A Muslim woman in the U.S. has filed a complaint over years of lengthy airport and border security checks — one of which allegedly resulted in her being forced to partially undress while on her period.
Zainab Merchant, who is a Harvard University graduate and founder of current affairs website Zrights Studios, filed the complaint through the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) this week over what the organization called “intrusive searches, questioning and detention.”
The complaint filed against the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) demands an explanation over why 27-year-old Merchant is repeatedly the subject of lengthy searches. The ACLU said it suspects Merchant is on a federal watch list.
The ACLU details several searches Merchant has been through since September 2016, including some which involved travel to or from Canada.
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It says Merchant, who has three children, has to wait for airport security to call Washington, D.C. officials to authorize her travel, which often takes several hours.
She usually doesn’t have issues entering Canada, but she has missed return flights because of detentions.
While returning to the U.S. from Toronto in March 2017, U.S customs officers allegedly opened Merchant’s bags and inspected its contents, including undergarments, in public.
ACLU says they also asked her several questions, which included, “Do you support ISIS?”
But the incident that sparked the complaint occurred about a year later, when Merchant was travelling from Orlando to Boston for university.
It adds that while leaving, Merchant tried to read the officers’ badge numbers so she could launch a complaint, but they covered their badges.
“Now she and her husband avoid flying as a family to spare her children from seeing their parents demeaned by U.S. government officials,” the ACLU petition, titled “DHS: Stop harassing airport travelers like Zainab,” reads.
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The document, which has more than 25,000 signatures, also explains that Merchant was enrolled in additional Harvard classes, but withdrew because that would mean frequent travel between Boston and her home in Orlando.
Global News reached out to CBP over the complaint and received the following response: “CBP has no comment.”
In a separate email to Global News, TSA wrote: “The Department of Homeland Security can neither confirm nor deny whether someone is on a watch list or provide any information about an individual who may be on federal watch lists or reveal any law enforcement sensitive information.”
The statement added that anyone who feels they have been misidentified on a watch list can contract Homeland Security for assistance.
“If a traveler believes s/he has been misidentified, that individual can go through a DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP) that can provide resolution to travelers with difficulties getting through security and at U.S. Borders.”
Merchant wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post earlier this month, saying she has written to members of Congress and filed requests with Homeland Security to determine whether she is on a watch list and why, but has never gotten a clear answer.
“Am I being stopped because I am Muslim, or because my family once traveled to Iran to visit a holy shrine?” she wrote.
“Is it because of my criticism of U.S. policies on the multimedia website I run to raise awareness about injustices around the world? Maybe it’s all three.”
This is far from the first time concerns have been raised about border security practices.
Border patrol officers are given the right to ask any question they deem relevant to entry, Cassandra Fultz, who works as a regulated Canadian immigration consultant in Toronto, explained to Global News in an interview last year.
“Any question can be asked. Any information is subject to scrutiny,” said Fultz.
Security checks involving electronic device searches are also becoming more common, and have sparked privacy concerns.
According to USA Today, CBP carried out 30,200 such searches in 2017 — that’s a 50 per cent increase from the previous year.