I May Have to Quit Harvard Because the TSA Won’t Stop Searching Me

This piece was originally published by The Washington Post in August.

I realized my life had entered a new phase while crossing into the United States from Canada in September 2016.

“You both have to come inside,” the border officer said to my husband and me. “Inside” was an empty and cold warehouse with rows of wooden benches. They confiscated our keys and phones, and when I asked for my baby’s diaper bag from our rental car, they escorted my husband as they spoke into their radios: “Suspect is approaching car.”

I had already been detained on the same trip from my home in Orlando, including during a layover in Los Angeles that caused us to miss our flight to Portland, Ore. I had rationalized those stops: They’re just doing their job; maybe it’s a random search like they said.

But this time, they kept us overnight. As the hours passed in that warehouse, my 6-month-old baby howled and shivered. After we left, we went straight to the airport, only to endure extra screenings again on the return trip.

I started researching the Transportation Security Administration’s “secondary security screening selection” process to understand why I was being stopped every time I got on a plane or came back home to the United States after a foreign trip. Nearly two years later, I am still being stopped and searched, and I still don’t know why.

I’m a graduate student at Harvard University, and missed flights and travel anxiety were beginning to affect my schoolwork. So with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, I have filed a formal complaint with the Department of Homeland Security asking that I be allowed to travel freely, which is my constitutional right.

Am I being stopped because I am Muslim, or because my family once traveled to Iran to visit a holy shrine? Is it because of my criticism of U.S. policies on the multimedia website I run to raise awareness about injustices around the world? Maybe it’s all three. Federal officers have asked me about my writing and religion, both of which are protected by the First Amendment.

I’ve tried using DHS’s “redress” process. I’ve applied to TSA’s PreCheck program and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry program. And I’ve written to members of Congress. All my efforts have failed.

In response to my redress inquiry, DHS sent me a frustratingly unhelpful letter: “[We] can neither confirm nor deny any information about you which may be within federal watchlists or reveal any law enforcement sensitive information. However, we have made any corrections to records that our inquiries determined were necessary.”

It added: “We cannot ensure your travel will be delay-free.”

Now I have a routine every time I travel: Arrive at the airport more than three hours early. Explain to the airline agents at the help desk that they must call Washington to clear me for travel — a process that can take an hour. Try to be patient when TSA officers escort me from the boarding area to the gate for a private security check. Allow them to rummage through my things and grit my teeth as they pat me down multiple times. Don’t bother telling them about parts of my body that are sensitive from surgery, since they’ll be rough regardless. Run to the boarding area and don’t make a scene as they pat me down again, trying not to feel embarrassed as other passengers watch. Stay as brave as possible.

And above all, be prepared for something new. Once, they brought the explosives unit — several armed men — because of sticker residue on the back of my computer. Another time, they brought a team of dogs to search me. Once, they took my crying 2-year-old through the screening process by himself because he clung to my husband during a pat-down search. Recently, they took me to a private room and forced me to open my pants and show them my underwear. They hid their badges when I asked for their names.

My husband and I bonded over our love for travel when we got married, but now our adventures have been greatly diminished. What once was a dream to take our children around the United States and abroad has been reduced to short car trips. I’ve contemplated many times giving up my studies at Harvard because of the anxiety and humiliation that come with the inevitable harassment on my flights to and from Boston.

America is my home. It’s where I was raised, got married, had my children and built a life. Its greatest qualities of freedom, liberty and opportunity have undoubtedly shaped the person I am today. But these values are slowly diminishing, and those liberties are being taken away from us little by little. I fear one day we will be unable to recognize it as the place we called home.

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Anonymous

Only one inaccuracy in this: "these values are slowly diminishing." No, they are rapidly diminishing. And when a person can suffer repeatedly for religion and speech, they are indeed gone.

Anonymous

While I understand how frustrating your situation is, i'm confused why you need to quite Harvard? You are a US citizen, and Harvard is on US soil, so I'm not sure how they relate.

Anonymous

Because it happens on both domestic and international flights, they live in FL.

Anonymous

I'm sorry that you are being treated unfairly. Although you shouldn't have to find a work around, in order for you to achieve your goals you probably should. For example, driving might e faster, taking a train might be faster. Basically if I were you, I would stop flying, and find someone to video the TSA agents who take you to a room, and start filing individual civil suits against them. Again, I'm very sorry this is happening to you. It could just as easily be happening to my family, and I'm glad you are fight int.

Anonymous

Ronald Reagan signed a legally-binding international treaty against torture and cruel treatment - which the United States agreed to. If incremental torture, like Chinese Water Torture, is torture, then this lady has endured worse torture. If Reagan's DOJ would have criminally indicted TSA agency management, why won't Trump's DOJ police this unconstitutional program?

Anonymous

Poor baby. I was born and raised in the US and go through the same thing, (along with my four year old daughter), with the TSA when traveling. Welcome to the new world radical islam crated.

Anonymous

It's the new world that fearmongering over radical islam created, not radical islam itself

Patricia LaRue

Protocol. Another word for laziness of heart, humanity and intelligence. You're every bit as much an American as I am and I hate that this country has stooped to this idiocy.

Andrea

So very sorry you are subjected to this type of treatment.

Anonymous

Before 9/11 the term "Person of Interest" was rarely used. The unconstitutional term "Person of Interest" is a much lower standard of evidence than the constitutional term "suspect". The term "suspect" means "doubt" - not certainty - one is suspected of doing something. "Person of Interest" means "More Doubt than a Suspect". It means that an actual "past" crime occurred and there is "individualized evidence" pointing to a particular person - the Bill of Rights protects "individual" constitutional rights. It is illegal to use "guilt-by-association" tarnish an entire religion. If this were legal, after Oklahoma City, all Christians or all Protestants, would have received the same treatment as this lady. The term "Preemption Doctrine" is about as unAmerican as it gets. We fought the American Revolutionary War to counter "preemptive" tactics by the Red Coats. It's outrageous that a TSA agent referred to an airline passenger as a "suspect" as though there was a past crime and individualized evidence pointing to this lady - outrageous!

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