It’s not the first time this sort of thing has happened and sadly it won’t be the last. The particulars of Qasim Rashid’s story posted on Politico gave me strong déjà vu, as if I was rereading a story from one or two years ago.
But this one happened more recently. A week ago, Rashid, a civil rights lawyer who is a Muslim pacifist, was traveling from England to America, like so many other people.
And probably like many other people, Rashid brought some chocolate from London for his kids. Also like many other people, he called an Uber to get him from the airport and take him home to his wife and kids.
Just about ready to leave the airport, Rashid was “randomly selected for additional screening.” Not a pleasant experience, but nothing he hadn’t experienced before.
The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent looked over his passport, then took him to an interrogation room to ask him silly questions, like whether or not he had handled livestock or smuggled produce.
After scanning his luggage, the agent let Rashid go. But that wasn’t the end of it. Another CBP agent wanted a go at him.
The second agent did an “explosives test” on the chocolate. Because yeah, if you think something is a bomb, it makes total sense to poke at it with a pocketknife.
The explosives test was of course a pointless waste of time, and a waste of good chocolate. Soon four CBP agents were involved in the matter, including two supervisors. Rashid was quite understandably exasperated.
“What do you do for a living?” the supervisor asked.
I knew this question was coming. I detest this question. I know from experience that if I tell CBP up front that I’m a civil rights lawyer, they’ll let me go in a flash. As a general rule, I don’t—because it’s not fair. I shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to get equal treatment under the law. I travel internationally six to eight times per year, and it doesn’t surprise me to get stopped at least half of those times. Every time I mention I’m a lawyer, they release me immediately. Funny how that works—they know they’re illegally profiling me because of my name, skin color or religion.
As all this flashed through my mind I looked directly at the supervising CBP officer and said, “I’m a civil rights lawyer with expertise on racial and religious discrimination and profiling.”
He grew silent. I continued. “I’m asking for the last time. What law have I broken? How was I non-compliant?”
Rather than answer, he responded, “Well, I think everything checks out. You can go.”
I grabbed my Global Entry card and left before they could call me back for a fifth interrogation.
I’m a U.S. Citizen, an attorney. I understand American culture, the English language, and the law—and CBP still tried to intimidate me with lies and threats. Relatively speaking, I’m a lucky man.
Now, imagine you’re an undocumented asylee who doesn’t speak English, after a 2,000 mile trip with a baby—and you have to face CBP? What possible chance do you stand at receiving fair treatment?
I share my story of profiling not for sympathy, but for two crucial reasons. First, people have rights and should know their rights. Second, people of color have a habit of not sharing our stories publicly. This isn’t my opinion; it’s fact: Hate crimes and discrimination incidents are severely underreported—making reform more difficult. If we want to ever be safe in this country, people of color and minorities in general must share our stories.
In a few months, we will forget all about Rashid. Then another lawyer will be harassed like Rashid, and who knows how many people who don’t know what their rights are in such a situation.
Hopefully, though, that will be a time when our elected officials can bring some sorely needed accountability to the CBP.