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.

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Some of the comments here are rather disturbing. The court did nothing but uphold the constitution. The CBP officers may have been following the guidelines they were given and responding as they were trained, but departmental guidelines don't ever trump the constitution. What should happen now is a revision of the guidelines by the department to ensure that they comply with the ultimate law of the land as well as the retraining of staff at the borders, to ensure that they know the boundaries. Good governance also dictates that the practices and procedures surrounding watch-lists are reviewed and that the current sloppy behaviour and lazy shortcuts are avoided.


I agree with you, Udi. Unfortunately, the "what should happen now . . ." I feel won't.

Gabrielle D. Peak

This incident of holding the Wilwal-Abdigani family hostage for 11 hours by US Border Control is appalling, egregious & inhumane. I will read more about this case as it is so disturbing how fascist US Government has become in the last 2 years. I, for one, no longer wish to live in a country which doesn't follow its own Constitution !


Very well said! - I truly believe, especially supported by my historical knowledge, that we are witnessing the fall of the American Empire, but before its complete demise it will sink to a level a Fascism the world has never seen before unless some miracle happens and the good people wake up and fight for what left of their freedom and dignity. Presently, the US is falling politically and morally probably faster than a rock thrown into a black hole.


This is outrageous! I've traveled to and from Canada 4 times in the last few years. I've noticed that male CBP officials are officious, demanding answers to unclear questions. When I asked for clarification, one man just repeated the same question more loudly. I am a "woman of a certain age." I pose no threat, but I became fearful due to the tone of these agents. I found a female agent to be much more polite, but perhaps she was Canadian, on second thought.

Thomas Kowalski

This treatment is outrageous and totally unacceptable. I hope the Court System is more sympathetic and that the Officers involved are harshly reprimanded or even fined. My apologies to the family involved. In the USA we are all created equal and deserve to be treated appropriately. My insults to the system where this is allowed. I thought North Dakota had a more civilized population.


Too many mental midgets patrolling our borders. From ICE to DHS all the way up to AG and White House, they are abusing people. There are still THOUSANDS of kids separated from their parents for the non-crime of seeking asylum. This current administration is criminal and disgusting on every level. Only a depraved nazi could support this kind of cruelty and evil.


This happened to me , and am Mexican American


This will be overturned in an appeals court. You do not have constitutional rights at the border.


Yer a fascist, and as such you can go stuff yourself.


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