Hina Shamsi has traveled abroad countless times for work in the last two decades, but until last week, the ACLU lawyer had never been subject to extensive, discriminatory questioning from Customs and Border Protection officers.
Not during the George W. Bush administration, when she traveled to meet with and represent Iraqi and Afghan survivors of U.S. military torture.
Not on her way to and from Guantanamo, where she was an official observer helping to reveal the goings-on at the notoriously furtive military camp.
Nor was she questioned during the Obama administration, she says, “when my work included challenges to unlawful targeted killing, anti-Muslim discrimination, unfair watch-listing, illegal spying and other U.S. government abuses at home and abroad.”
But last week, Shamsi, the ACLU’s national security project director, says she was flagged by CBP while connecting through Puerto Rico, where she faced “questioning unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in over 25 years of travel into and out of this country.”
In particular, she says, she was struck by one particularly “chilling” question the officer asked her: “Do you understand why someone might have a different perspective about you?”
Compared to the hardship and suffering of the tens of thousands of people impacted by President Trump’s Muslim ban executive order, it was nothing. ACLU lawyer Hina Shamsi
Shamsi recounted her experience in a blog Tuesday on the ACLU website, noting the CBP officer couldn’t fathom what a Pakistani citizen would be doing at a firm with “American” in its title. (Coincidentally, Shamsi’s naturalization ceremony was scheduled for the next day.)
“Compared to the hardship and suffering of the tens of thousands of people impacted by President Trump’s Muslim ban executive order, it was nothing,” she wrote. “But it said something personal to me about the tenor of these dark times.”
Shamsi said she was on her way back from a meeting in Dominica with torture victims she’s representing in a suit against two CIA torture program psychologists.
However, “the CBP questioning didn’t seem to have anything to do with the torture case,” she wrote. “Instead, it focused on my work for the ACLU and my citizenship — Pakistani — although I’ve been a longtime legal permanent resident of the United States for more than a decade.”
The officer let her go after “extensive” questioning, she says, and the next day ― with the words of Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” in her head (see below) ― she took the oath of citizenship.
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
For more information on what law enforcement officers can and cannot legally do at airports and other ports of entry, visit the ACLU’s “Know Your Rights” page on the subject.