PROSPECT PARK, N.J. (US TODAY)– Muslim Americans say they’ve been singled out, detained and interrogated at airports – and elected officials are no exception.
Mohamed Khairullah, the longtime mayor of Prospect Park, said he was held for three hours at JFK International Airport in New York last month, questioned about whether he knew any terrorists and forced to hand over his phone.
“It was definitely a hurtful moment where I’m thinking in my mind that this is not the America that I know,” said Khairullah, a public school administrator. “I am very familiar with our laws and Constitution, and everything that was going on there was a violation.”
Some people have been stopped because their names are on a federal watchlist of “known and suspected terrorists.” Dozens of Americans have sued over the watchlist, saying their names were wrongly added and they had no meaningful way to challenge it. Last week, a federal judge in Virginia ruled that the watchlist is unconstitutional.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson, who declined to be identified, said he could not address any individual case because of the federal Privacy Act but said the agency “treats all international travelers with integrity, respect and professionalism while keeping the highest standards of security.”
'Stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs'
Khairullah, his wife and four children, ages 1, 2, 9 and 10, visited relatives in Turkey who are Syrians displaced by war. They visited a beach, historic sites around Istanbul and a mosque. Khairullah met with mayors of different towns to talk about government and business.
According to Khairullah, CBP officers who were at the gate Aug. 2 when Khairullah exited the plane told him they were doing a random stop. During the screening, he said, they asked him what he studied in college, where he works, his mother’s name, his nicknames and where he traveled.
Khairullah said they asked whether he'd visited any towns with terrorist cells and whether he personally met with any terrorists.
“It’s flat-out insulting,” he said. “It’s flat-out stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs.”
At the agents’ request, he said, he gave them access to his phone, which contained private emails and family photos, among other information. The phone was taken to another room. Khairullah said he called an attorney as he grew increasingly uncomfortable and said he no longer consented to the search of his phone.
Agents told him they’d have to keep the phone, Khairullah said. They held it for 12 days until a lawyer from the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations intervened and helped get it back.
Khairullah’s family fled persecution in Syria in 1980 and lived in Saudi Arabia before moving to the USA in 1991 when he was a teenager. Khairullah, 44, an education supervisor at Passaic County Technical Institute, does humanitarian work, having visited refugee camps in Syria and Turkey, as well as a Rohingya refugee camp, to raise money and awareness and deliver supplies.
Given his background, Khairullah said he feels a heightened sense of appreciation for freedoms in the USA, which led him to want to serve his community. A former volunteer firefighter, he was elected to the Prospect Park council in 2001 and has been mayor since 2006.
Should travelers hand over phones?
Ahmed Mohamed, litigation director at CAIR-New York, cautioned people about unlocking and handing over their electronic devices. He said authorities may download and copy the contents and share them with other federal agencies, such as the FBI. Agencies may see messages and mine information not only from the phone’s owner but also from their friends, family and associates.
"It’s your constitutional right as an American not to have to share information private to you," he said. "If you unlock your device, you are sharing everything you have on that device – every email, text message, WhatsApp message, every phone call ever made," he said.
If a traveler refuses to unlock a phone, the CBP can take the device and try to "jail break" the phone to get around the passcode.
Information from device searches has been used to recruit informants or revoke visas, Mohamed said.
Mohamed suggested travelers install the latest software updates and strongest security settings, which can delay authorities from unlocking electronic devices. Travelers can call CAIR to try to negotiate a phone's return, he said.
Citizens and returning green card holders can't be denied entry for refusing to enter their password but may be detained or have their device seized.
CAIR joined the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups in a lawsuit in 2017, arguing that search and seizure of electronic devices at the border without reasonable suspicion or a warrant is unconstitutional.
“CBP believes they can do what they want at the border, but even their own policies say there needs to be reasonable suspicion to do an intrusive search of the phone,” Mohamed said, referring to a 2018 directive on border searches of electronic devices.
According to the ACLU, CBP and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement allow officers to search devices for general law enforcement purposes, and that information can be shared with other government entities, including state, local and foreign law enforcement agencies.
The CBP spokesperson said all international travelers arriving in the USA are subject to inspection, and the agency is monitoring compliance with hundreds of U.S. laws.
If there is reasonable suspicion, officers can do an advanced search using equipment to review, copy or analyze contents of a device.
CBP did 33,295 searches of electronic devices in fiscal year 2018, up from 5,085 six years earlier, according to a court filing in April. The total number of confiscations in 2018 was 172.