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Questioned at the Border: Hassan Shibly

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December 20, 2010

Over the past several years, at ports, land border crossings, and international airports across the country, U.S. citizens and lawful residents who are Muslim or who are perceived to be Muslim have been targeted by CBP officers for questioning about deeply personal beliefs, associations and religious practices protected by the First Amendment.

Last week, the ACLU and Muslim Advocates sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner requesting an investigation into this troubling practice. We also filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for information and records about whether and when government officials are permitted to ask citizens and legal residents about their protected beliefs, associations, and activities during border inspections.

Over the next few days, we’ll feature the stories of some of our clients. You can read the profiles of all of our clients here.

Hassan Shibly is a U.S. citizen, a resident of Buffalo, New York, and a Muslim. He is a law student at the University at Buffalo Law School. On August 18, 2010, he sought to return to the United States with his wife, a lawful permanent resident, and seven-month-old son, a U.S. citizen, following a trip to the Middle East to visit family and perform a religious pilgrimage. After landing at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, Mr. Shibly provided his family’s passports to a CBP agent at passport control. The CBP agent took Mr. Shibly and his family to a waiting area where, after approximately 20 minutes, a CBP officer asked Mr. Shibly about the holy sites he had visited on his trip. The CBP officer then asked him: “Do you visit any Islamist extremist websites?”; “Are you part of any Islamic tribes?”; “Have you ever been to a madrassah or studied Islam full-time?”; and “Do you attend a particular mosque?”

The same CBP agent later asked Mr. Shibly to open several of the family’s bags, take out their contents, and explain them to him. When Mr. Shibly removed a Qur’an from one of the bags and explained that it was a holy book, the CBP officer asked, “How many gods or prophets do you believe in?” When Mr. Shibly took out several digital prayer counters, the CBP officer asked for whom Mr. Shibly had purchased them. Mr. Shibly and his family were held for over an hour of questioning and searches before they were permitted to leave.

Mr. Shibly was also questioned about his religious practices on August 1, 2008, when he sought to return to the United States through John F. Kennedy airport from a trip to Jordan. On this occasion, he showed his passport to the officer in the passport control line, and was then taken by a CBP officer to another area for questioning and a search of Mr. Shibly’s luggage. Finding a Qur’an in the luggage, the CBP officer asked Mr. Shibly, “Do you recruit people to your faith?”

Mr. Shibly has become anxious about traveling and is fearful of the treatment he might receive from CBP officials. He is afraid that he will again be subjected to questioning about his protected religious beliefs, associations, and practices upon his return to the United States from abroad.

Questioning individuals about their protected religious and political beliefs, associations, and religious practices (like charitable giving) may infringe upon rights guaranteed by the Constitution and federal law — rights that are not surrendered at the border.

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