Zainab Merchant, a graduate student at Harvard University, was already anxious about traveling from Boston to Washington, D.C., for a speaking engagement. As a Muslim woman, she was all too aware of a frightening pattern in her travel experiences.
But Merchant, who is based in Orlando, Florida, knew what to prepare for. She knew to get to the airport much earlier than the suggested two hours before her flight, since she expected Transportation Security Administration agents to pull her aside, rummage through her bags and subject her to additional pat-downs and screenings. She said the ordeal has been her new normal for the last two years.
What she did not expect was for a TSA officer to announce to the other agents at the security checkpoint that she needed to take “a deeper look” after publicly patting down Merchant’s groin area.
Merchant said she resisted at first, telling the two TSA officers that she was on her period and therefore wearing a menstrual pad. She insisted that any additional screening be done in public, fearing that if she went into a private room without any other witnesses, the situation would only escalate.
But according to Merchant, TSA officials refused and said that if she did not comply, state troopers who were on standby would intervene. Pressured into a private screening and forbidden to call her lawyer, she was led into a private room where TSA officers demanded that she pull down her pants and underwear, she told HuffPost.
Horrified and alone, she acquiesced and revealed her bloodied menstrual pad, she said. After complying with the bizarre and intrusive request, she asked for the officers’ names and badge numbers to report the horrifying experience, but the TSA officers covered their badges with their hands and walked away, she said.
The disturbing incident was only one of numerous instances of profiling and excessive searches that the 27-year-old Merchant said she has endured in the last two years. Since September 2016, she has undergone a series of what the American Civil Liberties Union called “intrusive, humiliating searches — often in ways that appear duplicative and unnecessary — every time she has sought to board an airplane or reenter the United States.”
This week the ACLU filed a formal complaint with the Department of Homeland Security on her behalf, calling for an end to her being singled out during her travels. The ACLU believes she has been subject to repeated and unnecessary screening because she was placed on a government watchlist.
“Every single time, I was being put through extra screening,” she said. “It was the same exact thing every time. By the third time it happened, I realized this is not random. There is definitely a pattern to this, and I’m on some kind of list that is making me go through this again and again.”
The complaint, signed by Hugh Handeyside, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU handling Merchant’s case, details at least 10 times she was subjected to excessive searches by airport officials upon entering an airport, at a gate in front of other passengers and even during layovers. It also describes the time that the TSA called in an explosives unit to search her and her family despite having cleared her minutes earlier and a time that a TSA worker called a team of dogs to search her and her bags.
Border officials have questioned her about her religious beliefs, asked her whether she was Sunni or Shia, inquired about her thoughts about ISIS and even pulled up her website and asked her why she criticized U.S. government policies — all of which raise serious First Amendment concerns, the ACLU said.
According to classified government documents obtained by The Intercept in 2014, over 700,000 Americans were placed on a U.S. government watchlist, the Terrorist Screening Database. Those on the list, many whom are Muslim or have a Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian background and have no connection with any terrorist group, are singled out at airports by having “SSSS” — for “secondary security screening selectee” — stamped on their boarding passes and are repeatedly searched by security officials.
“We have every reason to believe that they are not just doing this to Zainab. We hear from other people presenting similar issues,” Handeyside told HuffPost. “This is a major concern for members of Muslim communities, members of Arab or Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian communities.”
Being placed on the watchlist is a constant fear in Muslim communities. Last year HuffPost documented the experience of three Muslim Americans who were placed on a government watchlist and spoke at length about the difficulty of getting their names removed — let alone finding out why they were on it to begin with.
In Orlando, where Merchant lives with her husband and three children when she isn’t on campus, she tried to learn why she was placed on a watchlist and what she could do to remove her name. She has written members of Congress pleading for help. When she did not hear back, she filed multiple requests with the Department of Homeland Security’s Traveler Redress Inquiry Program, developed by the DHS for people who have been repeatedly identified for additional screening and want to have erroneous information corrected in DHS systems.
Instead, she received a form letter from the DHS stating that it could “neither confirm nor deny” whether she is on any federal watchlist. She also applied for Global Entry, a Customs and Border Protection program that allows expedited clearance for approved travelers. Her application was denied.
When HuffPost reached out to the TSA, a spokesperson responded with a statement regurgitating what it told Merchant: “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 watchlists or reveal any law enforcement sensitive information.” The spokesperson said she should utilize TRIP — which she already tried, to no avail.
A CBP spokesperson told HuffPost that the agency could “not comment on pending litigation” but that it “took all allegations seriously and investigates all formal complaints.”
The ACLU has called for an investigation into the conduct of TSA and CBP officers and for the release of relevant records in Merchant’s case.
“It’s important for the public to understand, it’s important for courts, it’s important for the government to understand that when you do this to someone repeatedly, when you single them out, when rifle through their belongings in front of everybody and when you do that again at the gate in front of passengers they are about to travel with, you are exacting a real psychological mental toll,” Handeyside said. “You’re putting these people through highly stigmatizing experiences.”
Merchant said she is being punished for speaking out. Since she has done so, a few of her family members and friends have distanced themselves from her and her family; others have cut contact completely. She said they have grown suspicious about why the government has deemed it necessary for her to be singled out every time she travels.
“I knew that there was some kind of watchlist and so many people are on it,” she said. “But to find out that people are afraid to speak out because they don’t want to be further targeted and seeing so many of my own people and my own community members on this — I’m just very shocked.”
But she said she is hopeful that justice will be served and her name will be cleared.
“I hope that they hear us loud and clear,” Merchant said. “I’m not going to stop fighting for my rights. This is affecting us on a daily basis now. I’m not going to stop. I’m not going to give up, no matter what happens. I just want them to give us answers as to why this is happening and what I can do to rectify it, because I haven’t done anything wrong. Just give us some answers.”