Flying While Muslim

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Civil rights attorney Zahra Billoo shares her story of being profiled and targeted by LAX Customs & Border Protection

In April, when returning from Umrah with her brother in Saudi Arabia, CAIR- San Francisco Bay Area director and civil rights attorney Zahra Billoo was targeted by Customs & Border Protection at LAX. Her experience is common for American Muslims but not talked about nearly enough. She shared her story on Facebook and gave us permission to publish here hoping to shed light and raise awareness of the profiling of our Muslim brothers and sisters.

From Zahra Billoo:

Umrah blessings and civil rights work abound.

My welcome home to America was a first time opportunity to go through the Immigration and Customs process with my AWESOME brother and our Umrah group co-leader.

We were seated separately and so did not exit the plane together. There were Customs & Border Protection (CBP) agents waiting planeside as we exited. The only people they stopped though were another brother-sister duo, and they were released immediately. My theory is they were haphazardly looking for my brother and I.

The automated passport control printed both of our receipts out with big X’s on them, so I knew I was in for something new. At the kiosk, an agent asked us some basic questions and then asked us to stand aside.

We were picked up by two CBP agents. It turned out they were the same ones who stopped our friends coming off the flight. It’s not like the “perp walk” one does when you get arrested because there are no handcuffs and the officers don’t have their hands on you. Still, it’s a walk of sorts. They escorted us to baggage claim, where they waited nearby as we retrieved our luggage and ZamZam bottles.

One of the CBP agents tried to make small talk while we waited, asking me if I’d been to Saudi Arabia before.

(Note: we are US citizens. What follows is my story, not legal advice, and certainly not something non-citizens should experiment with.)

It was early in the exchange, so I was going to try out my own advice: if I answer this question, it will invite a follow up.

Me: “yes”
CBP Agent: “how many times?”
Me: “several”
CBP Agent: “when?”

That was as far as the casual conversation would go. I looked at him and said, “respectfully, I’ve reentered the US after each trip. I’m not required to answer questions about any trips beyond this most recent one.”

Each answer indeed leads to another question.

He smirks, “well you can answer it however you want.”

Look, I want to make new friends and tell them all about my blessed trip but his job is to profile and investigate me under the guise of national security. He is wearing a gun and a badge. That uniform gives his colleagues permission to shoot me in the back. Small talk with law enforcement is not inconsequential.

After we had retrieved all of our luggage we were taken to secondary inspection. Aside from a tour for immigration attorneys at another airport, it was my first time here, though I’ve heard the stories about the invasiveness and even violence which sometimes occurs here.

My AWESOME brother and I are separated. We can still see each other, but we’re seated on opposite sides of the room. We are the only two people in secondary inspection at this time. They say they need to question us individually.

The agent assigned to me takes my passport and has me wait. 10 or so minutes go by before he calls me up to his kiosk.

I’m not afraid, I only fear God. I am however nervous about walking the walk and the obligation I feel to be true to my word and use my privilege to make any intrusion into my privacy challenging.

CBP Agent: “Where did you go?”
Me: “Madina and Makkah”

CBP Agent: “Did you go anywhere else?”
Me: “No”

CBP Agent: “How much cash do you have with you?”
Me: “The equivalent of less than $1,000 USD”

CBP Agent: “What was the purpose of the trip?”
Me: “Personal”

CBP Agent: “Was it business or pleasure?”
Me: “If you need it to be one of those two categories, pleasure”

CBP Agent: “Did you do Umrah?”
Me: “That’s not relevant to my entry into the US”

CBP Agent: “Ma’am, I ask everyone that”
Me: “I understand, but I’m not required to answer it. Also, you should be able to deduce the answer based on the visa in my passport”

CBP Agent: “I haven’t looked at your passport”
Me: “I see, well you have it, so you can look at it”

CBP Agent: “Where did you stay?”
Me: “Madina and Makkah”

CBP Agent: “Which hotels?”
Me: “That’s not relevant to my entry into the US”

CBP Agent: “What pamphlets have you read about this interaction? Where are you getting your information about my questions?”
Me: “The Constitution, case law, and widely available know your rights information. Plus I’m a civil rights lawyer”

CBP Agent: “Oh, what kind of lawyer?”
Me: “CIVIL RIGHTS LAWYER”

CBP Agent: “Where do you work?”
Me: “That’s not relevant to my entry into the US”

CBP Agent: “I’m just trying to figure out where you’re getting your information so we can be on the same page”
Me: “I’m getting my information from the Constitution, case law, and widely available know your rights information”

CBP Agent: “What is your address? Are you willing to give me that?”
Me: “No, it’s not relevant to my entry into the US. Also, if you really want it, you can find it online or in government records”

CBP Agent: “I can find your address online?”
Me: “Potentially, but you can most certainly find it in government records. You have access to those”

CBP Agent: “Ma’am, you provided it to Saudi Arabia to get your visa”
Me: “We’re not in Saudi Arabia”

CBP Agent: “But you’re entering another country?”
Me: “No, this is not another country, this is my country, and I’m a US citizen. Having an address is not a condition of my reentry”

This absurdity eventually led to a bag check, me refusing to lift my 50 lb. suitcase on to his inspection desk and him needing to do it, and then being cleared to finally leave.

No, I did not thank these agents on my way out for holding my passport, asking invasive unnecessary questions, or wasting my time. They are part of the problem. Their job is one that requires them to profile and harass minorities, and they participate unquestioningly for a paycheck.

Can you imagine what this experience is like for non-citizens? Non-lawyers? Non-able bodied individuals? Families? Infrequent travelers?

It’s absurd. Did they think they might get a confession that I engaged in some sort of illegal activity through this interaction? Is that usually how they find white supremacists and murderous police officers? Oh wait, they don’t ever find those folks. They’re wasting our tax dollars delaying and harassing a civil rights lawyer and religious leader, sister-brother duo.

I share this and other more innocuous airport experiences as learning opportunities. This was my first time in secondary inspection, and I’ve traveled internationally about 10 times in the last 2.5 years. This is not normal and you should not accept it as such.

Remember these words, “that’s not relevant to my entry into the US.”

Comments
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sister h
sister h

Zahra, you are awesome and my hero!

Stories