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Advisory for U.S. Travelers Repeatedly Screened at Borders

(San Francisco, Oct. 16) – Responding to growing complaints of harassment at U.S. airports, the San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus is issuing advice for U.S. citizens and immigrants repeatedly searched and questioned when returning to the United States.
The new multi-lingual advisories will be distributed at cultural centers, places of worship, and other community institutions and are available at the group’s website,
Since January, the Asian Law Caucus has received regular complaints from Muslim, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern individuals – including U.S. citizens – who say they are singled out by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials each time they fly back to the country.
Customs officials question travelers, sometimes for several hours, about their families, travels, religious practices, and political beliefs. In addition, agents examine reading material and other highly personal items travelers are carrying, including books, notes, cell phone directories, and files on laptop computers. When individuals complain, they have been told, “This is the border, and you have no rights.”
Complaints received by the Asian Law Caucus include the following:
A Santa Clara resident and high-tech marketing rep originally from Sudan was detained for five hours at San Francisco International Airport and quizzed about the books he was carrying, his volunteer activities at the mosque, his travels, and other issues. On three separate return trips, Customs agents have searched his laptop computer; once, they questioned him about articles he had read online. Despite using a government procedure set up for individuals mistakenly flagged on watchlists, he has seen no improvement in his situation and fears the same treatment each time he returns home.
A U.S. citizen who teaches ethnic studies at a local college and writes for national magazines was questioned extensively about his trip to Lebanon. Border agents at San Francisco International Airport questioned him on the reporter’s notes he took at political demonstrations, even asking him about scrawlings on “post-it” notes in his luggage. Agents removed his laptop computer to another room for 45 minutes and told him they were downloading all the files from his computer. When he protested his treatment, he was told, “This is the border, and you have no rights.”
In the last two years, a San Jose imam who is a U.S. citizen has been taken aside seven times for questioning and extensive luggage searches when returning to the United States. On one occasion, when returning from a U.S.-government sponsored conference in Europe, agents removed all the business cards he had collected from individuals he met at the conference, presumably to photocopy them. A leader who promotes interfaith work and civic engagement within his community, he has repeatedly complained to federal officials about his treatment, but with no resolution.

“The government’s intrusive questioning and searches has a chilling effect on free speech, freedom of religion, and political association. No one should have to undergo such an interrogation into their thoughts and lawful activities as a condition for returning home,” said Shirin Sinnar, staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus. “The fact that so many Americans are repeatedly subject to this treatment, not knowing why and unable to clear their names, violates basic notions of fairness and due process.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses a federal Terrorist Screening Database to pre-screen all air travelers seeking entry into the United States, including U.S. citizens. Tens of thousands of people are reportedly flagged as security risks by this secret database, and misidentifications based on similar names are frequent.
CBP also employs an “Automated Targeting System” that stores and analyzes travel records in order to assign secret risk scores to millions of U.S. travelers. Recent news reports indicate that the ATS may store such information as one’s race, traveling partners, and reading material, raising privacy and First Amendment concerns.
The Asian Law Caucus advisory provides guidance for travelers on preparing for one’s return, responding to inordinate scrutiny at the airport, and filing complaints after returning. The information is available in English, Urdu, Arabic, Hindi, and Dari. The Asian Law Caucus is a 35-year-old nonprofit organization in San Francisco that advocates for the legal and civil rights of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
To view the travel advisories, please see “Advice for International Travelers Returning to the United States” at
To interview an individual flagged by repeated screening or Asian Law Caucus staff attorney Shirin Sinnar, please call 415-848-7714 or email
To reprint the advisory in any of the languages available, please call 415-848-7711 or email


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