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The hearings play to many Muslims' worst fears about stereotyping. Those fears were at the center of a recent landmark court case. It involved 40 Muslims from the Buffalo area who had crossed the border into Canada to attend an Islamic conference.
As NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, the trouble began when they tried to come home.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Five years ago, Dr. Khalid Qasi got a late-night phone call.
Dr. KHALID QASI (Physician): I picked up the phone, I was in deep sleep, but when I picked up the phone, I heard this Muslim woman, a dentist, on the other side, crying and saying, Brother Khalid, what did we do, what did we do? We are here at the border for the last six hours.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Dr. Qasi is one of the leaders of the Muslim community in Buffalo. The woman on the phone said 40 people from the local Muslim community were in a holding room at the U.S. border with Canada, a procedure called secondary screening.
Mr. HASSAN SHIBLY: We arrived at the border around 11, 12 p.m., long drive, very snowy, we were very tired.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Hassan Shibly. He was one of the people detained that night. His mother is the one who made the phone call asking for help.
Mr. SHIBLY: They just looked at our passports, asked where we went. We said we went to an Islamic conference in Toronto. And they said, all right, we'd like to pull you in for a random inspection.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Everyone in the group, he said, was carrying a valid American ID.
Mr. SHIBLY: My mom was, like, what does random mean? I said, mom, I was just joking and said, it's probably because they saw your headscarf. I went into the secondary inspection room and it looked like I was at the local mosque. There was about 40 individuals, each and every one of them Muslim, you know, from the Muslim community.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Hassan Shibly said the treatment was rough.
Mr. SHIBLY: They took me into a separate room, forcefully put me on the wall, forcefully opened my legs, searched me, I didn't have anything, you know, on me. Then, forcibly took my fingerprints and my picture, you know, without any reasoning why.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Why the harsh treatment? It had to do with that Islamic conference they attended. Homeland Security said, later, it had received a tip people at that conference might have ties to terrorism. And later, in court papers, government lawyers said because of that intelligence, anyone crossing into Buffalo from Toronto could receive the same treatment as a suspected terrorist.
The incident became the basis of a lawsuit. I asked the man who is now the assistant commissioner at U.S. Customs and Border Protection about the case. His name is Thomas Winkowski.
Mr. THOMAS WINKOWSKI (Assistant Commissioner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection): We do not just randomly send individuals into secondary.
TEMPLE-RASTON: He said there have to be other reasons to detain people. Winkowski said just going to an Islamic conference could spark a second look.
Mr. WINKOWSKI: It could be. Some conferences, we would have an interest in who's there.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Michael Battle was the U.S. attorney in Buffalo at the time, and he was upset.
Mr. MICHAEL BATTLE (Attorney): As U.S. attorney, of course, the first thing I wanted to know was why. I wanted to know whether or not their detention somehow implicated possibly criminal behavior.
TEMPLE-RASTON: And what was the answer to that question?
Mr. BATTLE: The answer was that it had not, because everyone was released and allowed to go back into the United States.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Battle prosecuted a high-profile terrorism case in Buffalo known as the Lackawanna Six several years earlier, in 2002. He says the border case seemed like profiling.
Mr. BATTLE: It makes Muslims angry and it should make all Americans angry because, again, this is just not what law enforcement should be used for when it amounts to nothing that seems like anything other than garden variety profiling.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Even so, the government won the lawsuit. A U.S. appeals court essentially said national security concerns can outweigh civil liberties.
Qasi, the man who took that late-night phone call, said he's never been satisfied with the explanations for what happened at the border.
Dr. QASI: If they had appropriate identification and they did not lie, they answered the questions, why did they need fingerprinting? Nobody could answer that.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The ACLU and a group called Muslim Advocates have tried a new legal tact. They filed a Freedom of Information request to see the guidelines for questioning people at the border. They've also written to the Department of Homeland Security asking its inspector general to investigate the treatment of U.S. Muslims at the borders. The inspector general's office is looking into it but has yet to launch a formal investigation.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.
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