Last summer, the ACLU and its affiliates in Oregon, Southern California, Northern California and New Mexico filed a lawsuit on behalf of 17 U.S. citizens and legal residents to challenge their placement on the U.S. government’s No-Fly List and the failure of the government to give them a chance to defend themselves. Some of these people were in the United States when they found themselves suddenly and without explanation unable to board a plane. Others — including military veterans, students and people visiting family — were overseas and were effectively exiled from their own country because they couldn’t board a plane to fly home.
Although all of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit were facing serious problems, those stuck abroad were in the most immediate need. In August, we filed a motion seeking preliminary relief on behalf of these individuals to help them return to their families, jobs, and homes in the United States. The government has since permitted these individuals to fly home, but will not tell them whether they were taken off the list or if were just given one-time waivers to fly home. Because of the secrecy surrounding the No-Fly List, they won’t know until they try to fly again.
Not having the ability to fly has a huge impact on people’s lives — including their ability to perform their jobs and visit their families. Here is the story of one of the plaintiffs, in his own words:
My name is Raymond Earl Knaeble IV. I am an American citizen. I have served my country honorably as a member of the U.S. military.
I am also a new Muslim. I recently converted to Islam when I was in Kuwait about a year ago. I never thought I would become a Muslim until I learned and studied about the Truth of Islam.
I believe it was because of my new faith that the FBI forced me into exile earlier this year. In March, I tried to fly home to the United States from Colombia, where I was recently married. I was not allowed to board the plane. Airline representatives told me to go to the U.S. embassy, and when I got there a government official took my passport. No one told me why I couldn’t fly home. I was forced to stay in a foreign country with no way to return. I fully cooperated with government officials. I answered every question officials asked me, provided my SIM card and all of the contacts I knew in the Middle East, and told them my life story. I was interrogated day in and day out by the FBI, but no one ever told me what charge they had against me or why I could not fly home. What is my crime? The only thing I know is that I am an American citizen, but I am also a Muslim. It seems that being Muslim has become a crime in the United States.
I lost a good job because I could not make it to a mandatory medical screening when the FBI excluded me from America, the country of my birth.
Eventually, desperate to get home, I attempted to fly to Nuevo Laredo in Mexico in order to cross a land border into the United States. I was turned back — after a lengthy detention and questioning — by officials in Mexico City and not allowed to travel by air or land to the U.S. border.
In August, I began a new journey in which I flew to Panama, then traveled by bus through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and all of Mexico to the U.S. border at Mexicali. During this journey I was subjected to three separate detentions by government officials who searched my belongings and subjected me to extended interrogations. In Guatemala, I was questioned and followed. On one occasion, I had to run after my bus, which had left while I was being questioned. When I finally reached the United States, the country of my birth and my home, U.S. officials handcuffed me. They detained me for 10 hours, put me through intense interrogation, and searched all of my belongings, including my laptop computer and other electronic equipment. They released me at 2:30 in the morning and finally allowed me to enter my country. I took a bus from the border to San Francisco.
I am a veteran of the U.S. armed forces and I have no criminal record. I am no threat to national security and have been charged with no crime. The FBI put me on a list that turned my life upside-down and there is no process in place to make them tell me why, or let me respond to any accusations they may have against me. Now that I have made it home, I cannot fly to visit my new wife in Colombia or other relatives within the United States. Adding insult to injury, since I’ve been back, I am followed by federal agents wherever I go.
Now I am waiting for the legal process to work. But it may be years before I can freely exercise my right to travel in and out of the country freely — a right that belongs to all Americans, but that our government has put on hold for many of us, apparently for no other reason than our religious beliefs and practices.
While the return home of our clients who were once stuck abroad marks a victory, the fundamental problems with the No-Fly List remain and our lawsuit continues. It’s unconstitutional for the government to put people on a list and stop them from flying without telling them why or giving them a reasonable chance to defend themselves. Due process requires that each of the 17 plaintiffs we represent get this chance, including veterans of our armed services, like Ray Knaeble.