Saturday, May 07, 2011

Probe to Examine Allegations of Homeland Security's Racial and Religious Profiling at Borders

U.S. probe to look at border concerns of Muslims

May 7, 2011

Vehicles line up as they exit the tunnel into Detroit for the border inspection in 2005. The U.S. government has launched a probe into complaints from metro Detroit Muslims that cite detentions, body searches and questioning about their religion at border crossings in Michigan.


Imam Ali Suleiman Ali, head of the Canton Mosque, says once, agents handcuffed and detained him while questioning him. The U.S. government has launched an investigation into allegations that federal agents at several U.S.-Canada border crossings in Michigan repeatedly harassed, jailed and body searched Muslims because of their background or appearance.

In a letter sent this week to a local Muslim group, Margo Schlanger, the head of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the Department of Homeland Security, said her office has received accounts of "repeated handcuffing, brandishing of weapons, prolonged detentions, invasive and humiliating body searches at the border, and inappropriate questioning that pertains to religion and religious practices."

The complaints include incidents at the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit and the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron.

The investigation comes in response to complaints filed in March by the Council on American-Islamic Relations with the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security.

The council said it was concerned that agents were even asking people about their prayer schedules.

Muslims, Arab Americans, south Asians and other minorities have complained for years about being harassed at border crossings. Now, some say it's getting worse.

"It really makes you feel humiliated," said Wissam Charafeddine, 34, of Dearborn, who says he gets repeatedly jailed at the border. "It doesn't make you feel like you're in America."

Muslims cite fear, worry at borders
He's a 34-year-old married man with two daughters, no criminal record and a solid job as an assistant principal in Detroit Public Schools.

But every time Wissam Charafeddine of Dearborn has crossed the border into the U.S. from Canada in the last three years, he says he has been detained, fingerprinted and body searched -- "where every part of the body is touched and squeezed" -- while agents peppered him with questions. One time, he said, he was separated from his family and jailed in a cold cell for five hours as his 1-year-old daughter cried for milk.

The last time he crossed the border, on Dec. 5, he said he was detained for almost four hours, from 12:20 a.m. to 3:48 a.m., after agents searched his entire body and went through everything in his car, including his cell phone.

It's an experience other Muslim-Americans say they have also faced. They say they're innocent victims of the government's war on terrorism for the past 10 years, and they want it to stop.

Now, the U.S. government has launched a probe into complaints from local Muslims, including Charafeddine.

Margo Schlanger, head of the office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the Department of Homeland Security, wrote a letter this week to the Michigan branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, saying her office is investigating local complaints.

In March, the council documented 10 harassment allegations at three border crossings in Michigan -- the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit and the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron -- and filed complaints with the DHS and the Department of Justice.

On Tuesday, Schlanger sent a letter to the council saying DHS would investigate.

"This office takes allegations of violations of civil rights and civil liberties very seriously," she said in the letter. She added that her office has received similar complaints before.

Charafeddine said he welcomes the investigation, hoping it will end a three-year ordeal that he says has caused him both personal and business problems. Because of the alleged harassment, he said he can't visit family and friends in nearby Windsor. And he said he had to back out of working with an e-commerce company in Toronto that wanted him to help the company expand in Windsor.

"Maybe I could understand if this happened in a country like Syria or Colombia, but not in the United States, which speaks about human rights and civil rights," he said.

The investigation by DHS comes after a separate investigation was announced last month by the U.S. government that is looking into allegations that federal agents are improperly targeting Latino immigrants in southwest Detroit. Local advocates say there's a pattern of harassment, but union representatives said their agents did nothing wrong and blasted the government for launching the investigation.

In both cases, federal officials say they can't comment on the specific allegations.

One of the 10 complaints by local Muslims involves Imam Ali Suleiman Ali, head of the Canton Mosque, one of the larger Islamic centers in metro Detroit.

He described a recent border crossing in which he says agents handcuffed and detained him while asking him, "Where's your mosque?" and "What Islamic organizations do you belong to?" Ali described several other similar situations at borders or airports in the past five years.

"We've had respected leaders detained, handcuffed and questioned about their mosque," said Dawud Walid, head of the Michigan branch of the council, noting that other imams also have faced similar harassment.

"That sends a chilling effect across the entire community," he said.

Walid said that some Muslims face questions about their religious beliefs, which he said violates the U.S. Constitution. He said they include questions such as, "How many times a day do you pray?," "Do you pray your morning prayer in the mosque?" and "Who else prays in your mosque?"

Calculus teacher Kheireddine Bouzid, 22, of Ann Arbor said he has faced harassment at the Detroit-Windsor border. He said he was suddenly handcuffed and jailed on a recent trip after showing his ID at the crossing.

On a later crossing, he said he was targeted "at gunpoint with six to nine officers."

Charafeddine, the Dearborn man, coaches youth soccer, was a Scoutmaster for five years with Boy Scouts and has lived in the U.S. since 1995. But despite that, he said agents have mistreated him each of the 10 to 15 times he has crossed the border since November 2007.

Each time he's detained, he said he gets scared because "you don't know what's going to happen. You have to face the unknown. It's just psychologically torturous.

"Why do I have to be treated like a terrorist?"

Contact Niraj Warikoo: 313-223-4792 or

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