The first time it happens in 2009 it takes Egyptian-American lawyer Abdalla Matthews by surprise. He is travelling back from Ontario with three friends, and they are crossing the Blue Water Bridge over the St. Clair river into Port Huron, Michigan. It is a cold December day, and Matthews and his friends were attending the Reviving the Islamic Spirit conference in Toronto, the largest Islamic conference in Canada (and one of the biggest in North America), meant to “revive Islamic traditions of education, tolerance, and introspection."
They think everything is going fine when they pull up to the U.S. customs area. Being originally from Port Huron, Matthews has crossed the international border “a million times before,” he tells me in an interview. They aren’t expecting any problems at all. They hand their United States passports over to the blue-uniformed Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent.
After scanning the passports and spending a few minutes looking into his computer, the agent says to the driver sitting next to Matthews:
“Sir. Turn off the vehicle. Hand me the key. And step out of the car.”
After the driver steps out, Matthews hears the sharp snap of handcuffs.
Disoriented, he looks around and sees more uniformed men poised, kneeling behind the car.
“To my disbelief they are snipers, pointing their guns.”
CBP agents tell Matthews and the other two in the back seat to get out of the car.
He will spend the next two hours handcuffed, in interrogation, and will be told to sit down in a room where there is only a countertop and no chair.
“Can I just stand?” he asks them.
After standing there for almost an hour, they finally begin the interrogation. Matthews says that the agents are “nice” and tell him “sorry we have to do this.”
They ask him where he went in Canada? What kind of law does he practice? He is questioned about his Islamic beliefs and different Islamic issues. “They asked me if I had military training abroad, and this stood out as one of their bizarre questions.”
After two and a half hours of detainment and questioning they let him and his friends go. They tell him that he was detained because his name is similar to another name on a list, but Matthews doesn’t believe them (author's note: I have changed his name here at his request). “I have a strange name, a unique name” he said, “a name of two different languages.”
Although he doesn’t believe them, he thinks that there is no way that this would happen again a second time, and he confidently crosses from Canada to the United States—this time alone—months later. But at this point Matthews doesn't realize that this is a strong pattern happening to other Muslims too, and that it might even be a protocol.
In April, the Council on American Islamic Relations-Michigan (CAIR-MI) filed a lawsuit against Customs and Border Protection after receiving numerous similar complaints from U.S. American Muslims concerning “repeated handcuffing, brandishing of weapons, prolonged detentions, invasive and humiliating body searches at the border, and inappropriate questioning that pertains to religion and religious practices.” Maybe Matthews was one of the lucky ones, since others have experienced detentions of up to 10 hours. There are five plaintiffs in the lawsuit announced in April, and several testified in a press conference (see video below).
In September, CAIR-Michigan increased the pressure and joined with Michigan’s Alliance for Immigration Reform to demand an investigation into Customs and Border Protection, including alleged Border Patrol racial-profiling in Latino areas in metro Detroit.
When CAIR-MI director Dawud Walid appeared on a local radio program—The Craig Fahle Show—to explain this call to investigate, the interviewer was incredulous. He told Walid that after all “we are in a war.” And because of that, “. . . if the people who are protecting the border make some mistakes along the way, I’m going to give them some latitude here.”
The interviewer also suggested that the Muslims who are having problems at the border should “go and get an enhanced driver’s license to get through the process much easier like the rest of us. . .” His point was that the enhanced driver’s license, which also functions like a passport, was meant for more efficient cross-border travel.
CAIR-MI says that many of the individuals filed inquiries with the Department of Homeland Security’s Traveler Inquiry Program and have received responses like “on behalf of DHS, let me assure you that it is not our intent to subject the traveling public to unwarranted scrutiny.”
To another person they wrote “. . .please understand that in order to detect those international travelers involved in illicit activities, we must, at times, unfortunately inconvenience law-abiding travelers.”
CAIR-MI also filed complaints with the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in March 2011, but according to staff attorney Lena Masri, they received a response from that “department, saying that their complaint process does not provide individuals any legal recourse or rights.”
The bigger issue, of course, is what is happening on the U.S. international boundaries. Slowly, almost imperceptibly in the national consciousness, the U.S.-Canadian boundary is receiving more attention and resources. It is quickly becoming one of the hot spots of the post-9/11 homeland security era in the United States. Michigan congressional representative Candice Miller is leading this charge and has made border security one of her flagship issues. As chairwoman of the Border and Maritime Security subcommittee, she is the primary sponsor of the Secure Border Act passed unanimously in the House in June which, among other things, calls for further resources to the northern border. More and more officials are saying that this “porous” 4,000 mile international divide is vulnerable to drug smugglers and “terrorist foot traffic.”
Matthews is one of Miller’s constituents. He grew up, went to high school, and continues to live in her district.
When he crosses the bridge the first time since the December incident after the Reviving the Islamic Spirit Conference, he is staying with his parents in Port Huron, his childhood home. “I lived down the street from the border bridge, and used to cross the border all the time with a drivers license.”
When he hands the CBP agent his passport he feels his heart rate increase, but thinks everything is fine. He tells himself that everything will be fine.
The agent asks him: “When you came here the last time, did you have to be handcuffed?”
Matthews says yes.
“I’m sorry sir, but we’ll have to do it again. But this time,” the border guard says reassuringly, “we got the right people inside and they’ll make it quicker for you.”
Ok, Matthews says. They handcuff him, and bring him inside to the same waiting room.
Matthews sees the same officer, the nice one from the interrogation room the last time:
“Hey man,” he asks him, “What’s going on? Why are they doing this?”
The nice interrogator tells another agent to take off the handcuffs.
“We’re going to clear you,” he says. Matthews sits there while they try to get clearance from the Department of Homeland Security in Washington DC.
While sitting there another CBP officer approaches him. He asks Matthews the usual: Where did he go in Canada? What was the purpose?
But then the officers pauses, and asks Matthews—“Do you remember me?”
Matthews looks at him, trying to remember. “’Oh yeah, yeah, I played soccer with you.’”
“I was a year younger,” he tells me in the interview, “I hadn’t seen him since high school.”
For a moment the two old acquaintances reminisce, on either side of the border security divide, though from the same community, one just as “U.S. American” as the other. Or are they?
Matthews pleads with his friend “You know who I am. I grew up here. I’ve been over the border a million times.” But his European-American friend can only reluctantly guide him to the same room with the countertop. This time the interrogators, two of them, aren’t so nice.
“They were aggressive. They told me to spread my legs. They told me to take off my shoes.”
It is hard to take off your shoes, Matthews says, with your hands tied behind your back. Unable to get them off, the officer searching him kicks his feet while the two interrogators stand before him asking questions. This time they are “giving me attitude.” He is trying to answer but can’t get his shoes off and the officer continues to kick his feet, hard. When the shoes are finally off, Matthews says that the search is invasive and that they continue to interrogate while the CBP agent grabs his “belt area” around his groin.
When they are done Matthews asks an agent what would happen if he circled around, reentered Canada, and came back. The agent responds that they would have to do the same exact process—detain, handcuff, and interrogate—as if it never happened the first time.
Now Matthews is fearful of crossing the international divide into his own country. He thought he was a U.S. citizen, and he is, but the powerful, ever-discriminating border has made him something else.
Todd Miller has researched and written about U.S.-Mexican border issues for more than 10 years. He has worked on both sides of the border for BorderLinks in Tucson, Arizona, and Witness for Peace in Oaxaca, Mexico. He now writes on border and immigration issues for NACLA Report on the Americas and its blog “Border Wars,” among other places. For more from the Border Wars blog, visit nacla.org/blog/border-wars. And now you can follow it on twitter @NACLABorderWars.