(CN) — In 2017, Imam Abdirahman Aden Kariye returned to the United States from Saudi Arabia after participating in the hajj — the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca. When he entered the United States at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Customs and Border Protection agents held him in a windowless room for secondary inspection.
And that's not the only time he's been detained by customs agents, Kariye says in a lawsuit filed against the federal government. In fact, Kariye says, he's been detained and grilled about his Muslim faith by customs or border patrol agents on at least five occasions.
Kariye and his two co-plaintiffs say in their lawsuit that each time they're detained by customs agents upon returning from an overseas trip, they're asked very probing questions about their faith, including "How often do you pray," “Do you attend mosque" and “Are you Sunni or Shi’a?”
The men and their attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union say the practice goes back to at least 2011, when the ACLU and other organizations accused Customs and Border Protection officials of religious discrimination against Muslims, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents of reportedly carrying sample questionnaires targeted at Muslims.
Fast-forward to 2019 and 2020, and Kariye says it's still happening. In 2019, Kariye says customs agents questioned him about a youth sports league he helped run in Minnesota. Unprompted, the agent asked Kariye if the sports league was for “black and white kids, or is it just for Muslim kids," Kariye says in his complaint.
And in a 2020 encounter with customs agents, Kariye says they threatened to “make things harder” if he did not answer their questions. Then they conducted a thorough, full-body patdown that included touching his buttocks and groin before allowing him to leave, Kariye says in his complaint.
The last four times co-plaintiff Mohamad Mouslli traveled internationally, customs or border patrol agents detained him upon his arrival in his home state of Arizona and asked questions of a religious nature. The first time in 2018, agents interrogated Mouslli at the border crossing near Lukeville, Arizona, Mouslli says, refusing to allow him to leave the car for six to seven hours.
Mouslli says he is so distressed by the repeated detainments that he did not feel safe enough to travel to Dubai for a family visit.
Two customs agents detained the third plaintiff, Hameem Shah, on May 7, 2019, when he returned to his home state of Texas from Europe. Shan says that when he refused to allow one of the officers to search his belongings, the officer claimed that because they were at the border, Shah had no choice but to comply.
According to the complaint, one of the officers told Shah they were trying to make sure he was a “safe person.” Then, when Shah said he no longer wished to enter the United States but instead return to Europe, the officers refused to return Shah’s phone until he unlocked it for them so they could inspect it.
In a phone interview, ACLU senior staff attorney Mohammad Tasjar said what the plaintiffs describe is typical behavior by customs and border patrol agents.
“What has happened to them is emblematic of the kind of discriminatory targeting of members of the Muslim faith and those who are perceived to be Muslim by federal government officers and border officials who confused religiosity with suspicion," Tasjar said.
The plaintiffs claims include violations of the First and Fifth amendments and of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They seek a court declaration that their rights have been violated and an order barring federal agents from grilling them about their religious affiliations.
They also want the court to order the defendants to expunge all records related to their interrogations.
Named defendants include Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director Tae Johnson and Steve Francis, acting executive director of Homeland Security Investigations.
Customs and Border Protection did not respond to a request for comment by press time.