Blog of Rights

End Invasive Religious Questioning at the Border

By Suzanne Ito, ACLU at 4:41pm

Do you prefer Fox News or Al-Jazeera?
Do you attend mosque? Why? How often? What mosque?
Are you Shi'a or Sunni?
How do you feel about the U.S. occupation in Iraq?

These questions — and many others similar to it — are the kinds of invasive questions many travelers are asked by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers as they cross U.S. borders. But given the nature of these questions, it won't surprise you that the only people being queried are Muslim, or are perceived to be Muslim.

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 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.

Now, the government certainly has a legitimate interest in verifying the identity and citizenship or legal status of people who are entering 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.

Today, the ACLU and Muslim Advocates sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner requesting an investigation into this troubling practice. We also filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection for information and 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.

Over the next few days, we'll run the profiles of a few of the people we are representing in our FOIA request and letter.

Questioning individuals about their protected religious and political beliefs, associations, and religious practices when there is no reasonable suspicion, based on credible evidence, that the person is engaged in criminal activity infringes upon rights guaranteed by the Constitution and federal law — rights that are not surrendered at the border.

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