Nabila Mango, a therapist who works in San Francisco, flew home in December after a trip to the Middle East and says customs agents detained her and asked her to identify everyone she had met and all the places she’d slept.

Amir Khan, a tech consultant from Fremont, says he’s questioned for hours each time he returns from abroad and has been asked whether he hates the U.S. government.

After receiving more than 20 such complaints in the past year, mostly from South Asians and Muslims, two legal organizations sued the Homeland Security Department on Thursday for information on its policies of questioning and searching returning travelers.

“When the government searches your books, peers into your computer and demands to know your political views, it sends the message that free expression and privacy disappear at our nation’s doorstep,” attorney Shirin Sinnar of the Asian Law Caucus said at a news conference after filing the suit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

The Asian Law Caucus and the Electronic Frontier Foundation said they asked Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection division for its policies Oct. 31 and have yet to receive any documents, despite a 20-day deadline for a response from the government under the Freedom of Information Act.

The groups want to know what policies guide customs agents in asking political or religious questions, what happens when a traveler refuses to answer or wants a lawyer, and what standards exist for agents who want to search or copy material from laptop computers, cell phones and other electronic devices.

Courts have allowed federal agents more leeway in searches at borders and airports than elsewhere, and some rulings have allowed customs agents to search laptops and cell phones without evidence the devices’ owners have done anything wrong. Sinnar said she considers the searches of electronic devices legally questionable, and that singling out travelers by race or religion would raise serious constitutional concerns. (MORE)


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