In June 2017, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of a family of U.S. citizens — including four young children — who were detained for over 10 hours at the U.S.–Canada border while coming home from a trip to visit relatives in 2015. The lawsuit seeks a ruling that the government violated the family’s constitutional rights, as well as an injunction to prevent their rights from being violated again.

Abisalam Wilwal and his family were detained because he is on the government’s terrorism watchlist, but he does not know why and says there is no valid reason. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota, also challenges the lack of a meaningful process for Mr. Wilwal to contest his placement on the watchlist.

Mr. Wilwal and his wife, Sagal Abdigani, live in a Minneapolis suburb with their four children, who were 5, 6, 8, and 14 when they were detained in March 2015. Mr. Wilwal and Ms. Abdigani are originally from Somalia, which they fled due to the civil war there in the 1990s. They met in the U.S. after each immigrated here in 2000 and eventually became U.S. citizens and married.

On the day of the incident, the family was driving home early in the morning from a trip to see Abdigani’s sister in Saskatchewan. A few minutes after they stopped their minivan at the border station at Portal, North Dakota, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers came out with their guns pointed at the van. Border officers handcuffed Mr. Wilwal in front of his family, who were extremely upset and frightened. The children were screaming and crying.

As the CBP officers took Mr. Wilwal into the border station, one officer accused him of being involved with terrorism and asked if he was Muslim. Mr. Wilwal replied that he is a Muslim — and also an American citizen. The officers left him in a room for hours with nothing to eat or drink and with his hands cuffed behind his back. He eventually felt light-headed and passed out on the floor, prompting the officers to call paramedics. The officers then gave him a small glass of water but no food, and they cuffed his hands in the front instead of the back.

Several hours later, two agents from the Department of Homeland Security arrived. Mr. Wilwal asked for an attorney and was told that if he wanted to leave, he had to answer their questions. The agents questioned him for about 45 minutes about various topics, including his religious practices, travel, family, and job. They finally set him free with no explanation, nearly 11 hours after first detaining him.

Meanwhile, Ms. Abdigani and the four children were detained elsewhere in the border station. She asked if she could take the children home and come back for her husband later, or if a friend or relative on either side of the border could come to get the children. The officers refused, saying, “You’re all the same. You’re all detainees, including the children.”

Throughout the ordeal, the children were extremely upset. As it dragged on, at one point the 8-year-old girl said to her mother, “Maybe they’ll kill us after sunset.”

Ms. Abdigani’s phone had been confiscated, but her 14-year-old son realized that he still had his phone because he hadn’t been asked to hand it over. He gave it to his mother, who called 911 and told the dispatcher that she and her family were being held against their will at the border station and feared for their safety. A CBP officer grabbed the phone and talked to the dispatcher, and the police never came.

Two CBP officers then took the 14-year-old into another room where they patted him down. They then told him to remove his clothes for a strip search, which he refused to do. A DHS document obtained by the ACLU that summarizes the incident shows that the agents also searched the contents of the boy’s phone. It also shows that the father, Mr. Wilwal, was detained because of a “record hit,” indicating that he was on a watchlist.

The children still have nightmares about the experience. Ms. Abdigani was worried that the family was going to be killed, and now can’t go visit family in Canada because they’re afraid the same thing will happen again.

As soon as they got back to Minneapolis, Mr. Wilwal and Ms. Abdigani went to their local FBI and DHS offices to report what had happened. They were later told that it likely occurred because Mr. Wilwal was on a government terrorism watchlist. They both filled out a DHS form that the government provides for people who think they are wrongly on the watchlist, but they never heard back.

According to leaked documents, the government uses vague criteria and a very low threshold to place people on the terrorism watchlist. The government’s watchlisting rules state that “Concrete facts are not necessary” to meet the standard and that uncorroborated information of questionable or even doubtful reliability can suffice. As of June 2016, the watchlist included about 1 million people.

In November 2017, the government moved to dismiss the Wilwal-Abdigani family's claims, in part because the detention occurred at a border post. We opposed the government's motion, and the court held oral argument in March 2018. We await a ruling from the court.

The ACLU is continuing to fight a government policy that puts people on a secret blacklist and then harasses them on that basis, without providing them with a meaningful way to clear their names and get off the list.

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