The perils of travelling while Muslim
Is the mere fact that a person prays to Allah grounds for being held at gunpoint, handcuffed and repeatedly harassed while crossing from Canada into the United States?
That's the question a federal judge in Detroit is weighing after hearing arguments Wednesday in a lawsuit filed on behalf of four Muslim Americans in Michigan who allege they were religiously profiled by U.S. border agents as they returned from Canada.
Though U.S. District Court Judge Avern Cohn has yet to rule, he told court the allegations are "gnawing at me," suggesting they are "analogous" to the New York Police Department's controversial stop-and-frisk program, which disproportionately targets African-Americans and Latinos.
Attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice deny there is a policy to that targets travelers based on religion and have filed a motion to dismiss the suit. FBI, Customs Border Protection and Transportation Security Administration officials also say there is no screening policy based on race or religion.
But Cohn's job now is to weigh those denials against the accounts of people like plaintiff Wissam Charafeddine, 36, of Dearborn. A father of two and former scoutmaster with no criminal record, Charafeddine alleges he was detained, fingerprinted and body searched every time he returned from Canada in the last three years while agents peppered him with questions about his religion.
"It really makes you feel humiliated," Charafeddine told the Detroit Free Press. "It doesn't make you feel like you're in America."
Attorney's with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), America's largest Muslim civil liberties organization, argue the issue is far larger than a single border crossing in Detroit, but rather it speaks to a pattern of reports from border stations throughout the country.
"CAIR has offices in several border states -- Seattle, Michigan, New York -- and for years we've gathered stories of Muslims getting pulled out of cars at gunpoint and subjected to intrusive questioning about their religion," said Gadeir Abbas, an attorney with CAIR's Washington, DC, office.
"While the U.S. government has broad authority to really do what it wants with people and possessions crossing the border, our argument is that there is no authority to ask people questions like, 'How often do you pray?,' 'Do you get up early in the morning to pray at the mosque?' or 'Do you pray five times a day?'
"The concern here is the mindset behind those questions. It seems to infer that if a Muslim is so devoted to their faith that they are willing to wake up at dawn for prayer, then that's a person America needs to be worried about," Abbas told the Toronto Star in an interview after Wednesday's hearing.
"It isn't true. It's discriminatory on the face of it. And luckily, it's illegal. So we're hoping the court will see this as unlawful practise and counter-productive to legitimate national security concerns."
Since the Detroit lawsuit was launched in 2012, the U.S. has gained a critical advantage in data-gathering along the northern border thanks to a pilot project which gives U.S. agents unprecedented access to information collected on the Canadian side.
The pilot program, detailed last week in the New York Times, is aimed at tracking foreign-passport holders leaving for Canada, rather than U.S. citizens such as the four plaintiffs in the Michigan case.
But the program, which tracked an estimated one-third of border crossers to Canada since September, 2012, is regarded as a runaway success, giving U.S. authorities a real-time look at individuals "who overstay the terms of their legal entry into the United States," according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
By the end of June the program will expand to become a permanent element of border security data-gathering, covering nearly all land border traffic between Canada and the U.S.
Mitch Potter is the Star's Washington Bureau Chief, his third foreign posting after previous assignments to London and Jerusalem. Potter led the Toronto Star’s coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he won a 2006 National Newspaper Award for his reportage. His dispatches include datelines from 33 countries since 2000. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites