Lawsuits filed over Muslim Americans on watch list
A Michigan-based advocacy group for Muslim-Americans filed two federal lawsuits Tuesday challenging the FBI’s terrorist watch list, saying it’s time to act because the list has expanded.
Officials with the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed the suits, one on behalf of 18 Muslim-Americans, including a 4-year-old, who allegedly were placed on the list without due process.
The second case is a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of thousands of Muslim Americans who have appeared on the list without notice or due process, said Lena Masri, legal director for CAIR’s Michigan chapter.
Masri said the class-action suit is unique because it seeks damages on behalf of everyone on the list, while other lawsuits have been focused on challenging individual placements on the list.
“Unless we take action to curb that, it’s going to continue,” she said.
All plaintiffs in the first case are U.S. citizens of Muslim decent. Seventeen are from Michigan or have Michigan ties. One is a resident of Virginia.
That case is challenging the individual placement of people on the list and is seeking a court order to declare the entire watch list unconstitutional, Masri said.
“None of these individuals were given notice. All are innocent and none have been charged with crimes,” Masri said.
The 4-year-old boy, whom CAIR officials declined to identify and who was 7-months-old at the time of the incident, was with his mother at Detroit Metro Airport and was subjected to chemical testing and “extreme” pat down searches before he was allowed to board, according to Masri.
“Baby Doe’s only crime is he was born to an American-Muslim family,” she said.
The lawsuits were filed against federal law enforcement officials as well as the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center and cover a period from 2009 to 2013.
The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on the lawsuits.
On Tuesday afternoon, hours after the lawsuits were filed, FBI Director James B. Comey was in Detroit for a field office visit.
Asked whether an infant could be on a no-fly list, Comey said no, but that sometimes names can be on the list due to confusion over complicated names or unique spellings of names.
“Not to my knowledge. Is there? Not to my knowledge. If there were, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense,” Comey told the media, adding: “I’d be surprised if there was intentionally a 7-month-old baby on the list.”
The plaintiffs learned they were on the government watch list after they either had bank accounts closed, were denied the ability to wire transfer money, found an “SSSS” designation on their boarding pass or were subjected to additional searches.
In one case, a man was tortured by officials in Kuwait after they learned he was on the list, said Dawud Walid, executive director of CAIR-MI.
Walid said the government’s secretive watch list has snared thousands of law-abiding American-Muslims.
“Caught up in the net of broad and baseless classification of suspected terrorists are mothers, schoolteachers, minors and in the case of this lawsuit, even a baby,” Walid said.
Walid said going back to 2014, the list has 680,000 people on it. And per capita, Dearborn has the largest percentage on it.
“Muslims with spotless criminal records have been denied licenses, the ability to exercise their Second Amendment rights, to being harassed airports and even barred from flying on planes.”
Mariam Jukaku, one of the plaintiffs, grew up in Metro Detroit and learned she was on the list when she was headed back to Detroit from her new home in California in 2012.
“When I got to Detroit, I saw the dreaded SSSS on my boarding pass,” she said.
Jukaku said she was subjected to an extensive pat down, including a federal employees running a finger inside her waistband.
“It was humiliating and dehumanizing,” she said.
Walid said some FBI agents have approached Muslim-Americans and asked them to be informants in exchange for being removed from the watch list.
“People of color and minorities are affected by this the most. White people going to Donald Trump rallies are not,” he said.
Maintained by the U.S. Department of Justice and FBI, the Terrorist Watchlist is a single database of “identifying information about those known or reasonably suspected of being involved in terrorist activity,” according to the FBI’s website.
Masri said both cases were filed in U.S. District Court in Virginia, the home base of many of the federal agencies.
In 2014, Muslim-American Yaseen Kadura filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Detroit against law enforcement officials challenging federal watch lists.
Masri said soon after the lawsuit was filed, Kadura’s name was removed from the watch list, but the case still is pending for the other plaintiffs.
The American Civil Liberties Union has a five-year-long legal challenge to the list’s redress process, according to its website.
It filed a suit in June 2010 on behalf of 10 citizens and permanent residents whom the government banned from flying to or from the United States or over American airspace. Some were stranded abroad, unable to come home.
According to Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, the government began to allow Americans to fly home on a “one-time” waiver.