NEW JERSEY — A Muslim-American mayor of a New Jersey town says border patrol agents wrongfully detained him and kept his phone when he arrived at JFK International Airport last month after returning from a vacation in Turkey.
Mohamed Khairullah, the mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey since 2005, told CNN he was pulled aside and detained for three hours by US Customs and Border Protection agents when he and his family got off the plane.
The questioning started out innocently enough — a CBP agent asked him standard questions like about where he traveled from and who he visited. Then, according to Khairullah, the agent pivoted: "Did you meet with any terrorists?"
Mayor Khairullah said he gave a polite, "No," before asking to speak with a lawyer, believing the line of questioning was "harassment."
When he requested to end the interview, the mayor recalled the agent asked to search his phone.
Khairullah consented, but as the search dragged on, with his family — wife, 10-year-old son, 9-year-old and 2-year-old daughters, and 14-month-old son — getting restless waiting for him in the area outside the interview room, he asked for his phone to be returned.
He said the agent informed him that if he was revoking his consent for them to search his device then they would have to confiscate it.
And so they did -- for 12 days.
Khairullah said that the agent told him that he was selected at random to speak with them after getting off the plane, though he doesn't believe it.
"In the office, the agent did say that he was directed by DHS to interview me but he couldn't tell me why," he said. "I'd love to know what the reason was."
Ahmed Mohamed, litigation director for the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim-American civil right group, said he spoke with Khairullah while he was at the airport, and is continuing to represent him in the matter.
He called the questioning of the mayor "a clear case of profiling."
"He gets treated as if he was a terrorist in this situation. That's conduct that should be unacceptable to every single American in this country," Mohamed said.
The mayor said he has "not ruled out legal action" against CBP over the incident.
Anthony Bucci, a Public Affairs Specialist with U.S. Customs and Border Protection's New York Office, told CNN the agency was "not at liberty to discuss an individual's processing due to the Privacy Act."
The spokesperson added that CBP's "authority to engage in border searches is articulated in numerous statutes and has been repeatedly affirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States."
"For a miniscule number of travelers, this inspection may include electronic devices such as computers, disks, drives, tapes, mobile phones and other communication devices, cameras, music and other media players and any other electronic or digital devices," the spokesperson said.
Others challenging CBP in court
Separately, some rights advocates are currently challenging CBP's authority in federal court.
In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a federal lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, the CBP, and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, arguing that the search and seizure of electronic devices at the border without reasonable suspicion or a warrant is unconstitutional.
The 11 plaintiffs in the case — 10 U.S. citizens and 1 lawful permanent resident — had their laptops or phones searched while traveling. The plaintiffs include a filmmaker, NASA engineer, and 2 journalists. The case is ongoing.
DHS did not respond to a request to comment for this story.
Hugh Handeyside, an ACLU staff attorney for the plaintiffs, told CNN that some of his clients had their phones confiscated by CBP for "six to eight months."
According to a recent court filing in the case, CBP conducted 33,295 searches of electronic devices in 2018. The total number of devices confiscated in 2018 was 172.
"They put people in a horrible position," Handeyside said. "They say: 'Look, open up your phone or we're going to take it.'"