Airport detentions trigger alarms from civil liberties groups

Airport detentions trigger alarms from civil liberties groups
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Civil liberties groups are sounding the alarm over what they say is the “sledgehammer approach” being taken by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents at American airports in the wake of President Trump’s travel ban.

Although a federal court suspended Trump’s executive order, civil rights advocates describe a worrying trend of agents questioning travelers about their religion and checking cellphones.

Muhammad Ali's son, a French historian and an Australian author were all detained at U.S. airports in recent weeks in headline-grabbing incidents.

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“Customs and border patrol agents are feeling more emboldened by the signal being sent from the White House,” said Jay Holland, civil rights attorney with Joseph Greenwald & Laake. “We are seeing a real difference here in terms of the aggressiveness and in terms of the implementation of enforcement efforts, no doubt about it.”

“It’s basically a sledgehammer approach,” he added.

The White House is expected as early as Wednesday to unveil a new executive order on immigration and refugees that will be “tailored” to withstand the objections of a federal appeals court.

The original policy would have barred travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days, suspended the U.S. refugee resettlement program for 120 days and banned Syrian refugees indefinitely.

The administration also announced a host of changes to immigration enforcement, including hiring thousands of new border patrol officers, a major expansion in the number of people subject to expedited deportation and the establishment of a new office focused on “immigration crime.”

“The president wanted to take the shackles off individuals in these agencies and say:  You have a mission, there are laws that need to be followed; you should do your mission and follow the law,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said during the daily press briefing last week.

Unintended targets appear to be getting caught in the crosshairs of Trump’s policies, which critics say could reflect immigration officers feeling they need to be more aggressive given the president’s amped up rhetoric.

Muhammad Ali Jr., the son of the late legendary boxer, was reportedly pulled aside by immigration officials for several hours in Florida and pressed about his religion and origin several days after Trump’s travel ban was put on hold. Ali is a Muslim born in Philadelphia and holds a U.S. passport.

Australian author Mem Fox said she was mistakenly detained in Los Angeles by border agents who thought she was entering the country on the wrong visa. She told the Australian Broadcasting Company that the agents appeared to have been given  “turbocharged power” by Trump’s travel ban to “humiliate and insult” people they detained.

CBP agents in search of an individual who was ordered removed by an immigration judge reportedly requested government-issued identification from every single passenger on board a domestic flight from San Francisco before they deplaned in New York. A CBP spokesperson said that officers were assisting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and added that it’s common for them to assist law enforcement partners in various ways.

A French Holocaust historian who was en route to talk at Texas A&M University tweeted over the weekend that he was detained for 10 hours by an “inexperienced” officer who thought he was entering the country on the wrong visa.

And American Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad, a Muslim, told Pop Sugar that she had been held at a U.S. airport for two hours in December.

Their experiences aren't entirely unique, however. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, there were reports of people being detained because they were from predominantly Muslim nations.

But Rick Su, a professor at the University at Buffalo School of Law who specializes in immigration, said he believes agents are stepping up their behavior.

“The undercurrents have always been there, but what we’re now starting to see is an escalation, an unshackling of what ICE and CBP have always wanted to be,” he said.

Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said his group is hearing about more incidents of CBP taking cellphones, looking through apps and questioning people about religion and faith.

Su said it is difficult not to link the behavior to Trump given the reports and the endorsements of Trump by unions representing border patrol agents and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

He said that with Trump, “they saw someone who … wants to return power back to law enforcement and believes that there’s been too much supervision.”

Legal experts maintain that immigration officers generally have broad discretion to question, search and detain travelers in an effort to protect national security.

CBP, which cannot discuss individual cases due to privacy laws, says it has not implemented any new policies regarding domestic flights or arrivals and continues to follow the law while treating all passengers with respect.

“CBP officers strive to treat all people arriving in the country with dignity and respect. CBP does not discriminate based on religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation," a spokesperson said in a statement.

“The Immigration and Nationality Act … lists more than 60 grounds of inadmissibility divided into several major categories, including health-related grounds, criminality, security reasons, public charge, labor certification, illegal entrants and immigration violations, documentation requirements, and miscellaneous grounds.”

With Trump in their corner, though, Su says officers may feel more inspired to crack down on immigration — even in the absence of a federal travel ban policy.

“If there’s an implicit message [from the White House], it’s we’ll stand behind you whatever you do,” Su said. “It’s less them trying to carry out some policy, and more them feeling emboldened to do what they feel they need to do.”