Can the uber-wealthy get into the U.S. undocumented via private-property helipads/airstrips?

(Inspired by the ongoing “Golfer Having a Hard Time Getting a Visa” thread in GQ)

Let’s say Mexican multi-billionaire Carlos Slim holds a sybaritic Cinco de Mayo bash at a huge private compound near the resort town Playas de Rosarito, Mexico (near Tijuana). Slim invites a veritable whos-who of high-rolling moguls, enterntainers, and captains of industry & finance.

During the festivities, Slim hits it off with one Bill Gates, of Microsoft fame. As they get to talking, Gates thanks Slim for letting his private helicopter land on the compound’s helipad. Slim waves the thanks away with a quick and friendly “de nada”. They continue talking about helicopters, the properties they own on which they can land their birds, and sundry other topics.

So as the evening winds down, Gates has a brainstorm. He tells Slim, “You know, my ranch in Imperial County has a helipad … you ought to come back with us tonight, on my copter, and stay at our ranch for a few nights. Beautiful country out there.”

Slim is in the mood for sponteneity, so he accepts Gates’ offer to leave Playas de Rosarito that night, fly back with Gates, and visit the Imperial County ranch.

So what we have here is a Mexican national leaving Mexico from his own private property and landing in the United States on someone else’s private property. Further, the helicopter would be readily identifiable as one Gates’ personal aircraft, and presumably wouldn’t cause any alarm to any air traffic officials, nearby military, or the like.

Thing is, if Slim takes Gates up on the offer, he ends up crossing into the U.S. without any kind of documentation. Slim won’t have to go to an airport, and he won’t have to go through ground-based Border Patrol. I’ll assume that a law is broken here.

The GQ is: given the scenario above, is there any point during or after Gates’ helicopter’s flight (from Playas de Rosarito to the Imperial County) that Gates and Slim risk getting into trouble? Slim certainly wouldn’t be detained or checked for papers on his own property in Mexico, so the take-off should be uneventful. And presumably, as Gates’ chopper lands on Gates’ private property, a two miles away from the nearest public land, there wouldn’t be INS agents staking out the Imperial County ranch waiting to see who gets off the helicopter. Gates’ helicopter comes and goes often enough that the locals pay it no mind.

I was going to post a similar question about American financier and casino owner Carl Icahn, and whether he could fly gambling buddies back from Monte Carlo on his own private plane if he were able to take off from a private airstip in Europe and land on an airstrip on his own property in the U.S. Then it occured to me that there may be no such thing as a private airstrip as the scenario requires – so perhaps the helicopter-based scenario makes more sense.

I was under the impression that border-crossing aircraft need to land on the other side of the border and contact customs. I recall that there was an incident a while back with a Canadian private plane that took off from Ontario and flew south and didn’t contact US authorities - it turns out that the pilot was suicidal and was hoping to be shot down by the US Air Force, so he must have thought that he would have been noticed.

You actually have three issues here:
[li]Can someone with extraordinary, if not excessive, means enter this country undocumented? Yes. Done all the time by many with considerably less means.[/li][li]Would someone with extraordinary, if not excessive, means enter this country undocumented, thanks to the assistance someone of extraordinary, if not excessive, means who is legally here? Yes.[/li][li]Would someone with extraordinary, if not excessive, means in this country provide safe harbor to someone of extraordinary, if not excessive, means who desires to enter this country undocumented? Depends upon their status in the country and their own potential loss if caught.[/li][/ul]
In your example with Gates in his private helicopter, unless authorities were tipped off before the fact, or the travel raised suspicions as a normal course of action by authorities, probably not.

There are plenty of private airstrips in the United States. The aviation record setter Steve Fossett on his fatal flight, took off from the one at the Flying-M Ranch

The relevant Federal Regulation is probably going to be 19 CFR 122.23, Private aircraft arriving from areas south of the U.S… Interestingly, it’s in a section dealing with customs duties. The relevant quote:

You can get an exemption from this requirement; the subsequent sections in 122 provide examples of how to go about getting one (air ambulances are an example listed in the reg.)

I don’t know about Yes on this.

It would be real easy for someone that rich to just make a phone call to Customs, and get approval (an exemption, probably) for not stopping their helicopter, but landing directly at the private helipad. Possibly Customs would send someone there to inspect the aircraft (especially if they were curious to see Gates’ private ranch).

That states private craft must pre-announce their intention to land in the country but doesn’t seem to say anything about providing a passenger manifest.

The DHS final rule (PDF) for Advance Information on Private Aircraft Arriving and Departing the United States is probably the pertinent regulation:

By concealing a passenger from the manifest the pilot might be able to sneak Mr. Slim into the country unbeknownst to US Customs but they would be risking criminal penalties for doing so, just like someone who sneaked undocumented passengers into the country in a truck or boat or any other means.

But the OP specifies Mexico and Carlos Slim so actually the premise of the OP is a bit flawed. There would be no need to ‘sneak’ Carlos Slim into the US. He owns property and businesses in the US and probably has or could obtain at any time through his corporations a travel visa based just on that. Beyond that, all the regular folks can still get a tourist visa mid-air with minimal paperwork for travel between Canada, the US, and Mexico. So while he could be sneaked into the country if the pilot were willing to risk federal prosecution he could also just fill out a tiny 5 line request for a tourist visa while the flight is already in the air.

Did Bill Gates call Mexican customs when he originally landed at Slim’s helipad?

I figured Slim had the pull in Mexico to render that unnecessary.

I guess the golfer’s-visa thread was mostly about a different kind of visa … but the implication of that thread was that there was no such thing as a “right now” visa. But then you posted this:

Didn’t know that.

I didn’t read the thread but I seem to remember the golfer was from the UK. Canada, Mexico, and the US specifically have a very informal process as long as the person has valid ID from one of the 3 countries.

So based on Crazyhorse’s info … I guess the Carl Icahn scenario get more to the heart of the question.

So Icahn’s jet took off from a private airstrip in the French countryside. It’s crossing the Atlantic, and headed back to U.S. airspace, with his no-visa European gambling buddies. Icahn plans to land on an airstrip in upstate NY, on spacious farmland that he owns. Icahn’s pilot is supposed to radio U.S. Customs at some point? Any need to read off the passenger manifest to Customs?

Suppose a slightly different scenario. Gates and Slim have decided to go yacht racing for the day. Gates sails his yacht out of Long Beach, Cal, USA and Slim sails his out of Ensenada, BCS, Mexico. They have a good old time racing laps around San Clemente Island and then have a post-race party on Bill’s yacht.

A few hours later, they’ve had a few beers and are feeling pretty mellow and they decide to call it a day. But Carlos doesn’t feel like traveling back over to his yacht. Bill says, “No problemo, Carlos, we got a spare room on board and you can just come back to Long Beach with me.” So Slim sends his yacht back to Ensenada and travels back to Long Beach in Gates’ yacht.

Is there a point where anyone checks a boat that’s never officially left the United States to see if it picked up any passengers at sea?

Just a note - there are, indeed, private airstrips in the US. I’ve even used a few (with permission of the owner, and not for sneaking anyone into the US, let’s just be clear on that).

Whether there are in other countries depends on local regulations.

I’m a flight instructor.

Most of the contiguous U.S. is covered by radar, and the Air Defense Initiation Zone (ADIZ) is monitored carefully. The ADIZ extends some miles off the coast, and any aircraft crossing it needs to have filed a flight plan.

I don’t know the capabilities of our radar in detail. But if I were trying to sneak into the country undetected, I would have no confidence of doing so even if I turned off the transponder and flew really low. Seems to me there are two likelihoods:

  1. Air Traffic Control (ATC) would pick you up as a “primary target”, meaning they’d get the raw bounce of a radar signal off the aircraft’s body without the accompanying transponder code. If they caught you crossing the ADIZ you can bet they’d scramble some sort of military aircraft to check you out. Failing that, they’d try to track you to a point of landing and send law enforcement there.

  2. Suppose you did fly low enough to evade radar detection. That would be damn low and that in itself would be noticed.

I suppose it’s possible to get away with it, but knowing what I know about the system I sure wouldn’t try it.

The golfer needed a work visa, not a tourist visa, in order to participate in the professional tournament. The process for obtaining a work visa is more complicated.

No need for that. Icahn’s plane is not trying to come in undetected – he’s trying to bring in undocumented European travelers. Take off from private property in France: no customs, no passports. Land on private property in upstate NY: no customs, no passports.

Obviously, there are laws on the books against these undocumented travelers – but how would the enforcement be carried out? And at what stage?

Further: I was thinking that since it was a famous multi-billionaire’s private plane, it wouldn’t get unusual scrutiny. ATC would pick it up as “Carl Icahn’s plane” and summarily regard it as innocuous. Maybe he places a formality radio call to Customs at some point. But nothing is ventured about who, exactly, is on the plane.

There still has to be some sort of ruse here because if you’re not coming in undetected, you will have filed a flight plan. They won’t accept an international flight plan with a point of landing someplace that doesn’t have customs, private or not.

So you’re left with the choice of crossing the ADIZ with a flight plan to an airport with customs, and then attempting to divert to a private airstrip before you can be caught. Again, I wouldn’t want to try it. If you attempted this at one of the private strips by me, I’m guessing local law enforcement would turn up rather quickly, having been alerted by ATC. I’ve actually seen this happen when the surrounding airspace was restricted because of presidential movement.

Does not happen, except maybe for Air Force One in an emergency.

A flight plan is filed including a passenger manifest. That manifest is probably now checked against terrorist watch lists, but in this scenario I assume it’s falsified.

The aircraft is then assigned a transponder code which must be broadcast when crossing the ADIZ, and it doesn’t matter which multi-billionaire is on board. Tough to bribe an air traffic controller in flight.
Edit: Also, if you’re proposing an Atlantic crossing with more than a couple of passengers we’re probably talking about a larger aircraft which needs a fair bit of runway. Most private airstrips aren’t that big. Although there might be a few that could fit the bill, they’d be few and far between. The biggest private strip I’ve ever landed at was 4000’, and in a treacherous valley. I wouldn’t want to try landing anything bigger than a Navajo there, and even that would have my full attention.

I’m talking the answer so far as. Yes someone could be brought into the US illegally on a private plane. Which isn’t much of a surprise considering they could also do so carried by a pair of sneakers.

We have multiple laws in place that you would be violating by bringing someone into the US undocumented.

If the government had reason to suspect you were doing something illegal or if they want to do so randomly they know where your landing before you get there and are allowed to check who and what came in on your plane from a foreign country.

This is yet another example of how complex the issue of ‘securing borders’ is. To completely secure borders and prevent things like Bill Gates from sneaking in his buddy, you’d need a massively larger government and bureaucracy to be available to show up every time a private plane comes into the country or every row boat that goes out to sea.

We’re better off dealing with Carlos Slim if we find him here violating our laws then trying to search every boat, plane or box he might sneak in on.