In March 2022, the ACLU, ACLU of Minnesota, and ACLU of Southern California filed a lawsuit on behalf of three Muslim Americans who have been subjected to intrusive questioning from border officers about their religious beliefs, practices, and associations in violation of their constitutional rights.
On multiple occasions when our clients seek to return home from abroad, border officers have asked them inappropriate religious questions, including whether they are Muslim, whether they attend a mosque, which mosque they attend, whether they are Sunni or Shi’a, and how often they pray. Officers then retain the answers in a law enforcement database for up to 75 years.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs argue that this questioning by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) violates their First Amendment freedoms of religion and association, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). In addition, because CBP and HSI specifically single out Muslim Americans for this questioning, they also violate the First and Fifth Amendments’ protections against unequal treatment on the basis of religion.
This questioning is part of a broader 20-year practice of border officials targeting Muslim American travelers because of their religion.
In 2010, the ACLU and other organizations submitted complaints to DHS describing border questioning of Muslim Americans about their religious beliefs and practices. The DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) opened an investigation on the basis of “numerous accounts from American citizens, legal permanent residents, and visitors who are Arab and/or Muslim, alleging that officials from CBP repeatedly question them and other members of their communities about their religious practices or other First Amendment protected activities, in violation of their civil rights or civil liberties.” In 2012, CRCL suspended its investigation, citing ongoing litigation.
Religious questioning of Muslim Americans at ports of entry continues today, as our clients’ experiences demonstrate. This questioning furthers no legitimate law enforcement objective, and because it is targeted at Muslims, it conveys the stigmatizing message that the U.S. government views Islam as inherently suspicious.
The plaintiffs in this suit are asking the court to declare that border officers’ religious questioning violates the Constitution and RFRA. They also seek an injunction barring the Department of Homeland Security and CBP from questioning them about their faith at ports of entry, and the expungement of records reflecting information that border officers obtained through their unlawful questioning.