The stories have come fast and successive in the weeks since Donald Trump stepped into the Oval Office: tales of Muslim travelers being detained and then interrogated about their religious beliefs.
On January 29, at John F. Kennedy Airport, federal agents questioned a green-card holder about videos of Muslim religious leaders preaching that they found on his laptop, said Anisha Gupta, a staff attorney at the Bronx Defenders who volunteered at the airport after Trump’s first executive order on Muslim travelers went into effect.
On February 4, a Muslim-Canadian family said they were denied entry into the United States. Fadwa Alaoui, the mother, told CBC News that an agent asked her, “Do you practice? Which mosque do you go to? What is the name of the imam? How often do you go to the mosque? What kind of discussions do you hear in the mosque? Does the imam talk to you directly?”
And on February 7, in a case that captured headlines around the world, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents at the Fort Lauderdale Airport detained and interrogated Muhammad Ali Jr., the son of the legendary boxer. They pulled him aside, held him for nearly two hours, and asked him, “Where did you get your name?” and “Are you Muslim?”
“I haven’t been stopped like this when Bush was in office. I haven’t been stopped like this when Clinton was in office,” said Muhammad Ali Jr., in an interview with The Nation. “But it takes Trump getting in office to be treated like this. And I’m an American citizen.”
One month later, Transportation Security Agency officials at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC, stopped and questioned Ali Jr. again, though they did not ask about his religion this time.
To Muslim advocates like Hassan Shibly, the chief executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations’ (CAIR) Florida chapter, such stories show that, with Trump in power, border agents feel “emboldened” to implement “discriminatory practices.”
After Trump’s executive orders targeting Muslims were signed, “all the gloves came off,” said Shibly.
Lawyers and civil-liberties advocates fear that the practice of detaining and interrogating Muslims about their religious beliefs at airports is increasing—a practice that echoes a history of US immigration laws and border-control policies that sought to keep out those who believed in communism, anarchism, and other radical left-wing ideologies. In this instance, the questioning of Muslims appears to reflect a theory within federal agencies that a person’s religious belief can indicate whether they have the propensity for violence. Border agents have weaponized that theory, and turned it into a basis for harsh questioning.