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Muslim Americans sue over US border officers’ ‘invasive’ questions on religion

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Three Muslim Americans filed a lawsuit this week alleging that US border officers questioned them about their religious beliefs in violation of their constitutional rights when they returned from international travel.

The men involved in the lawsuit claim that US border officers at land crossings and international airports peppered them with questions about whether they were Muslim and attended a mosque and how often they prayed.

Abdirahman Aden Kariye, a Minnesota imam and plaintiff in the suit, said he has been questioned about his faith at least five different times when he was returning to the country between 2017 and 2022.

The repeated questioning caused Kariye stress and led him to stop wearing a Muslim cap known as a kufi, and to stop carrying religious texts when he travels internationally to avoid additional scrutiny, the lawsuit said.

“I am proud to be a Muslim,” said Kariye. “But now whenever I travel back home to the United States, I’m anxious. I’m constantly worried about how I will be perceived, so much so that I try to avoid calling any attention to my faith.”

The three men from Minnesota, Texas and Arizona sued Department of Homeland Security officials in a federal court in Los Angeles. The lawsuit was filed in California because some of the questioning allegedly occurred at Los Angeles airport.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the men, said the questioning violated the men’s constitutional rights to freedom of religion and protection against unequal treatment.

“Just as border officers may not single out Christian Americans to ask what denomination they are, which church they attend, and how regularly they pray, singling out Muslim Americans for similar questions is unconstitutional,” said the lawsuit.

It added: “By targeting plaintiffs for religious questioning merely because they are Muslim, defendants’ border officers stigmatize them for adhering to a particular faith and condemn their religion as subject to suspicion and distrust.”

It asks a judge to declare the religious questioning was unconstitutional and to order US government agencies to expunge records containing information that was obtained through the questioning of the men.

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately return a Guardian request for comment about the lawsuit.

Another plaintiff, Hameem Shah, a resident of Plano, Texas who works in financial services, said he was returning in 2019 from a vacation to Serbia and Bosnia when he was pulled aside at the Los Angeles airport for additional screening.

Officers separated him from other travelers and started reading his personal journal, despite his opposition, and asked him whether he had traveled in the Middle East, saying they wanted to make sure he was a “safe person”, the lawsuit said.

They also asked him about his religious beliefs and practices, and searched his phone and released him two hours later, the lawsuit said.

“I thought that being an American meant that I and others are free to practice any religion that we choose,” Shah said in a statement, adding that the airport experience he had still haunts him.

“Religious questioning by border officers is unconstitutional, and it’s past time for the government to be held to account,” said Ashley Gorski, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project.

“This invasive questioning serves no legitimate law enforcement purpose, and conveys the harmful and stigmatizing message that the US government views Muslims as inherently suspicious,” she added.

American border security have historically targeted and profiled Muslims for religious questioning in airports. In 2010, ACLU, along with other organizations, filed complaints to DHS regarding border questioning of Muslims about their religious beliefs and practices.

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