Grueling Border Detention Inspires Watch List Challenge

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — Detained for nearly 11 hours because of unexplained placement on the terrorist watch list, a Somali-American family has brought a federal complaint against the U.S. attorney general and a half-dozen other officials.

Abdisalam Wilwal, Sagal Abdigani and their four young children say the invasive ordeal occurred two years ago while returning home to Eagan, Minnesota, after visiting family in Regina, Saskatchewan.

They are all U.S. citizens but claim in the July 13 complaint that they were subjected to abusive treatment because the government has been targeting American Muslims as well as Americans of Arab, Middle Eastern or South Asian descent.

When the family tried to cross the border in North Dakota on March 30, 2015, they say they presented their identification documents only to have several officers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection surround their minivan with guns drawn.

“The Wilwal-Abdigani family members were terrified, and the children began screaming and crying,” the complaint states.

Wilwal says he was ordered out of the vehicle at gunpoint, handcuffed and interrogated about his background.

“The CBP officer asked Mr. Wilwal if he is Muslim and accused him of being involved with terrorism,” the complaint states. “The accusation made Mr. Wilwal even more worried about his safety. He asked why the officer had made that accusation, and the officer responded, ‘We have information.’”

Separated from his family and left in handcuffs in a small room of the border station, Wilwal says he began feeling light-headed and passed out on the floor after more than four hours of detention.

The officers would not confirm that they were detaining Wilwal’s wife and children as well, according to the complaint, but Wilwal still declined to go to the hospital when paramedics arrived because he did not want to leave them there.

“The CBP officers changed the position of the handcuffs so that Mr. Wilwal’s arms were restrained in front of his body,” the complaint states. “They gave him a small glass of water but no food.”

Wilwal, who denies that he has a history of losing consciousness or any medical condition that would cause him to do so, says officers with Homeland Security Investigations began interrogating him nearly 10 hours into his detention.

“Mr. Wilwal, who speaks English as a second language, was concerned that he might misunderstand the officers’ questions,” the complaint states.

He says the officials denied him an interpreter and at no point informed him of his rights to contact an attorney, to not answer questions or to remain silent.

“The HSI officers asked Mr. Wilwal if he is Muslim, whether he is Sunni or Shia, and whether he attends a mosque,” the complaint states. “Mr. Wilwal responded that he is Muslim but not observant, and that he does not regularly attend a mosque.”

After 45 minutes of questioning, Wilwal says he was finally permitted to leave.

During his 10 1/2-hour ordeal, according to the complaint, the rest of the Wilwal-Abdigani family were not permitted to leave the station.

“You’re all the same,” one officer allegedly told Abdigani when she asked if a relative could come pick up the children while she waited for her husband. “You’re all detainees, including the children.”

The complaint says, “Abdigani asked the officers if they would call the children’s school or her family. They refused.”

Though they denied food to Abdigani, she says officers finally gave the children, who were between ages 5 and 14, hamburgers after six hours of detention.

Abdigani says she was subjected to a pat-down, as was her eldest son, 14-year-old M.O., whose phone was also confiscated and searched.

“During and after the detention, Ms. Abdigani and the children were scared, anxious, and confused,” the complaint states. “The CBP officers’ aggressive use of force to arrest and detain Mr. Wilwal, their detention of Ms. Abdigani and the children against their will for nearly 11 hours, their refusal to provide Ms. Abdigani and the children with adequate food, and their attempted strip search of M.O. caused Ms. Abdigani and the children significant emotional pain and distress. Having last seen Mr. Wilwal as he was handcuffed at gunpoint and taken into custody, they were extremely worried about his safety, and Ms. Abdigani became convinced that the officers had killed Mr. Wilwal. Ms. Abdigani and the children felt personally threatened by the CBP officers. Their fear grew as the time passed, and in the afternoon N.W. said to Ms. Abdigani, ‘maybe they’ll kill us after sunset.’”

When they were finally released at 4:40 p.m., the family says they drove straight to Eagan, finally arriving home the next day at 2 a.m.

The family went to FBI and Homeland Security offices on March 31 to report their treatment. They say someone from Homeland Security informed them in a follow-up phone call two weeks later that the incident “likely occurred because Mr. Wilwal’s name appeared on a terrorist watch list.”

Homeland Security’s Traveler Redress Inquiry Program “is the final arbiter of whether the petitioning individual is retained on or removed from the master watchlist,” according to the complaint.

Wilwal and Abdigani say neither of them has received a final response from DHS-TRIP about the petitions they submitted regarding the events of March 30, 2015.

By submitting a request under the Privacy Act, the Wilwal-Abdiganis say they did receive a report from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that attributes Wilwal’s detention on March 30 “due to a confirmed subject record hit.”

This report of investigation reflects that CPB’s Treasury Enforcement Communications System now includes “records obtained from a search of M.O.’s mobile phone.”

“Plaintiffs are deeply concerned about the government’s use of the information it obtained during the detention,” the complaint states. “They are concerned that CBP and/or HSI will use the information collected during the border detention to expand the duration or scope of inspections or stops of the plaintiffs at border stations, airports, or ports of entry in the future. They also worry that defendants shared the information they collected on the plaintiffs with other government agencies, such as the FBI, and that the plaintiffs will be singled out again by government agencies on the basis of that information.”

The complaint insists that there is no reason to suspect Wilwal of terrorism. “He has never engaged in conduct that would satisfy the government’s loose criteria for placement on the watchlist, and he does not know why his name and/or biometric information appeared on the watchlist,” the complaint states. “No government agency has provided him with any notice of the reasons for his placement on the watchlist or offered him any meaningful opportunity to contest his placement on the watchlist.”

Wilwal, Abdjani and their children want an injunction, alleging violations of their Fourth Amendment rights to be free from seizure and excessive force, as well as their Fifth Amendment due-process rights and the Administrative Procedures Act.

The family is represented by Randall Tietjen with the firm Robins Kaplan and by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation.

“Plaintiffs continue to experience stress and anxiety about the prospect that they will be subjected to lengthy and abusive detentions at border stations, airports, or ports of entry in the future,” the complaint states. “They also remain frightened of law enforcement officers. They have not attempted to travel outside the United States since March 30, 2015. All four children want to travel to Canada to see their cousins but the family is afraid to do so. All four children have had frequent nightmares about the events of March 30, 2015.”

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