Posted by on October 25, 2013 in Blog

By Maha Sayed
Legal Fellow

There have been a number of reports about U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) subjecting American Muslim travelers to systematic and pervasive discrimination while attempting to reenter the U.S.

Most recently Sarah Abdurrahman, a producer for NPR’s “On the Media,” wrote about her and her family’s experience at the U.S.-Canadian border on Labor Day after returning from a wedding in Toronto. CBP agents reportedly questioned and detained Abdurrahman and her family, all of whom are U.S. citizens, for approximately six hours in an uncomfortably cold room without providing any reason for their prolonged detention. They confiscated the travelers’ phones and demanded that Abdurrahman’s husband, Abdulla Darrat, unlock his phone in order for CBP agents to search its contents. Darrat was asked about his religion, including whether he’s a practicing Muslim and where he worships.

The New York Times reported last month that Customs and Border Protection conducts approximately 15 electronic media searches out of nearly 1 million travelers screened daily. If that is in fact true, as Abdurrahman points out, CBP used up their entire daily quota on the three families returning from the Muslim wedding that Abdurrahman and her family attended. Reports of such unfettered and invasive electronic searches by CBP officers are especially troubling because electronic devices often store information and images that detail an individual’s most personal experiences, associations, and beliefs. These practices therefore seem to directly conflict with fundamental rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom from governmental intrusion into such private matters, and protects the right to free speech and religious exercise.

Similar to Abdurrahman’s alarming and dehumanizing experience, Wissam Charafeddine, a U.S. citizen and resident of Dearborn, Michigan, has said he is handcuffed and detained for several hours at the border in Detroit each time he returns from a trip to Canada. Although Charafeddine has no criminal history, CBP agents reportedly subject him to a body search and ask several invasive questions about his religious beliefs and practices each time he returns home. Many, Arab and Muslim American travelers claim they have experienced indefinite, incommunicado detention at screening facilities as well as invasive searches and interrogations, which include questioning of their religious and political beliefs, without any suspicion of criminal wrongdoing.

As a sovereign, the U.S. has legitimate interests in verifying the identity and legal status of those seeking to enter this country and in assessing national security threats at the border. However, the broad authority to conduct routine searches at the border should not be used to infringe upon fundamental constitutional rights and liberties. Even at the border, law enforcement officers may not stop, search, or detain individuals based solely on their race, national origin, religion, or ethnicity.

In response to such alarming reports of widespread and systematic targeting of Arab American and Muslim American travelers at U.S. borders, the Arab American Institute recently sent a letter to the CBP requesting clarification of its border search interrogation policies and practices. Additionally, because reports of invasive questioning and prolonged detentions have been so pervasive throughout the Arab American community, AAI has set up an online reporting form to document incidents of discrimination at U.S. borders. It is imperative that CBP policies and practices are held to the highest constitutional standards to ensure that Americans’ most cherished rights are not compromised even while performing critical law enforcement duties.

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