A Judge Just Reminded CBP That the Border Isn’t a Rights-Free Zone

An American family that underwent a harrowing detention at the hands of U.S. Customs and Border Protection can now seek some measure of justice. That’s the result of a recent ruling by the federal judge presiding over the lawsuit we filed on behalf of Abdisalam Wilwal, Sagal Abdigani, and their four young children after a brutal experience at the U.S.-Canada border.

The Wilwal-Abdigani family was on the way home to the Minneapolis area from a trip to visit relatives in Canada when they pulled up to the border station at Portal, North Dakota. Shortly after they handed over their passports and birth certificates, CBP officers swarmed the family’s minivan with guns drawn, forced the father out of the car, and handcuffed him.

The officers held Abdisalam captive in the station for nearly 11 hours — handcuffed for the entire time. At one point during the detention, he passed out from lack of food or water, requiring medical attention. The officers held the rest of the family in the station for the same period of time, prompting Sagal to use her son’s phone to try to call 911 and report that she and her family were being held against their will at the border. The entire family was terrified, bewildered, and humiliated.

The CBP officers treated the family this way not because they believed that anyone in the family was violating the law or attempting to bring in contraband but because Abdisalam’s name appeared on a terrorism-related watchlist. He doesn’t know why he has been watchlisted, and the government refuses to tell him.

The government asked the court to dismiss the family’s lawsuit, arguing that the CBP officers’ actions were justified simply because the incident occurred at the border. The court rejected that argument.

This ruling is significant because the court reaffirmed what should be obvious: The Constitution protects us at the border. CBP officers frequently tell travelers, including U.S. citizens, that they don’t have rights at the border. They’re wrong. CBP officers can stop people at the border and conduct routine searches of their belongings, but they can’t use unreasonable force or hold people longer than necessary to complete the searches.

Judge Donovan W. Frank upheld that basic principle, writing that the “allegations — in particular, that CBP agents approached Plaintiffs’ van with their guns drawn and ordered Mr. Wilwal out of the van, handcuffed Mr. Wilwal in front of his crying children, and subsequently detained the entire family for nearly 11 hours — could lead a reasonable factfinder to determine that Plaintiffs’ detention was unreasonable.”

Learn more about the case

The ruling also helps shine a light on the role of the watchlisting system in border detentions. Placement on a watchlist — or what should really be called a blacklist — can have a range of serious consequences, including the kind of abusive treatment that the Wilwal-Abdigani family experienced. To make matters worse, the watchlisting system is a due process nightmare. The government uses vague criteria and an extremely low threshold to blacklist people indefinitely, without giving them any notice of the reasons why or a meaningful opportunity to respond to those reasons and clear their names.

In this case, the court recognized that we don’t forfeit our due process rights at the border. Abdisalam can now pursue his legal claims to force the government to tell him why it put him and his family through this ordeal — and prevent the government from ignoring the Constitution again in the future.

View comments (33)
Read the Terms of Use


Anonymous 1 , are an Immigration Lawyer?. If so good we need you , if not ....shut your mouth!

Dr. Timothy Leary

Nothing new here, there are all kinds of people on international travel watch lists. Model Jerry Hall was on an international travel watch list as "an associate of The Rolling Stones". If you are a Muslim with a funny name you should be prepared to be hassled at a border.


That is a disgusting attitude to hold and you’re part of the problem if you think that’s acceptable. Instead of telling people with Muslim names to “just deal with it”, how about you tell your government not to hire xenophobic, power hungry, bitter assholes who couldn’t pass the police exams as CBP officers instead?

Dr. Timothy Leary

"xenophobic, power hungry, bitter assholes who couldn’t pass the police exams" It takes one to know one Mr. Anonymous.


Dr. Timothy Leary, aren't you so happy you weren't born Muslim with a "funny name"? You should always keep this in mind that what goes around comes around, it is simply the nature of things that you should be able to realize if you had an adequate knowledge of human history. It is our attitude towards this, probably the only thing that can change this for the better for all of us humans. Those who use their so called privileged birth rights justifying the detriment of others deserve the same in return. Just imagine you were born a Muslim and because of your funny name and different lifestyle you are singled out by the government that makes your entire life a living nightmare. According to your name which in the name of intelligence I doubt is factual, however it was your mostly arrogant and mind you, very stupid choice to use it, after reading your mainly unintelligent and ignorant comments while you are supposed to be a Doctor, you should be able to look at this with a balanced attitude and not with a highly biased one.


The CBP officers were in the right. They were simply responding, appropriately, to a terrorist lookout placed by another federal agency. The liberal judge who made this decision will be quickly and firmly overruled. (And the investigation into the family’s terrorism ties will continue.)


Under Communism and Fascism the goal was essentially the same. It was to keep and maintain a well controlled society under obvious oppression. I personally lived under communism thus I know how it was and how far a society can be pushed down. What is happening in the United States is very similar except with the help of modern technology and the acquired practical experiences in mass control today the oppression is cleverly disguised while the people who think they live in a democracy and freedom are masterfully divided and kept on short leash.
Although what the elite does is ultimately evil and very selfish it is undoubtedly ingenious what they are pulling off on the people and they are doing this masterfully and my hat is off to them!


To JAGTampa, get bent fascist. America has no place for you.

To the other reply, you never lived under communism because communism is a form of economics not government, and state owned commerce is explicitly NOT communism.


CBP needs to be held responsible... NO ONE is above the law...


Happy for this ruling. We have to correct the "mob" mentality of law enforcement.


Stay Informed