College student detained, interrogated, harassed at U.S. border for being in Islamic Studies

By End the Lie

Pascal Abidor (Image credit: Hera Chan/The McGill Daily)

Pascal Abidor, a dual French-American citizen, regularly crosses the Canadian-American border when traveling to visit his parents in Brooklyn, New York, from his school, McGill University.

While you read the troubling experiences of Abidor, keep in mind that while this may be disturbing, our government actually says that they can assassinate any American without any formal charge or trial, and they never have to explain or justify the supposed legal basis for this in court. When they are challenged, they simply say that the program is so secret that they cannot even confirm or deny its existence.

Abidor’s case is indeed objectionable and should not be accepted by any means, however we must remember that this is just a microcosmic example of how truly sick and demented our government has become.

On May 1, 2010, around 11 AM, the Amtrak train regularly taken by Abidor made a routine stop at the United States border.

A team of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers, who are part of the behemoth that is the Department of Homeland Security, boarded the train and began to sweep through each car.

The CBP officers proceeded to question passengers and since Abidor had made the journey many times in the past, he was not at all concerned with an officer approached him.

According to The McGill Daily, Abidor was approached by an Officer Tulip who asked him, “Where do you live, and why?”

He responded that he lived in Canada, because he was pursuing a PhD in Islamic Studies at McGill.

Officer Tulip then asked him where he had traveled to in 2009, to which he responded, Jordan and Lebanon.

Abidor then presented his French passport which bore the stamps of the “Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan” and Lebanon.

This is where things began to go south for Abidor.

Officer Tulip promptly instructed him to get his things and follow her to the train’s café car. Pascal then grabbed his bags, except for his laptop bag, which Officer Tulip picked up.

Unfortunately, Abidor assumed that Officer Tulip had the best of intentions and was just trying to be helpful. In reality, this was far from the case.

Once they reached the café car, around half a dozen additional CBP officers showed up, at which point Officer Tulip removed Abidor’s laptop from the case and turned it on.

Officer Tulip asked Abidor for the password, which, for some reason, he did. He was sitting across from Officer Tulip so he could only see her reaction as she scrutinized the contents of his computer without probable cause or a warrant.

Officer Tulip seemed to discover something troubling, at which point she called over the other CBP officers and pointed at the screen.

She then turned to Abidor and demanded an explanation for photographs of Hamas and Hezbollah rallies which were stored on his laptop.

Officer Tulip asked Abidor where he had obtained “this stuff,” as if it was somehow incriminating to have pictures of a demonstration that involved these groups.

Abidor informed Officer Tulip that he was pursuing his PhD in Islamic Studies with a focus on the Shiites of modern Lebanon.

Apparently this answer was not sufficient in Officer Tulip’s distorted view, and soon after the officers informed Abidor that he would have to disembark the train with them.

“Take me off the train, I’ll walk back to Montreal,” Abidor said, without knowing that this likely would have been much more enjoyable than what he was soon to experience.

Keep in mind, actions like these taken by CBP is far from new.

The policy allowing for the search and seizure of electronic devices at border crossings without any reasonable suspicion dates back to August of 2009, when the Department of Homeland Security decreed that they could essentially violate the Bill of Rights whenever they’d like at border crossings.

Under this policy, which is clearly in violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, the DHS has given itself the power to indefinitely hold any electronic device, in addition to copying and sharing the information held in the device.

Over 6,500 people had their electronic devices taken and searched at border crossings from just October 1, 2008 to June 2, 2010.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano defended this by claiming, “keeping Americans safe in an increasingly digital world depends on our ability to lawfully screen materials entering the United States. The new directives announced today strike the balance between respecting the civil liberties and privacy of all travelers, while ensuring DHS can take the lawful actions necessary to secure our borders.”

Of course, this is not lawful, but instead is a unilateral policy enacted by the DHS which is in clear violation of our civil liberties, although that has not stopped them a bit in the past.

Then again, delusional individuals like Napolitano likely believe that whatever policy they enact is somehow lawful, simply because they said so.

This policy actually explicitly states that “at no point during a border search of electronic devices is it necessary to ask the traveler for consent to search.”

After the CBP officers told Abidor that he would have to leave the train with them, they frisked him, allegedly paying particularly close attention to his genitals, which is hardly surprising.

The officers then handcuffed him and draped a coat over his wrists, supposedly to spare him the embarrassment of a so-called “perp walk.”

However, Abidor wanted as many witnesses as possible since he did absolutely nothing wrong, so he attempted to show as many passengers as possible that he was cuffed as he was walked past the train’s windows.

Abidor was then placed into a van, the side door of which supposedly fell completely off when one of the officers tried to close it. While this obviously would be quite hilarious, Abidor did not risk laughing, for obvious reasons. This was probably an intelligent move on his part, as officers like these rarely like being laughed at.

He was taken to the Camplain Port of Entry, where he was placed in a five-by-teen foot cell built out of cinderblock walls with a door made of reinforced steel.

Abidor was told to wait, which he did for around an hour with officers coming in at random intervals to question him.

“I thought I was going to throw up,” he said. “I thought I was going to be sent to Guantanamo Bay.”

Abidor was taken from his cell to an interrogation room where he was placed across from two CBP officers, with another officer sitting at the end of the table.

“They thought I was straight-up dangerous,” Abidor said, as he assumed that the third officer was there in case the scared student became violent.

He was then subjected to an hour-and-a-half of interrogation by Officer Tulip and a male officer named Officer Sweet.

Some of the questions he was asked included: Where were you born? Where were your parents born? What religion were you raised with? Have you ever been to a rally in the Middle East? Have you heard any anti-American statements in the Middle East? Have you ever seen an American flag burned? Have you ever been to a mosque?

All of these nonsensical questions seemed to return to questioning why he chose Islamic Studies, which is hardly reason for suspicion.

“I want to be an academic – this is just what I happen to be an academic in,” Abidor informed the officers.

This answer did not appear to be sufficient for the interrogators, as they continued to ask him the same questions, even engaging in the tired “good-cop, bad-cop” approach to interrogation.

“[Officer Sweet] thought I was cool,” Abidor said. Yet Officer Tulip “thought I was the most evil person. She thought I was a movie villain or something.”

Last time I checked, there weren’t too many terrorists-in-training pursuing PhDs in Islamic Studies at Canadian universities, but maybe these two officers thought they had stumbled upon a terrorist mastermind.

They illogically asserted that his dual citizenship somehow made him untraceable and attractive to “both sides,” which made Abidor even more confused, thinking, both sides of what?

After three hours of detention without probable cause or reasonable suspicion, he was released.

However, Abidor was far from pleased since the CBP told him that they were holding on to his laptop and hard drive.

Abidor was understandably angry and said that he “ripped into [Officer Tulip]. She just stood there, [then] walked away.”

An individual with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) then approached him and made an attempt at apologizing, which Abidor had no interest in.

He interrupted the agent and said, “I don’t want to hear your apology.”

Abidor was given his camera and two cell phones, one of which had a scratch on the back which looked like one of the agents attempted to pry it open.

Abidor then had to wait for a bus with an open seat to pass through the checkpoint and he didn’t arrive in New York until midnight.

The next day he wrote a detailed account of what he experienced, which altogether came in at a whopping eleven single-spaced pages.

Then the following day he started calling state senators and advocacy groups in an attempt to track down some help.

He said that many showed interest, including Anthony Weiner, the former New York Congressman who resigned after allegedly sending pictures of his genitals to a young woman.

Abidor decided to go with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which told him that his First Amendment rights had been violated by the CBP.

Just two days after his first contact with the ACLU Abidor met with lawyers who proceeded to draft a letter demanding the return of his laptop from the CBP.

The day after the ACLU sent the letter, Abidor received a telephone call from the CBP requesting a location where they should ship his belongings.

When he received his computer, it appeared to have been pried open, with the seam between the laptop’s keyboard and the outer case leading to the internal hard drive looking as if it had been widened.

Furthermore, the warranty seal on his external hard drive was broken and the CBP later admitted that they indeed searched and made copies of Abidor’s laptop and hard drive.

Both he and the ACLU were rightly enraged since his laptop was filled with a great deal of personal information like private chat conversations with his girlfriend, college transcripts and even tax returns.

Unfortunately, since the CBP’s actions went exactly according to DHS policy, Abidor and the ACLU had to sue Janet Napolitano in order to bring the constitutionality of the policy into question.

In September of 2010 they filed their complaint against Napolitano in which they argued that the DHS policy violates not only the First but also the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

Unsurprisingly, the government attempted to get the case thrown out of court.

They argued that while indeed Abidor’s story was completely true, they had not actually broken any laws.

The government argued that national sovereignty allowed them to conduct almost any kind of search at the border.

“Searches made at the border, pursuant to the long standing right of the sovereign to protect itself by stopping and examining persons and property crossing into this country, are reasonable simply by virtue of the fact that they occur at the border,” they wrote in their Motion to Dismiss.

“[A]n otherwise valid search under the Fourth Amendment, does not violate the First Amendment rights of an individual – even a completely innocent individual – simply because the search uncovers expressive material,” the motion said.

Indeed it is true that any and all travelers are subject to a routine border search, even without any suspicion of wrongdoing, which most Americans have likely experienced when coming back into the United States from Mexico.

However, the ACLU argues that searching the content of laptops should not be part of these routine searches since they are much more invasive, and thus should be held to a higher standard and actually require probable cause.

“It is different to go through someone’s shoes and contact solution, than to go through all the documents on their computer,” Catherine Crump, one of Abidor’s ACLU lawyers, said.

Abidor went to a Brooklyn courtroom with his ACLU lawyers in July of last year to argue against the government’s Motion to Dismiss, and they have been waiting for a decision ever since.

The DHS policy is still in place and they continue to hold and search electronic devices without any reasonable suspicion whatsoever at border crossings.

“Now, every time I cross the border, I get harassed,” Abidor said.

An especially strange crossing occurred in December 2010 when he was crossing the border with his father.

“They refused to believe my dad was my dad,” he said. “If you saw my dad, you could not believe we were not related.”

The CBP officers made them wait at the checkpoint for some two hours, thoroughly searching the car.

“This is about lowering the threshold of what is acceptable to us,” Pascal said, referring to how he was treated by the CBP. “You can’t have rights and then selectively apply them.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Abidor’s assertion. Indeed this type of activity is a way to incrementally acclimate the American people to having all of our most essential rights eradicated whenever the government sees fit.

We experience this kind of efforts every time we are subjected to the humiliating, degrading and dehumanizing treatment meted out by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), as well as at border crossings.

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One Response to College student detained, interrogated, harassed at U.S. border for being in Islamic Studies

  1. Audrey Anderson February 21, 2013 at 11:02 PM

    I completely follow what this article is about, and have a similar yet less intense experience to add. I married a Japanese man when I was living in the States, and we planned our wedding after his student visa expired. He had to leave the US, but when he returned to help me move our things out of the apartment, as we were both moving to Japan immediately after the wedding he was stopped at the airport security and taken to a special room. They asked him some questions all which he answered. He had no intentions of staying, however they searched his bag and found his wedding tux. Because and only because of that they were not going to let him into the country because he did not specify he was going to get married. However, I feel to this day there was no reason for him to announce such a thing because we were not planning to stay which made his tourist visa for the visit perfectly legal. Ever since then, my husband must and always prepares a pile of documents providing job information and earnings to prove that he has no intention of staying in the country. I too have been harassed along with him. Of course, the security officers think they are “protecting” the country. But are they really? Aren’t they deterring people from touring the country. Tourists who would promote a healthier economy. I plan to take a job teaching in the Middle East, I just can’t wait what horrors will be waiting for me when I visit home from there…

    Reply

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