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Questioned at the Border: Lawrence Ho

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December 21, 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.

Lawrence Ho is a U.S. citizen, a New Jersey resident, and a Muslim. He works as an operations manager at a freight boarding company. On February 21, 2010, Mr. Ho sought to return to the United States by car at the border crossing at Rainbow Bridge in New York following a trip to attend a conference in Canada. Mr. Ho’s passport had expired, so he sought to enter the United States using his driver’s license and original U.S. birth certificate. After providing these identification papers to a CBP agent, the agent told Mr. Ho that they needed time to verify his documents. Mr. Ho was escorted to the CBP facility. There, he was taken aback when a CBP officer asked him, “When did you convert?” Mr. Ho does not know how the agents knew he had converted to Islam.

Mr. Ho was then taken to a room where another CBP officer questioned him in the presence of three or four armed CBP officers. Among the questions they asked were: “When did you become a Muslim?”, “Which mosques do you attend?” and “How often do you attend the mosque?” Mr. Ho was held for nearly four hours for questioning and searches by CBP officers before he was permitted to leave.

In response to an emailed complaint from Mr. Ho, a senior CBP officer assigned to the Port of Buffalo wrote, “In 200 1, the U.S. was attacked by Islamist extremists. If a CBP Officer inquires as to a person’s religious beliefs in order to uncover signs of extremist tendencies, that Officer is well within his authority.”

Mr. Ho felt violated and treated like a criminal suspect. As a result of this experience, Mr. Ho feels inhibited about discussing his faith and religious practices publicly.

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.