After a week of exhausting travel in London, I wanted nothing more than to see my wife and children.
Customs and Border Patrol at Dulles had other plans.
On Aug. 6, I landed on UA919 from Heathrow to Dulles wearing my Ahmadiyya Muslim Community logo-embroidered press jacket. I cleared passport control with my Global Entry card, and called an Uber as I headed for the exit.
That’s when Customs and Border Protection, as one of the officers I encountered put it, “randomly selected” me for additional screening. What I experienced next involved harassment, threats of further interrogation, allegations that I was non-compliant and breaking the law, an attempt to confiscate my travel documents and childish stalling tactics — all courtesy of officials hired to protect Americans like me.
There’s a deep irony of my experience with the CBP that day. At an extremely busy Dulles airport, the CBP interrogation hall virtually empty. A middle-aged white woman in a ponytail singled me out of the crowd.
“Hi sir, can I check your passport?” she asked.
I took a deep breath and quietly handed her my passport.
She flipped through my passport and asked without looking up, “Where did you travel and for how long?”
“UK. One week.” I showed no emotion.
“OK sir, you’ve been randomly selected. Follow me.”
I let out an exasperated sigh. It wasn’t the first time I’d been “randomly selected”—an experience that’s all too common among my fellow Muslim Americans.
We walked into the vacant interrogation room. “Sir, have you handled any livestock while in the UK.”
“Are you smuggling any fruits or vegetables, seeds, things of that like?”
“OK sir, place your luggage on the X-Ray belt and pick them up on the other side.”
I complied without saying a word and walked to the other side to await my luggage.
My luggage appeared and the CBP agent remarked, almost disappointed, “Well, your luggage cleared. You can go.”
I grabbed my things to walk away, grateful that the ordeal was over after my now second screening since landing. Bizarrely, another CBP officer walked up—a male.
“What’s the problem here?” the man asked.
“Nothing. I’m leaving,” I responded, eager to get home to my family.
He wasn’t satisfied. “Why are you giving us attitude?”
Confused as to what his question had to do with anything, I responded bluntly, “Can I go now?”
“No,” he snarked. “I need to check your bag again.”
I let out another sigh, but complied.
As I set my bags back on the steel counter, I added, gesturing toward his colleague, “Look, I have Global Entry. This officer checked my things. She cleared me. What’s the issue?”
The second CBP officer didn’t respond. Instead, he opened my bag and took out the chocolate I had brought from London for my children.
“What’s this?” he asked, as if he’d never seen chocolate before.
“It’s … chocolate.”
“Where’d you buy it?”
“Heathrow. Here’s the receipt.” (When I’m traveling, I always keep receipts, especially of what I buy at airports, for this very purpose.)
“OK,” he said. “We have to do an explosives check.”
Now I was getting frustrated. “My kids’ chocolate is a matter of national security now?” I asked. “Seriously?”
“I’m opening this chocolate whether you like it or not.”
He proceeded to rip up the chocolate with a pocketknife. Apparently that’s the CBP test for explosives. (Spoiler alert: The chocolate, a bar of Cadbury Dairy Milk, was non-explosive.) I stood there with a blank look on my face.
“OK, you can go,” he finally conceded.
Grateful my third screening was finally over I grabbed my things to dash out as fast as possible—but not fast enough. Another CPB officer approached us.
“Sir we’re just doing our jobs.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before. Bye.” I turned to walk away and yet again was instructed to stop despite having been cleared now three times. I complied and turned around.
“Give me your Global Entry card.”
“OK…” I said quizzically. I handed him my card.
“I’m confiscating this.”
“Because you’re being non-compliant.”
“Pardon? I’ve been cleared three times now. How am I non-compliant?”
“You mocked us for checking your chocolate for explosives.”
“Well, yeah, I mean … seriously? And you didn’t answer. How was I non-compliant?"
“You’re breaking the law.”
“What? How? Asking a third time. How am I non-compliant? What law have I broken?”
Rather than answering, he walked away. I called out, “I’d like to speak with your supervisor please.”
“He is the supervisor,” one of the other CBP officers responded.
“Then I want to speak to his supervisor,” I shot back.
I asked at least five more times: How, exactly, I was non-compliant?
I knew I was on camera being recorded. Everyone knew. They would have to prove somehow that I hadn’t complied—when in fact I clearly had.
No one answered.
Still, my mind began to wander. What if he doesn’t return my ID card? What if they arrest me? These are the same people who are ripping migrant children from their parents and throwing them in latter-day concentration camps—there’s no telling what they can do to a minority this president has tried to ban from entering the country.
As I sat there and maintained an external calm, inside I was furious that this blatant discrimination and profiling persisted under the guise of “security.”
Finally, a fourth CBP officer approached me, followed by the officer who took my Global Entry card.
"I’m the supervisor on duty. So you think because you have Global Entry you’re exempt from screening?”
“What? No. I said I’ve been screened and cleared three times so far. But despite that, your officer took my Global Entry card and said I’m being non-compliant. And he said that I’ve broken the law. But he refuses to give me any example of non-compliance or cite what law I’ve broken. Please explain this to me.”
The supervisor turned to the confiscating officer and asked, “Why’d you stop him?”
“Well, he was laughing at us.” (It’s true, I did chuckle in disbelief. Guilty as charged.)
“But did he refuse orders?”
“No, I mean, he harassed us.”
I didn’t yell at this point, but I raised my voice. “This is ridiculous. You have the power. You’re detaining me. You have my property. But somehow I’m harassing you? What? Do you hear yourself?”
I turned back to the supervisor. “I’m asking for about the 10th time now. How was I non-compliant and what law did I break?”
“Well those are his words—not mine,” the supervisor said. Now we were getting somewhere.
“Great, so you won’t even stand by your own officer’s words. Meanwhile, you have my Global Entry card. I’m still detained. Why am I still here, then?” At this point, facing my fourth screening since landing, I wasn’t about to let the supervisor off without answering me.
“What do you do for a living?” the supervisor asked.
I knew this question was coming. I detest this question. I know from experience that if I tell CBP up front that I’m a civil rights lawyer, they’ll let me go in a flash. As a general rule, I don’t—because it’s not fair. I shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to get equal treatment under the law. I travel internationally six to eight times per year, and it doesn’t surprise me to get stopped at least half of those times. Every time I mention I’m a lawyer, they release me immediately. Funny how that works—they know they’re illegally profiling me because of my name, skin color or religion.
As all this flashed through my mind I looked directly at the supervising CBP officer and said, “I’m a civil rights lawyer with expertise on racial and religious discrimination and profiling.”
He grew silent. I continued. “I’m asking for the last time. What law have I broken? How was I non-compliant?”
Rather than answer, he responded, “Well, I think everything checks out. You can go.”
I grabbed my Global Entry card and left before they could call me back for a fifth interrogation.
I’m a U.S. Citizen, an attorney. I understand American culture, the English language, and the law—and CBP still tried to intimidate me with lies and threats. Relatively speaking, I’m a lucky man.
Now, imagine you’re an undocumented asylee who doesn’t speak English, after a 2,000 mile trip with a baby—and you have to face CBP? What possible chance do you stand at receiving fair treatment?
I share my story of profiling not for sympathy, but for two crucial reasons. First, people have rights and should know their rights. Second, people of color have a habit of not sharing our stories publicly. This isn’t my opinion; it’s fact: Hate crimes and discrimination incidents are severely underreported—making reform more difficult. If we want to ever be safe in this country, people of color and minorities in general must share our stories.
But let’s revisit the deep irony of the CBP detaining and repeatedly harassing me on suspected terrorism claims. I’d just spent the previous week at the 52nd annual Jalsa UK—Britain’s longest running and largest Islamic peace conference. Hosted by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK and presided over by the Khalifa of Islam, this year the Jalsa UK drew 38,510 Muslim women, men and children from 115 countries to collaborate for peace, service to humanity and love of God. In other words, I’d just attended a conference dedicated to promoting human rights and eradicating terrorism, only to be detained and harassed on suspicion of terrorism via exploding chocolate. Human rights are my passion—it’s a key element of my Re-Sight Islam podcast. That’s a major vehicle through which I share my story. If a guy like me faces discrimination and harassment at the airport, anyone can be treated similarly—or worse.
The bottom line is this: If we want change, we must write our own story. Otherwise, we cede the field to people with sinister motives to write it for us.