Flying/Traveling While Muslim

Have You Been Discriminated Against at a U.S. Airport or Border?

If you believe you have been discriminated against based on your religion, race or nationality — for example, questions by law enforcement about your religious beliefs, “clan” or “tribe” — when seeking to re-enter the U.S. after travel abroad, you are not alone.

While law enforcement has a responsibility to verify individuals’ identity and permission to enter the U.S. and are not violating the law in doing so (for example, by smuggling contraband), questions about religious or political beliefs (such as questions about your mosque or charitable donations) implicate First Amendment protected beliefs and activity.  You can politely explain that you do not believe these are appropriate questions.

Border agents also have a right to search your belongings to ensure you aren’t bringing prohibited items into the country, but sometimes those searches extend to invasive intelligence gathering, including copying personal contacts, photos, conversations, and other information on electronic devices.  While civil rights advocates continue to work to enforce our rights against unreasonable searches and seizure of our electronic devices, you may want to plan ahead by leaving any electronic devices that you don’t absolutely need at home when you travel outside the U.S.

Many Muslims also experience additional screening each time they seek to fly.  (You may see SSSS on your flight ticket each time you check in.)  And some are barred from air travel entirely by the “no-fly list.” Unfortunately, our government’s “terrorist watchlists” are overly-broad and deny those listed a real chance to challenge their inclusion.  If you have been told you are not allowed to fly, or you experience additional screening each time you fly, or inappropriate questions at the border or airport, MJL can assist you to file a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security, and we may be able to suggest organizations who can provide additional help. Call MJL’s hotline at 857-256-1310.

Many Muslims who are added to the no-fly list, or who have recently traveled abroad, later receive a visit from the FBI and may face pressure to act as an informant. If you are visited by the FBI after traveling, you have the right to decline to answer questions, even if you agreed to do so while you were detained at the airport.   You can politely state: “I don’t wish to answer questions without my attorney.  I’ll have my attorney contact you.”  Then call MJL’s hotline at 857-256-1310.  MJL provides no-cost legal representation to individuals approached for voluntary FBI questioning, and we may be able to provide you legal representation or, if not, refer you to other organizations for help.

For an example of what to do at the airport (as well as an FBI visit), watch this video from Muslim Advocates:

For more on your rights at the airport, see CUNY CLEAR’s materials on Flying While Muslim and ACLU’s materials on Rights at the Airport.