This Woman’s Endless Ordeal Shows How the Watchlisting System Harms Innocent People

Zainab Merchant has a long and growing list of achievements. She is the Orlando-based founder and CEO of ZR Studios, a multimedia site about current affairs, politics, and culture. She is also a graduate student at Harvard University and mother to three young children.

But for the last two years, Zainab, who is a U.S. citizen, has been subjected to excessive and humiliating searches, questioning, and detention by federal officers every time she has traveled by air or reentered the United States from a trip abroad. This abusive treatment — most likely because she has been placed on a government watchlist — has affected her in profoundly negative ways, both psychologically and professionally. Yet the government refuses to tell her why it keeps happening or give her a meaningful chance to correct whatever error is causing it.

That’s why we’re filing a formal complaint on Zainab’s behalf with the Department of Homeland Security. You can read more about Zainab’s ordeal and the steps we’re taking to defend her rights here.

Zainab’s travel experiences follow a clear pattern. She is unable to obtain or print out her boarding passes before arriving at the airport, so she has to wait an hour or more at the ticket counter while airline employees call a number in Washington to see if they can clear her to fly. Transportation Security Administration screeners then run her through a gauntlet at security checkpoints — a process that can take another hour.

Instead of a quick turn in a scanning machine, she must undergo thorough pat-down searches, during which TSA screeners place their hands all over her body, including private or sensitive areas. They remove and inspect all of the contents of her bags, in full view of other travelers passing through the checkpoint. When she finally arrives at the gate, TSA officers are waiting for her there and require her to undergo additional pat-down searches — even though she cleared security only minutes earlier — in front of the passengers who will travel with her on the flight.

Zainab Merchant getting pat down by security at an airport

A TSA officer searches Zainab at the airport in Orlando. | Credit: Nadia Hallgren/ACLU

Reentering the country from abroad can be even worse. Zainab has had to wait six hours in the middle of the night in a cold customs inspection area with crying children and no access to food or phones. Despite First Amendment protections, she has been questioned about her religion or why she wrote a blog post criticizing U.S. Customs and Border Protection for racial and religious profiling — border officers even blatantly suggested that she refrain from criticizing CBP in the future. She has been subjected to unconstitutional searches of her laptop and smartphone, which included personal pictures of her without the headscarf she wears in public in accordance with her religious beliefs.

The toll this has taken on Zainab has been severe. She avoids flying if possible because of the anxiety and humiliation she experiences when she does fly. She and her husband also avoid flying with their children, in order to spare them the awful experience of watching their parents demeaned and stigmatized by government agents. Faced with the prospect of undergoing the same invasive, duplicative screening protocol every time she flies, Zainab decided not to enroll in courses at Harvard during the fall of 2017. Compounding all of this is the knowledge that she has done nothing wrong and doesn’t know why the government is treating her this way — but she can’t get anyone inside the government to put an end to it.

This pattern of harassment, intrusive searches, and detention during travel is likely the result of unfair blacklisting: being placed on a government terrorism watchlist. We have long criticized the federal government’s watchlisting system as a due process nightmare. The government uses vague criteria and a very low standard to place people on its master watchlist, which as of June 2016 had ballooned to about 1 million people. According to the government’s own watchlisting rules, “concrete facts are not necessary” to meet the standard for blacklisting, and uncorroborated information of doubtful reliability can suffice. That leaves the door wide open to relying on rumor, bias, or false statements.

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The consequences of blacklisting can be harsh and wide-ranging. Blacklisted individuals and their families have been subjected to harrowing displays of force and lengthy seizure at the border, surveillance and unjustified stops by domestic law enforcement, and detention and interrogation by authorities abroad. That’s to say nothing of the psychological and emotional damage that comes with constantly being stigmatized and demeaned as a suspected terrorist — an important but often ignored consequence of blacklisting.

As with other national security-related policies in the post-9/11 era, available information indicates that these consequences are borne overwhelmingly by members of American Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities.

To top it all off, the government’s system of “redress” for people who are or may be blacklisted is completely inadequate. Under it, the government won’t even tell people if they’ve been blacklisted, let alone give the reasons why or a meaningful opportunity to clear their names and get off the list.

After Zainab submitted a redress petition last year, DHS sent her a form letter stating that it “can neither confirm nor deny any information about you which may be within federal watchlists.” Since then, nothing has changed, and she continues to experience harassing searches and detention whenever she travels.  

Zainab’s terrible experience is yet another indication of the unfairness of the watchlisting system and the harms it inflicts on individual lives. We’re calling on DHS to stop singling Zainab out for this treatment, investigate the conduct of TSA and CBP officers, and turn over any relevant records. It’s the least that justice demands.

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Anonymous

Does this happen to Catholic nuns, Amish or Mennonite travelers? Where is the Judicial Branch - federal judges - providing Judicial Review over it's co-equal branches of government?

Anonymous

Couldn't the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Deparrtment indict the government officials for violating the Title 18 Criminal Code statutes that protect constitutional rights (Title 18 US Code 242)? If the Sessions DOJ won't voluntarily enforce federal law, couldn't ACLU attorneys file for a Writ of Mandamus to force them?

Anonymous

We forget that bloated government bureaucracies were largely to blame for not preventing 9/11. The FBI had enough evidence, within it's own agency, to prevent part or all of the attacks. According to The Washington Post at that time and other papers, FBI HQ ignored the warnings from it's Florida FBI field office about an odd request from guys taking flying lessons. In this case, couldn't the airlines just hire more Air Marshals instead of profiling by religion (illegal under the 1st Amendment).

Anonymous

THE RUSSIANS WERE BEHIND 9/11. THE FBI WAS AND IS COMPROMISED WITH SOVIET AGENTS (GOOGLE IT). THE RUSSIANS INVADED AFGHANISTAN, AFTER LOSING MISERABLY, DEVISED A CLEVER PLOT TO BAIT THE AMERICANS INTO ATTACKING ITS OWN PROXY ALLIES. THE WHOLE FALSE EVIDENCE PLACEMENT WAS DONE WITH COLLABORATION OF SOVIET AGENTS INSIDE THE FBI AND ALL INTERNATIONAL EVIDENCE WAS HANDED OVER BY RUSSIAN-CONTROLLED TERRITORY. RUSSIANS OCCUPIED AFGHANISTAN - OVER TEN YEARS TO PLAN WHILE OCCUPATION. AFTER DEPARTURE, STARTED A PROXY WAR USING FORMER SOVIET BLOC AND IRANIAN BACKED MILITIAS TO CONTROL THE REGION. AMERICAN AGENCIES WERE AND ARE STILL COMPROMISED, THE INTELLIGENCE AND FRAMING OF EVIDENCE IS FALSE AND STRATEGIC DISINFORMATION CAMPAIGN USED BY THE SOVIETS THROUGHOUT EUROPE AND INDIA. SOVIET PARTNERS INSIDE THE COUNTRY HELPED FACILITATE THE EVENTS AND THE SPIES PULLED ALL THE KEY EVIDENCE LINKING TO RUSSIA. THEY INSTALLED PROGRAMS THAT FAVORED RUSSIA AND TARGETED COUNTRIES AND NATIONALITIES INSTRUMENTAL IN SOVIET DECLINE. THAT INCLUDES ANTI-IRAN, IRAQ, ARABS WHO WERE INSTRUMENTAL IN FORCING SOVIETS OUT, AND OTHER AMERICAN ALLIES. LONG STORY SHORT, CLEAR VICTORY FOR SOVIET BLOC: IRAN PICKS UP IRAQ, WIN FOR RUSSIA, AMERICAN WASTES 20 YEARS CHASING GHOSTS AND RUSSIAN DESIGNED AS AFGHANS ALL OVER THE REGION - MEANWHILE RUSSIA KEEPS FUNDING AND ARMING AND PROVIDING FIGHTERS FROM ITS FORMER SOVIET BLOC. AMERICA ENDS UP LOSING THE ARAB BLOC, TARGETS ITS OWN CITIZENS, ALIENATES ITS ALLIES, COUNTRY BECOMES EXTREMISTS AND RADICAL AND ANTI-IMMIGRANT. RUSSIA DID NOT WIN THE COLD WAR BUT IT WON THE COVERT WAR - BAIT AND SWITCH, BAIT THE COLLAPSE, SWITCH THE ATTACK. 9/11 WAS NOT A TERRORIST EVENT, IT WAS A SOVIET ATTACK - MUCH LIKE PEARL HARBOR. UNLIKE THE JAPANESE, THE RUSSIANS DID NOT WEAR UNIFORMS (LIKE UKRAINE) AND USED DOMESTIC AGENTS AND ITS WIDE NETWORK. AMERICANS ARE JUST LAZY TO ACTUALLY CONDUCT A REAL INVESTIGATION - THEY NEEDED A BAD GUY AND THERE IS NO ONE THAT WANTS TO COME OUT AND SAY IT IS RUSSIA - THAT WOULD LEAD TO WORLD WAR 3. EVEN IF THE INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY KNEW, THEY WERE ALREADY INVOLVED IN A COVERT WAR AGAINST RUSSIA IN CHECHNYA. WHEN YOU DO THE MATH IT ADDS TO RUSSIA.

Anonymous

Sadly the rest of us endure this as well. I am on no watch list, yet I am scanned , pat down and my belongings searched every time I pass thru TSA security. I too am patted down in sensitive area as. I ding it repugnant that the ACLU chooses to represent one class of persons who are experiencing what we all experience. The ACLU should represent the rights of all Americans rather than a chosen few.

Anonymous

To put this in perspective for Americans that think blacklisting is harmless, these Americans have been harassed and stalked for more than 6,000 consecrutive days. If this isn't torture - what is?

Anonymous

My daughter has been going through the same search and harassment. Recently, she came back from two trips overseas and was stopped, searched and questioned each time.

Anonymous

ACLU I think you probably do not realize, but many US CITIZENS children's go to bed hungry every day, why you would not spend your fund to make something good and meaningful ? Stand up and be counted.

Anonymous

They just doing their job

FFS

Were TSA agents just doing their job when they forced her to show them her bloodied menstrual pad? When she asked for their names and badge numbers to report that experience, were they doing their jobs when they covered their badges with their hands and walked away?

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