign cigarettes

Specialist: We got 10, 20, 25 cartons, they are allowed two. They have no warning for cancer on it, which makes it intrinsically unenterable and since they have no warning label, they're not allowed in the country.

Specialist: Declaration?

Daughter: They are my mom's, not me.

Specialist: Kim Yang, that's you?

Daughter(pointing to mom): Over there.

Specialist: Coming in from Cambodia. And of course they belong to her mom, they are not hers. So we'll see what her mom will do with them.

Specialist: Hello. You have a lot of cigarettes.

Daughter: Yeah, because my uncle send to his friend. So that why she not know.

Specialist: And your mom packed the bag and this is her name? OK, you'll have to wait here ma'am. I have to go get a customs officer, excuse me.

Neither mom nor daughter declared the cigarettes on their customs form. It's a mistake that could end up costing them a hefty fine.

Officer 2: OK, ma'am. All these bags are yours?

Woman: yes.

Officer 2: Go ahead and put all of your bags down.

Officer 2: No, you're not allowed to bring this many.

Daughter: Oh, how many?

Officer 2: One per person, one carton per adult.

Officer: Why did you bring so much?

Daughter: I don't know, my friends.

Officer 2: Your friends?

Daughter: Yes.

Officer 2: Well, your friends are going to owe you a lot of money because this is gone.

But there are more bags to search.

Officer 2: Several more. About 40 more cartons.

Espinoza: When we see this many, it suggests to me that they're ultimately going to resell the cigarettes. It could net the passenger about $2,500. Which is probably the value of the tickets that they paid to and from Cambodia.

Clearly, against the law. The only question now: will the women be fined? It's the officer's call.

Espinoza: We have a lot of traditional missions here and one of them is protecting the American consumer. And obviously, these types of cigarettes that are being imported, we don't know the actual content of the tobacco of any kind of additional additives they could add to the tobacco which could be even more harmful to the end consumer.

Officers make note of the seizure in the computer. The cigarettes are counted and destroyed.

Officer 3: You're receipt, and have a nice day.

Officer 2: Here, they can have that to go out.

Officer 3: Yeah, give it to the officer at the exit booth over there. That's it.

Officer 2: Don't do it again.

Officer 3: Yeah.

This time, the officers give the passengers a break. They walk away with a warning. If they get caught again, it could end up costing them a lot more than a plane ticket.

It’s just one of the variety of cases, large and small, that the men and women of Customs and Border Protection confront every day.

It's a job they love.

Dooley: I still get that rush after 11 years. I'm almost like a kid in the candy store when I get a seizure. It's a good feeling.

They have 60 seconds to size up a possible criminal.

Officer (talking to passenger at passport control): Do you have a credit card? Where are you staying?

While standing guard against a possible terrorist attack.

Labranche: It just takes that one container to get in the U.S. and it could be used to make a dirty bomb.

And they never let down their guard.

Labranche: After that's just the next truck, then the next truck and the next truck, 24 hours a day.

Miller: Our job never ends. Twenty-four hours, seven days a week. We never close.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Watch the show

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments