Citizens Call on Federal Government to Fix Dysfunctional Screening System Responsible for Detentions and Harassment on Re-Entry to the United States

June 19, 2006

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: media@aclu.org

RESOURCES
> Plaintiffs Statements
> Legal Complaint (off-site link, PDF)

CHICAGO -- Nine American citizens from across the country today joined together in an effort to force the federal government to implement changes to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) and the policies of Customs and Border Protection that will ensure innocent Americans are not subjected to humiliating and unnecessary detentions and harassment by federal officials when they re-enter the United States.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois filed a federal lawsuit in Chicago today on behalf of the nine individuals who have been subjected to repeated lengthy stops, questioning, body searches, handcuffing, excessive force, separation from family members and confinement by customs officers when they return to the United States from travel abroad. The plaintiffs all report being unnecessarily delayed, while some recite tales of being shackled to a chair for hours and others had their automobiles surrounded by agitated guards with firearms -- a frightening sight for their young children.

"It simply is not necessary for the government to detain these Americans for lengthy periods of time in the fashion in which they have been treated," said Harvey Grossman of the ACLU of Illinois in announcing the lawsuit. "The fault lies in the chaotic operations of the Terrorism Screening Center and inappropriate responses by customs officials. Indeed, FBI Director Mueller recently declined to predict that the problems in the TSC could be repaired in five years. Innocent Americans should not be compelled to bear repeated abuse simply because the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security cannot correct their own mistakes."

The complaint filed today builds on a lawsuit filed last year by Akif Rahman, a native born United States citizen who lives in suburban Chicago with his wife Masooda. Rahman has been detained and questioned by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials on five separate occasions since March 2004 as he re-entered the country after business or personal trips abroad. Four of the detentions lasted much longer than was reasonably required for determining Rahman's identity and allowing him to proceed into the United States. On one occasion, Rahman was subjected to unnecessary excessive force during a body search and shackled to a chair for approximately three hours while isolated from his wife and children.

Another plaintiff, Dr. Sammy Rehman, a radiologist from the Chicago area, was detained on June 9, 2005. Dr. Rehman and his family, his mother and his mother-in-law were returning to the United States from a visit in Canada. After Dr. Rehman gave a border officer his passport, federal agents surrounded the family car, holding their hands on their holstered guns. One agent identified Dr. Rehman as "A and D" (armed and dangerous). Armed guards then led Dr. Rehman away from his family and detained him for approximately two hours.

"This event was terrifying for me, for my wife and for our 7-year-old son," said Dr. Rehman. "The physically threatening nature of these stops and detentions seem to be escalating."

The ACLU said the nine plaintiffs named in the lawsuit represent thousands of individuals who are stopped, questioned, abused and harassed at points of entry to the country each year as a result of flaws in the TSC. According to a U.S. Department of Justice report, the TSC administers a database with more than 200,000 names of persons who are claimed by the government to have "any degree of terrorism nexus." However, the report found that the process for classifying these individuals is flawed, resulting in many individuals being "over-classified" and considered dangerous when they pose no real threat to our nation. The Justice Department report alson found that mistakes in the database cause many individuals to be "misidentified" and subject to more scrutiny than is necessary. As a result of these problems, the plaintiffs in today's lawsuit collectively have been stopped and questioned on more than 30 occasions, despite the fact that they are law-abiding citizens. On each occasion, the plaintiffs have been cleared for re-entry to the United States only after punitive detentions.

In addition to the Rahmans and Dr. Rehman and his wife Riffat Mehmood, the ACLU plaintiffs include: Niaz Anwar from suburban Boston; Khalid Bhatti, a physician in gastroenterology in Troy, New York; Shimrote Ishaque, a pharmacist in Seattle, Washington; Osama Jammal, an educational video producer from suburban Chicago; and Dr. Elie Khoury, an OB/GYN in practice in Detroit, and his wife Farideh Khoury.

The plaintiffs ask the federal court to order the FBI and DHS to adopt polices that ensure expeditious reentry to the United States for citizens who are over-classified or misidentified, and to institute adequate training and supervision to ensure that citizens are not unduly detained and harassed upon entering the country.

Roger Pascall, Everett Cygal, Paula Ketcham, and Joshua Lee of the Chicago law firm Schiff Hardin LLP are assisting the ACLU of Illinois in this case, along with Junaid M. Afeef of Hoffman Estates, Sarah Wunsch of the ACLU of Massachusetts, Kary Moss and Michael Steinberg of the ACLU of Michigan, Noel Salah of Detroit and Aaron H. Caplan of the ACLU of Washington.

Read plaintiffs statements >>

Read the complaint   >>  (off-site link, PDF)

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