On The Media producer Sarah Abdurrahmanlearned the dark side of U.S. Customs and Border Control (CBP) when her family and two other cars full of Muslim-Americans were
detained at length for no apparent reason other than their religion.
Officials at Niagara Falls allegedly harassed and searched Abdurrahman and her family, kept them in an uncomfortably cold room, and refused even basic information about their situation. Two other families driving home from the same wedding in Toronto reported similar treatment.
In a segment for On The Media, Abdurrahman characterised the treatment from CBP as “dehumanizing.”
“It was freezing. I felt like I had goose bumps the whole time I was there,” Abdulla Darrat, Abdurrahman’s husband told On The Media, of the room they were held in. “Everybody was like putting their arms in their shirt, and there’s points where my teeth were chattering.”
The families held at the Detroit border were allegedly told by CBP to leave their phones in the car but that they would not be searched. Shortly thereafter, the officers allegedly demanded that they unlock them so that they could search their contents.
According to The New York Times, the Department of Homeland Security only searches through 15 electronic devices and mobile phones out of the nearly 1 million people screened daily. If that’s the case, as Abdurrahman points out, then CBP must have used up their entire daily quota on the three families returning from the Muslim wedding that Abdurrahman describes.
Once in questioning, Darrat noted that the interrogation by Homeland Security officers centered quickly around his religion.
According to the ACLU, it is illegal for law enforcement officers to perform searches or detentions “based solely on your race, national origin, religion, sex or ethnicity.”
Munia Jabbar, an attorney at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told On the Media, that Darrat’s case isn’t unique.
“We’ve noticed a pattern of CBP agents asking Muslim travellers really invasive and personal questions about their protected religious activity,” Jabbar said.
Questioning is one thing, but what many of the families experienced was far beyond that. After about five and half hours in detainment, one of the detained men, Khaled Ahmed, was put into handcuffs, taken from his family and put into a jail cell. The officers did not inform either Ahmed or his family why he was being taken.
The rest of the family was soon released but CBP refused to tell them where Ahmed was. Eventually, they told the family that another “agency” was coming to pick Ahmed up. The agency ended up being the Michigan State Police, picking up Ahmed for an unpaid ticket for a crooked licence plate (i.e. not screwed on right) from 2006.
After the ordeal, Abdurrahman contacted CBP and the Department of Homeland Security but received few answers and little help for recourse.
The CBP has rapidly expanded over the last six years under little oversight. According to a report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, the CBP workforce has expanded from 30,082 in 2006 to 43,184 in 2012.
CBP and other Homeland Security officers are allowed to conduct stops and searches with no probable cause or arrest warrants at the border, under what is known as the “border search exception.” The exception, according to Yule Kim of the Congressional Research Service, allows for “routine searches.” Kim defines “routine searches” as “a search that does not pose a serious invasion of privacy or offend the average traveller.” However, once you start holding citizens for prolonged detentions and strip searches, it falls under “non-routine searches.” For that, the officer needs a particular and objective basis for suspecting that person of illegal activity.
If Abdurrahman’s case counts as a non-routine search, it’s not clear what reason the CBP could provide for suspected wrongdoing.
Here’s the entire report from Abdurrahman:
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