Customs and Border Protection agents have been intensively questioning Muslims at U.S. border crossings about their political and religious beliefs, as well as asking for their social media information, and demanding passwords to open mobile phones, according to a set of complaints filed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).
The Intercept In one case, a 23-year old American citizen alleges that he was choked by a CBP agent after declining to hand over his phone for inspection while crossing the border back from Canada.
The complaints deal with the cases of nine people who have been stopped at various U.S. border crossings, eight of whom are American citizens, and one Canadian. They were filed to the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Justice.
The Intercept also reported on portions of a questionnaire used by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents that included invasive questions about religious practices and beliefs. While warrants are normally required for federal authorities to search cellphones, this requirement does not apply at border crossings.
The complaints filed by CAIR allege that CBP agents have been asking travelers questions including, “are you a devout Muslim”, “what do you think of the United States”, and “what are your views about jihad?” The complaints also say that people have reported being asked whether they attend a mosque and what their opinions are about various terrorist groups.
The complaints also allege that border agents have asked Muslims residing in America to provide their social media information at the border.
One of the cases in the complaints involved Akram Shibly, a 23-year-old Muslim American citizen from Buffalo. He told The Intercept that he had been detained at the border during two separate incidents in early January, including one where he says agents physically assaulted him when he declined to give them his cellphone.
During the first incident, while driving back to the United States from Canada on New Year’s Day, he and his fiancée were pulled aside, searched and interrogated by border agents. Shibly said that he and his fiancée’s cellphones were confiscated and taken into a back room out of view. They were given forms to fill out that asked for passwords to unlock their devices, as well as for their email addresses and information about their family background.
During his interrogation, agents asked Shibly about his travel history and some religious practices, as well as his work as a filmmaker. A few days later however, driving back from Canada on another trip, they were stopped again. After being taken aside for questioning and asked for his cellphone once more, this time Shibly declined.
At that point, Shibly alleges that three CBP agents physically accosted him as he sat in a chair next to his fiancée, with one grabbing him from behind by the neck, another pinning his legs down, and a third agent reaching into his pocket to grab his phone, he said.
“I told them I’m an American citizen and was born and raised here, and one of the agents told me: ‘We don’t know if you’re really an American citizen, we’ll let you know when our investigation is complete.’
Warrantless confiscation and search of personal electronics at the border has become a major civil liberties issue, due to the wealth of personal data stored on such devices. According to DHS guidelines on border searches, CBP agents not only have the power to seize electronics, but can also “copy the contents of [an] electronic device for a more in-depth border search at a later time.”
A 2010 lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to stop such practices was dismissed in 2013, allowing the CBP to continue what the group criticizes as “intrusive searches of Americans’ laptops and other electronics” at ports of entry.
Civil liberties groups fear that harassment at the border will intensify during the Trump administration. Trump has suggested that Muslim immigrants may be subject to “extreme vetting” at the border or even outright bans from entry, depending on their immigration status.