An American Muslim family detained for more than 10 hours at the border because the father appeared on a terrorism watch list sued the government Thursday, saying the use of watch lists has spiraled out of control and federal agents are now using them to “abuse” the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens.
The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the Wilwal-Abdigani family, demands the government remove Abdisalam Wilwal’s name from the lists and promise not to harass him in the future.
“The government has refused to tell Mr. Wilwal why his name appeared on the watch list, and it has not provided him with a meaningful opportunity to correct or challenge whatever error led to his placement on it,” the family says in the lawsuit. “In any event, the government’s placement of Mr. Wilwal on the watch list cannot justify the officers’ abuse of him and his family at the border.”
The family was detained when it drove back into the U.S. in North Dakota after a visit to relatives in Canada. After running the family’s names through databases at the border, agents approached their van with guns drawn, the lawsuit says.
Mr. Wilwal was handcuffed, separated from his wife and four children and questioned for hours — including passing out at one point from the intensity of the ordeal.
When he asked why he was being detained, he didn’t get a straight answer. A Customs and Border Protection officer then accused him of being involved with terrorism, and he asked why.
“We have information,” the CBP officer told him, the lawsuit says. Mr. Wilwal says he was told he was on a watch list, and a subsequent investigative report obtained through an open-records request said he was detained because of “a confirmed subject record hit.”
Mr. Wilwal says in the lawsuit that he has no idea why his name would be in the database. He is from Somalia but is a U.S. citizen, and he said he is Muslim but isn’t observant, and doesn’t regularly attend a mosque.
The chief target of the lawsuit is the government’s watch list system, which allows federal agents to list people based on anything from a social media post to an anonymous tip, the family says in its complaint.
Yet they cannot think of any behavior he engaged in that should have landed him on the list.
“At no point in the process can an individual appear in person before a neutral decision maker to challenge placement on the watch list or its consequences,” the family’s lawsuit says.
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