48-year-old man arraigned on murder charge in slaying of coworker at GM's Orion plant

Metro Detroit imam, advocacy group criticize post-flight screening

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

When Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi landed at Detroit Metro Airport one morning last week after a long flight from Asia, he looked forward to reuniting with his family and quickly heading home.

But the longtime spiritual leader of a Dearborn Heights mosque said he was separated from other passengers then forced to undergo extensive questioning with authorities that lasted several hours. 

While Elahi understands the need for safety measures and the duties involved with processing travelers, the 63-year-old fears he was unfairly targeted due to his religion and background.

“Instead of security, it is about discrimination and some kind of Islamophobia and prejudice,” he told The Detroit News.

Imam Elahi at the conference in South Korea.

Elahi’s experience spurred officials with the Metro Detroit-based Arab-American Civil Rights League to seek details from the government on what prompted the encounter and its practices at ports of entry.

“We believe strongly that you don’t check your constitutional rights at the border,” said attorney Nabih Ayad, a board member and founder of the advocacy group. “As a U.S. citizen, you shouldn’t be subject to that sort of treatment.”

In an email Thursday, Delta Air Lines representatives said they would “look into this for better understanding” but did not immediately provide further details.

An airport spokesperson referred questions to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which screens travelers entering the country from abroad.

Kris Grogan, its public affairs officer, confirmed agency officials wanted to speak with Elahi as soon as he arrived but, for privacy reasons, said he could not disclose why or what was asked.

Elahi, who has led the Islamic House of Wisdom for nearly 25 years and is active in interfaith efforts, was returning Feb. 6 from an international summit in South Korea affiliated with the Universal Peace Foundation.

Once the 12-hour Delta flight ended at Detroit Metro, an attendant told passengers to remain seated since security officials would call some of them first, Elahi said. But his was the only name announced.

After leaving to find as many as 10 officers, mostly in uniform, Elahi, a U.S. citizen who immigrated from Iran in the 1990s, recalls two officers asking him to walk with them. In a separate room, he “was questioned like someone who just arrived in this country from a foreign land,” the imam wrote in a Facebook post about the incident.

Elahi said he was asked about everything from siblings’ work to his views on the death of a top Iranian general last month that escalated tensions with the United States. At one point, he had to hand over his cellphone for what was described as a 10-minute review of its contents, which turned into more than an hour, the imam said.

No one revealed why he was pulled away for questioning or what they sought, Elahi said. “They were telling me they didn’t really enjoy that… but the order came from out of their office.”

Elahi noted the officers treated him politely and professionally then released him after noon without issue. But he returned to his waiting family feeling disappointed and dismayed, wondering why he was singled out.

“I have no problem with security. My problem and complaint is about these selection systems. It’s based many times on …religious and racial characteristics or bias,” he said. “People like me are not security threats. We are not criminals. We are peaceful, hard-working, contributing, devoted citizens that are part of the American family."

Grogan said the large number of officers Elahi reported had been involved in efforts related to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s enhanced airport health screening of international travelers in response to the novel coronavirus, not his case alone.

The questioning “went very well, then once he was done with his inspection he left the airport,” Grogan said. “We followed all policies and protocols.”

Elahi’s treatment raises concerns, Ayad said. “It’s really disheartening because now you’re thinking if they’re doing it to a well-known imam in the community, what are they doing to the average Arab American or Muslim American on these flights?”   

His group, which he said has fielded complaints from other travelers about similar treatment this year, sent a letter Thursday to Christopher Perry, director of field operations for Customs and Border Protection in Detroit. 

The league requests information on Elahi’s case as well as how the agency determines when Americans must undergo secondary screenings; data on the average processing times for those screened; and whether a new directive has been implemented targeting certain travelers at ports of entry.

“While there is no doubt that the U.S. government has a legitimate interest in verifying legal status of individuals and identifying threats to national security, no legitimate government interest is served when CBP officers question a citizen about his or her religious or political beliefs without any reasonable suspicion, based on credible evidence, that the person has engaged in unlawful activity,” director Rula Aoun wrote.

“These practices harm our national security interests by wasting resources, generating false leads, encouraging fear in Americans, eroding trust in law enforcement and government, and cultivating disdain internationally.”