WASHINGTON (CN) — A Muslim civil rights group sued the Department of Homeland Security for slow-walking its FOIA request for Trump administration policies on border searches of electronic devices in the possession of people whom agents “perceived to be Muslim.”
Prompted by news reports about President Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order on people from seven Muslim-majority countries, Muslim Advocates filed a Freedom of Information Act request with DHS on March 7.
“These searches – which may include the physical retention of an individual’s electronic devices and demand for their passwords – appear to have dramatically increased following the issuance of the Executive Order,” the 7-page complaint states.
According to the May 2 lawsuit in Federal Court, U.S. citizens and other travelers arriving on international flights whom Customs and Border Protection agents “perceived to be Muslim” also had their electronic devices searched, either after disclosing their passwords, or through electronic duplication of their content.
Citing a marked rise in religious profiling, questioning and harassment of Muslim travelers under the Trump, the legal director of Muslim Advocates said Customs and Border Patrol agents appear to be discriminating based on perceived national origin or religion.
“This litigation is part of a broader effort to get more clarity about what, if any, changes are taking place in U.S. federal policy pertaining to border searches and border questioning, and to get a better understanding of the scope and the scale of the problem,” Johnathan Smith said in an interview Wednesday.
Smith said Muslim Advocates is concerned that discrimination is becoming enshrined in federal policy. It seeks records on searches of electronic devices, and on the retention or dissemination of information found on devices in relation to both of Trump’s executive orders on immigration.
Trump rolled out the first travel ban on Jan. 27, stopping immigration and refugee admissions from seven Muslim-majority countries, sparked chaos and protests at airports across the country.
Federal courts promptly blocked the executive order after a spate of legal challenges, and a revised executive order of March 6 met a similar fate in the courts.
The Fourth Circuit Court will hear the government’s appeal on May 8.
Smith said Muslim Advocates is particularly concerned because electronic devices contain so much information about people’s lives beyond where they traveled and what they did on their trip. Border agents thus gain broad access to financial, legal and personal records.
“There are significant privacy and First Amendment concerns about what is happening with this information,” Smith said. “What are federal officials doing with this information, how long are they storing it, what are they using it for?”
The Department of Homeland Security declined comment. Muslim Advocates asked to court to order DHS to disclose the requested records immediately.