Invasive Questioning of US Citizens at the Border
Suzanne Ito, ACLU
Over the past several years, at ports, land border crossings, and international airports across the country, U.S. citizens and lawful residents who are Muslim, or who are perceived to be Muslim, have been targeted by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers for questioning about deeply personal beliefs, associations and religious practices protected by the First Amendment. On their way home to the U.S., these Americans have been asked about their religious identity, what mosques they attend, how often they pray, their religious charitable giving, and their views on U.S. military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some have had their electronic devices, such as laptops and cell phones, searched and data copied.
The U.S. government has a legitimate interest in verifying the identity and citizenship or legal status of individuals seeking to reenter the country. It also has an interest in ensuring that individuals who pose a threat to national security are detected and brought to justice.
But no legitimate government interest is served when CBP officers question a citizen or lawful resident about his or her religious or political beliefs, associations, or religious practices, or religious charitable giving when there is no reasonable suspicion, based on credible evidence, that the person has engaged in criminal activity. This practice harms our country's national security interests by wasting scarce government resources, generating false leads, and eroding the trust of these religious and racial/ethnic communities in law enforcement and government.
On December 16, 2010, the ACLU and Muslim Advocates sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner requesting an investigation into this troubling practice. The ACLU and Muslim Advocates also filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection for information records about whether and when government officials are permitted to ask citizens and legal residents about their protected beliefs, associations, and activities during border inspections.
Questioning individuals about their protected religious and political beliefs, associations, and religious practices (like charitable giving) may infringe upon rights guaranteed by the Constitution and federal law — rights that are not surrendered at the border.
Aun Hasan Ali is a U.S. citizen, a resident of Montreal, Canada, and a Muslim. He is a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal, works as a teaching fellow, and frequently travels to New Jersey to visit his family. On August 6, 2009, Mr. Ali sought to enter the United States from Canada with his wife and three-month-old daughter on a trip to visit his parents in New Jersey. After providing a CBP agent at the Champlain border crossing with his and his wife's U.S. passports and his daughter's birth certificate, Mr. Ali and his family were held for over an hour of questioning and searches by CBP. Three CBP officers questioned Mr. Ali and asked, "Do you go to the mosque?"; "Why?"; "How often?"; "What mosque?"; "Are you an Imam at the mosque?"; and "Are you Shi'a or Sunni?"
The August 2009 incident was not the first time that CBP officers subjected Mr. Ali to questioning about protected beliefs and practices. In April 2004, Mr. Ali returned to the United States from Yemen, where he was studying Arabic, in order to attend his sister's wedding. After arriving at Newark International Airport, he was pulled out of the passport control line by a CBP officer and taken to a room where he was questioned by three other CBP officers and asked, "Do you prefer Fox News or Al-Jazeera?" "How do you feel about the U.S. occupation in Iraq?" and "What are your attitudes regarding American policy in Israel?" He was held for questioning and searches by CBP for nearly three hours before being permitted to leave.
As a result of these experiences, Mr. Ali feels that he must watch what he says while he is in the United States. He is reluctant to have open and honest conversations about political or potentially controversial topics in the United States, in contrast to Canada, where he feels comfortable expressing his opinions about the government and foreign policy.
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