Civil liberty groups sue DHS

Published on Thu, Mar 20, 2008
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Civil liberty groups sue DHS

The Asian Law Caucus (ALC) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed suit in February against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for denying access to public records on the questioning and searches of travelers at U.S. borders.

Filed under the Freedom of Information Act, the suit responds to growing complaints by U.S. citizens and immigrants of excessive or repeated screenings by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.

ALC, a San Francisco-based civil rights organization, received more than 20 complaints from California residents last year who said they were grilled about their families, religious practices, volunteer activities, political beliefs, or associations when returning to the United States from travels abroad. In addition, customs agents examined travelers’ books, business cards collected from friends and colleagues, handwritten notes, personal photos, laptop computer files, and cell phone directories, and sometimes made copies of this information.

When individuals complained, they were told, “This is the border, and you have no rights,” according to staff attorney Shirin Sinnar.

“When the government searches your books, peers into your computer, and demands to know your political views, it sends the message that free expression and privacy disappear at our nation’s doorstep,” Sinnar said.

“The fact that so many people face these searches and questioning every time they return to the United States, not knowing why and unable to clear their names, violates basic notions of fairness and due process.”

ALC and EFF asked DHS to disclose its policies on questioning travelers on First Amendment-protected activities, photocopying individuals’ personal papers, and searching laptop computers and other electronic devices.

he agency failed to meet the 20-day time limit that Congress has set for responding to public information requests, prompting the lawsuit.

“The public has the right to know what the government’s standards are for border searches,” said EFF staff attorney Marcia Hofmann.

“Laptops, phones, and other gadgets include vast amounts of personal information. When will agents read your email? When do they copy data, where is it stored, and for how long? How will this information follow you throughout your life?

“The secrecy surrounding border search policies means that DHS has no accountability to America’s travelers.”

When Nabila Mango, an American citizen and San Francisco therapist, returned from a trip to the Middle East in December, customs agents at San Francisco International Airport asked her to name every person she had met and every place she had slept during her travels. They also searched her Arabic music books, business cards, and cell phone, and may have photocopied some of her papers.

“In my 40 years in this country, I have never felt as vulnerable as I did during that interrogation,” Mango said. “I want to find out whether my government is keeping files on me and other Americans based on our associations and ideas.”

Amir Khan, an IT consultant from Fremont, California and a U.S. citizen, is stopped each time he returns to the country. Customs officials have questioned him for a total of more than 20 hours and have searched his laptop computer, books, personal notebooks, and cell phone.

Despite filing several complaints, Khan has yet to receive an explanation of why he is repeatedly singled out. “One customs officer even told me that no matter what I do, nothing would improve,” said Khan. “Why do I have to part with my civil liberties each time I return home?”

There have been scattered reports of travelers returning to the U.S. through local border crossings who have had their laptops and cellphones examined. For more information, visit the EFF’s web site at or the ALC’s web site at