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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Anonymous

Is it not unreasonable for CBP agents to question travelers? Try going into Canada, they are fierce, and intimidating.

Crissa

Is it reasonable for them to pull people aside for no cause? Is it reasonable for them to ask questions which do not, in fact, have to do with the border crossing? Is it reasonable for them to challenge the patriotism of border crosers?

The answer is no, no, and definitely not.

Anonymous

I actually laughed out loud at "fierce and intimidating" re Canadian border guards. Though when US citizens try to cross into Canada with their weapons and are confronted by different laws, well, yes, I do hope the guards are fierce.

A

Thanks, I needed a laugh. Just returned from Canada yesterday and my husband and I were not exactly surprised by our crossing to and from.

Entering Canada was a completely reasonable and fairly laid-back experience. It included standard rows of cars moving steadily through the gates and one agent with a friendly and professional demeanor asking routine questions.

Coming back to the US? About 15 cameras pointing at each car in line, god only know what kinds of scanners that were certainly used to inspect its contents without our consent, and then an agent on a power-trip asking us all kinds of invasive questions, the last of which was directed at my husband and not me: "Shouldn't you be at work?" Give me entry into Canada any time.

Debra

America is lucky to have you, Hina!

Kelly Daggett

Please call your Congressional Representatives. They need to hear your story. Impeach Trump.

Janet Davis

I already donate monthly to the ACLU. I'm going to increase the amount.

Anonymous

I donated to ACLU for the first time this year, then next day i heard that ACLU got more than 6 times the yearly-donations over one week. Time to strengthen this great Institution (ACLU). And in proud american tradition... as Supreme court said "Money is speech". Let's show our speech of liberty thru Money-speech.

Khalil Spencer

That is a chilling story. Glad you are OK and its sad that the day before you became a US citizen, you got to see the seedy underbelly of the nation.

Donna L

I can't help but wonder if there was any direction from the WH to question people this way and this aggressively? A smoking gun.

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