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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Tom Gruver

In all honestly I believe that Liz Warren would die from shame if she were forced to say she was a Repuklican. This ladycares more about the working and poor people of not just the US than all the repukes combined. While you are still crying about Hillary’s emails and BENGHAZI!!!!! She is doing to save America from the Orange Asshole in the White House.

Crazy Citizen

Residents and US Citizens can be searched at the border for the time it takes to perform the search. If anything is found, charge them with a crime and detain.
If nothing is found, let them go. It isn't like the police can't pick them up at their house tomorrow.
This family has been in the USA 24 yrs!
Not everyone chooses to become a citizen, which is fine. That doesn't mean they have anything wrong. There are plenty of nice places in the world and while the USA can be nice, it isn't the end-all-be-all of great places to raise a family.
If they AREN'T permanent residents, then there is more of a need to detain over suspicions. Keeping someone handcuffed 11 hrs seem cruel. Not checking on them hourly in that state is also a bad situation.
Sure, people need to do their job, but they can show a little humanity too, especially AFTER the search when there isn't much risk.

Tourist from th...

Portal North Dakota, what a lovely place! This is the place whose agents ask questions such as "Why were you taken into custody?", "Why were you denied entry?", or asking me in the company of my fiancee "Why aren't you married?". Our news reports in Canada now indicate that they're asking "Have you ever smoked marijuana?" and barring entry for life no matter how answered. If I were to live down there again I'd feel bullied by these overzealous thugs to the point of post traumatic stress, as I feel bullied by them enough living far away from the border.
I used to love going there on vacations as a kid, and loved having "The best of both worlds" as an adult living very near the border for so many years. I was actually under the impression that the Canada/US border would function as do any interprovincial/interstate borders. Then 9-11 happened! One of my last times in nearby US I was stopped and grilled by a "Border Patrol Checkpoint". After finding out more about these "Checkpoints" though visual social media and this website I am now firmly of the mindset to remain in Canada and still enjoy travelling to other parts of Canada through Canada, the UK, France, or Spain as I have in the years since I was stopped so abruptly. I have never been charged nor booked for any offence. Why should anyone have the right to rob another of their dignity as a matter of routine? It has not been 100 years since a regime's values led to atrocities beyond disgust. Let this not happen again!

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