A morning press conference was held on September 18 at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an Islamic civil rights advocacy group, to announce the filing of a lawsuit, Khairullah v Garland, today in U.S. Federal District Court of Massachusetts demanding a jury trial in ending the terrorism watchlist. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 12 Muslim plaintiffs against 29 federal agencies on the twentieth anniversary of the Terrorism Screening Dataset “…that almost exclusively targets Muslims for harassment and humiliation when they travel.”
CAIR Legal Defense Fund Staff attorney Hanna Mullen made the announcement on behalf of what she described as 12 “law-abiding Muslim citizens, lawful permanent residents and asylees. They work hard, pay their taxes, pursue their education and care for their families.”
She noted that the federal terrorism watch list had been created as an executive order by then President George W. Bush in 2003 and has never been approved by Congress. By its very design, the list egregiously violates both the Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution along with four other specific acts to which the group is challenging the constitutionality of the watchlist.
The list in 2019 contained 350,000 entries of individual names, of which a review revealed that 98.3 percent were Muslim. The watchlist is clearly Islamophobic and discriminates against Muslims because of their religion. Today it contains “the names of thousands of Americans and one and a half million people around the world.”
She stated that “The federal government considers the very fact of being Muslim as suspicious” and went on to characterize the watch list that has “a vanishing small connection to terrorist activities” as being “completely ineffective at protecting national security.”
Most frighteningly, she asserted that “The government places individuals on the watchlist without investigating, indicting, or convicting them of any crime” thus allowing innocent Americans to be targeted by the federal government without the benefit of due process to determine their status. Additionally, the experience of such behavior by the government for those listed has stigmatized numerous individuals and caused undue harm to them when suddenly finding themselves listed as a “known or suspected terrorist.” No explanation is ever forthcoming as to how or why an individual was placed on the list or how one can be removed from it or even if they have been delisted. Removal from the list, when that is even possible, is no guarantee that the harassment will stop but rather that “Federal agencies retain records of past watchlist status and use them to deny formerly listed individuals’ access to government buildings, security clearances, federal employment, and other licenses and government benefits.”
As an example, she cited plaintiff Mohamed Khairhullah, the former mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, who was on the watch list but was presumably off at the time he was invited to attend an Eid al-Fitr celebration at the White House. Upon arrival, he was disinvited and barred access by the U.S. Secret Service. Although he, like many others, is unsure of what his status is presently, the effect of being on the list continues to haunt both him and his family.
The watchlist in turn “…is used by government agencies to harass and humiliate people when they travel, to outright forbid people from flying, to deny individuals licenses and permits, to refuse to hire people or fire people already employed, to delay or deny visas and applications for U.S. citizenship or a U.S. passport, and to subject the innocent people on the list to dangerous and invasive law enforcement actions.”
She characterized the plaintiffs as having never been “indicted, charged or convicted of any terrorism-related crime and without notice or explanation the federal government extrajudicially sentenced our clients to lifetime second class citizenship,” in effect denying the them the “presumption of innocence until proven guilty” that has been molded into our judicial system.
The 185-page lawsuit has 83 pages documenting the experiences that the 12 defendants have endured since being placed on the watch list. The incidents all follow a clear pattern of treatment and violations of constitutional rights including one egregious incident among many cited in the lawsuit when a plaintiff in 2013 was told by a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officer that his “travel issues would go away as long as he provided them with some information.” When the plaintiff responded that “he would only speak with his lawyer present, the CBP officer responded that only guilty individuals have lawyers.”
Those listed suffer further in that “The federal government shares the watchlist with other federal agencies, over 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies, over 500 private entities, and dozens of foreign countries, all of which then take actions to harm and stigmatize listed individuals.”
The net result of being on the list is that listees are “publicly humiliated, surveilled, and harassed when they travel; prevented from attending weddings, funerals, graduations, and other milestone events; separated from their children; denied jobs, security clearances, U.S. citizenship, visas, gun licenses, and other government benefits; and even effectively exiled from the United States.”
In closing, Mullen commented that “After twenty years of harassment, surveillance and abuse it is time for America to recognize the watch list for what it is, a disgraceful vestige of the Bush administration’s War on Terror that targets our Muslim family members, friends and neighbors while doing nothing to keep us safe.”
Photo by Phil Pasquini
(This article has appeared in Nuzeink)
Phil Pasquini is a freelance journalist and photographer. His reports and photographs appear in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Pakistan Link and Nuze.ink. He is the author of Domes, Arches and Minarets: A History of Islamic-Inspired Buildings in America.
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