Flying Home From Abroad, a Border Agent Stopped and Questioned Me … About My Work for the ACLU

Last week, I was flying home from a work trip and faced Customs and Border Protection questioning unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in over 25 years of travel into and out of this country, including more than 10 years of travel for my work as an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union and other rights groups.

Compared to the hardship and suffering of the tens of thousands of people impacted by President Trump’s Muslim ban executive order, it was nothing. But it said something personal to me about the tenor of these dark times.

I was coming back from the island nation of Dominica, where I had gone for meetings and depositions in our torture victim clients’ lawsuit against the two psychologists behind the CIA torture program. When I went through immigration while in transit at the airport in Puerto Rico, it seems like an immediate red flag went up. A CBP officer took me to a separate area, behind the luggage carousels.

The CBP questioning didn’t seem to have anything to do with the torture case. Instead, it focused on my work for the ACLU and my citizenship — Pakistani — although I’ve been a legal permanent resident of the United States for more than a decade.

What was I doing in Dominica? I explained that I am a lawyer working for the American Civil Liberties Union and traveled there for a case. Why, asked the CBP agent holding my Pakistani passport, would someone working for an organization with “American” in its name have “this” passport? And why would someone working for an organization with “American” in its name be representing people who are not citizens? (Perhaps the agent had not heard about ACLU lawsuits challenging the Muslim ban on behalf of noncitizens.)

But no government agent ever asked the chilling question I was asked this time: Do you understand why someone might have a different perspective about you?

I explained that I am a U.S.-trained lawyer, sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution, which is what I work to do. Still, he pressed. Why would someone working for this organization with “American” in its name and a focus on the Constitution travel abroad so much? I explained that in addition to client work, I travel for conferences, talks, and meetings, including at the United Nations in Geneva.

The agent pressed. Did my meetings and talks abroad focus on U.S. law or the law of other countries? Not understanding what any of this had to do with my ability to return home, I found myself explaining that in addition to the Constitution, the United States is bound by international treaties. I explained that there are fundamental human rights that belong to everyone and apply in all countries in the world, including the United States, and that my work covers both.

The questioning continued and was extensive. It included not just travel, but my schooling and other jobs over the years. I know — and have represented — numerous people who were unjustifiably questioned by CBP based on their religion or studies or travel. Perhaps it’s remarkable that this never happened to me, but it hasn’t.

It didn’t happen during the Bush years when I traveled to meet with and represent Afghan and Iraqi survivors of U.S. military torture, to Guantanamo as an observer at the military commissions there, or to attend meetings and give talks abroad about U.S. human rights abuses in the national security context. It didn’t happen during the Obama years when my work included challenges to unlawful targeted killing, anti-Muslim discrimination, unfair watchlisting, illegal spying, and other U.S. government abuses at home and abroad.

Over all those years, government officials made their views known about this work — often in opposition, sometimes in support. But no government agent ever asked the chilling question I was asked this time: Do you understand why someone might have a different perspective about you?

Nor has any government official ever asked, as the CBP agent did: Why have you been a legal permanent resident for years without becoming a citizen? After all, there is no requirement to seek naturalization or not.

Still, I explained to the CBP agent that, in fact, my naturalization ceremony was scheduled for the next day. A short time later, he allowed me to leave, and I was able to fly home. The whole way back, I was consumed anew with thoughts about what “America” means, the vulnerability of those less privileged than I am, and the struggle in which we’re all engaged right now for this country’s values and democratic institutions.

The following morning, before my naturalization ceremony, I reread Langston Hughes’ fierce poem of lament and love for this country, “Let America Be America Again.” It’s a poem to which I’ve often turned over the years, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Then I went to the federal courthouse in New York where my colleagues and I have argued so many cases seeking to uphold and apply the Constitution for American citizens and noncitizens alike. At that courthouse, I took the oath to support and defend the Constitution and laws of this country against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

I’d planned to take the rest of the day off to celebrate, but that afternoon, I went back to work. To quote Langston Hughes:

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

 

 

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I. Michael Kadish

And to your wise words from Langston Hughes, I add these, which explain why we all have to speak out:

"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."

Martin Niemöller, a prominent Protestant pastor who opposed the Nazi regime. He spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. Germany, 1937.

Keep doing the great and important work you do.

Anonymous

Estoppel.

Anonymous

Just read Hina Shamsi article it was disgusting what she was forced to go thru by CBP instead of protecting us they have become THUGS on a par with the Gestapo & to not obey The Judges orders they all need to be FIRED they aren't above the LAW & neither is the Jerk they answer too at 1600 Pennsylvania this is so wrong on so many levels this breaks my HEART what's happening to my America !!

Prof. Dr. Dipl....

I have recently supported ACLU at the max my current financial situation allows. However, I denounce this story as an example of how ACLU often goes too far, not balancing the facts.
The ACLU employee, Hina Shamsi, published an article taking great offence at the boarder agent’s question: “Do you understand why someone might have a different perspective about you?” I thank the border patrol for formulating his/her opinion so politely. In case Hina has not noticed, everyone is entitled to an opinion and may express it politely.
As seismology professor, I have often returned from developing countries in decades past. I was frequently taken aside and searched for drugs. Clearly the border patrol had a profile that helped them increasing their success rate. Once, I was ordered to strip and bend over for an examination of my bodily cavity. Naturally, I did not like this, but understood it as part of dealing with the drug problem, that is, protecting me, the innocent citizen.
Clearly Ms Hina fit a profile that helps border guards ientifying potentially dangerous persons. It is unquestionably the interrogator’s job to ask all questions that might elucidate the case about the person seeking entrance, including what work she is doing, or possibly pretending to do (in the view of a suspicious police person).
So, I thank the border guard for having asked all these questions, for having been polite, and for having let go Ms Hina, once all was cleared.
In addition, I would like to remind Ms Hina that I have not donated to the ACLU for her to make a federal case out of nothing. Instead I wish that the ACLU concentrate on real problems, which are plenty.

James Nameika

Anonymous = assh0&$ = coward = nazi = trump lover = evil

Tom

Was the agent asking these questions from a personal perspective? Or was he creating some sort of official record? Is it possible he was trying to gain a personal understanding of what you do? He may just of lacked good interpersonal skills. These are tense times and we all should give others a little more latitude.

Anonymous

I'll bet you are one of those who sees israel as the aggressor. Palestinians as innocent victims.
Get a life. It's Muslim idealogy that we are fighting!

Anonymous

Did a list of names accompany Trump's "travel ban?"

Anonymous

Thanks very much for your speech tonight (3/19) at NMUN. Your work is inspiring to those of us who strive to find that better America, somewhere amongst the gashes that these sorts of experiences may create in her.

Zain Jeewanjee

Reality is what it is, the world is taking a new "shape" I recommend everyone to get Global Entry https://www.cbp.gov/travel/trusted-traveler-programs/global-entry/how-apply

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