“Have you participated in any formal religious training or schooling?”
“What house of worship do you attend?”
“Do you have any relatives or friends who have been martyred fighting in the defense of your beliefs?”
If you’re a Muslim-American, these are some of the questions you might hear from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials while at a port of entry crossing back into the United States. The questions are contained in a heavily redacted ICE questionnaire released last month by the Department of Homeland Security in response to an ongoing lawsuit filed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). The suit, filed in 2012 on behalf of four American citizens who say they were detained, subjected to body searches and questioned aggressively about their religious beliefs while attempting to cross the U.S-Canada border, alleges that border officials engaged in unconstitutional profiling intended to humiliate and stigmatize them at the border over their religious beliefs.
In a declaration accompanying the release of the redacted document, Derek Benner, deputy executive associate director of Homeland Security Investigations for ICE, wrote that the purpose of the questionnaire is “to provide guidance to special agents who are called upon to conduct a certain type of investigatory review of persons.”
ICE is now fighting to keep the full questionnaire, as well as training documents used to instruct border officials on how to conduct such interrogations, shielded from public view. Last week, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed a motion contesting the government’s ongoing effort to keep the documents under seal, arguing that the concealed portions of the questionnaire are “clearly relevant to contextualizing the document and discovering information related to the apparent ICE policy of conducting religious questioning [of] Muslim travelers.”
Unredacted sections of the questionnaire include questions about “martyrdom” as well as religious education and practice.
“There is very obviously a concerted effort to question and intimidate Muslim-Americans based on their religious beliefs,” said Gadeir Abbas, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case. “The types of questions specifically asked of Muslim travelers at borders across the country are far too consistent for there to not be some type of overarching framework and direction being used to target them.”
DHS is fighting to keep the remainder of the document secret by invoking law enforcement privilege, saying that release of the remainder of the document would “reveal the purpose and investigative reasons for the interviews in which the questionnaire was used.”
ICE has asserted that the questions are religiously neutral in nature and are not specifically targeted towards Muslims. However, there have been longstanding allegations that Muslim-Americans have been targeted for invasive religious questioning at border crossings while attempting to return to the United States.
In 2011, one of the plaintiffs in the profiling lawsuit, Kheireddine Bouzid, then a 22-year-old high school teacher from Detroit, was detained while crossing back into the United States from Canada. Border agents handcuffed Bouzid, before proceeding to question him for hours about his religious beliefs, mosque attendance and whether he was involved with any Muslim advocacy organizations. At one point, an agent asked him “whether he has ever felt like killing a non-Muslim.”
Bouzid was eventually released without explanation, but says that such aggressive questioning has long been the norm for him whenever he returns to the United States at any border crossing.
Several other Muslim-American complainants who wished to remain anonymous have also come forward to state that, in recent years, they have been detained and questioned at U.S. border crossings about whether and how often they pray, what mosque they attend, and their views on Islamic eschatological beliefs. In one case, a religious leader from Detroit claimed to have been questioned at length by border agents about the Shia Muslim belief in the mahdi (messiah), including being asked his opinion about when the mahdi could be expected to return to earth and whether the mahdi had been born yet.
In 2014, then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced new rules to curb racial and religious profiling by federal law enforcement agents. However the new measures conspicuously did not cover major Department of Homeland Security agencies such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and ICE.
ICE declined a request to comment on the questionnaire and their use of religious profiling at borders, citing ongoing litigation.
“Asking Muslim-Americans questions about ‘martyrs’ in their family when they’re crossing the border doesn’t serve any constructive purpose, especially when there’s not even a clear definition of what the word means,” said Dawud Walid of CAIR. “These types of questions not only infringe on American citizens’ constitutional rights, they serve no practical purpose other than scaring people or intimidating them on the grounds of their religious identity.”
Photo: David Duprey/AP