Op-Ed: My phone was searched at LAX, which apparently is the new normal
One of the happiest moments in my life was the day in 1999 when I became an American citizen. Studying for the citizenship test, I had learned to appreciate the Bill of Rights, including the 4th Amendment, which guarantees the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
More recently I was made to wonder: Does the 4th Amendment apply to Muslim citizens at LAX?
On Feb. 23, I arrived at LAX to begin a long trip to Gaziantep, Turkey, where my aged mother and two brothers are living as refugees from the Syrian wars. At the security checkpoint, I was sent to a separate line, where my purse and carry-on were emptied out, and where I was required to remove my back brace and undergo the usual full-body scan, twice, and an aggressive body search, again twice.
The first body-searcher reached between my legs and groped under my hijab. When I asked the second one to please be gentle with my injured back, she gave me a sharp jab instead. I cried out, lurched forward in pain and demanded to speak to her supervisor. The supervisor released me, but my problems were only beginning.
At the gate, I heard a voice over the loudspeaker: “Lubana Adi, come to the counter!” Several armed men and a woman were waiting for me. I was required yet again to undergo a body search and to have my purse and carry-on emptied. This time, my hands and feet were checked with a paper device that, as was explained, would reveal whether I had recently worked with explosives.
My only hope — as a Muslim, of course, but primarily as a citizen — is to alert my fellow citizens to the ongoing erosion of our rights.
Then commenced a rapid-fire cross-examination. I was asked for my name, my husband’s name, my children’s names and my destination. On and on it went until one of the agents waved my passport in my face: “Where did you get this?”
I had begun to sense that the purpose of the interrogation was to goad me into an outburst that could be construed as a refusal to cooperate. They came closest with the passport question, but I let it pass: “Where do you think I got it?”
I was allowed to board but barely settled in my seat when two armed men approached from the front of the plane, another two from the back. I was required to undergo a final interrogation in the small open area where the boarding ramp meets the aircraft. This time, one of my interrogators asked in Arabic: “Do you have Daesh” — the Arabic acronym for Islamic State — “in your city?”
The introduction of Arabic seemed to be his way of signaling that, to him, I was not an American but an Arab from Hama, Syria, my family’s city of origin. I have not laid eyes on Hama in a generation and know nothing at all about Islamic State activity there, and I said so. They allowed me to re-board with a parting promise: “We’ll be waiting for you when you come back.”
My visit in Gaziantep was the warm reunion I had hoped it would be. My bad back continued to hurt, however, and I did make one trip to a local hospital, where an MRI was taken. The image was provided to me on a CD.
To the Customs and Border Protection agents who would conduct a three-and-a-half-hour interrogation upon my return to LAX in March, this CD was highly suspect. Why was the hospital’s name not on it? What else was recorded on it? Why had I attempted to open a bank account in Gaziantep? (I had indeed tried, in the hope of facilitating financial assistance to my mother.) Why had I returned home with only $500?
I had brought several thousand dollars to Turkey, much of which went to my mother and some of which went to the hospital, to restaurants for large family gatherings, and toward gifts for stateside family and friends. But since when does an American traveler have to account for every dollar she spends abroad?
Eventually one of the agents pounced, as if catching me at last in a deception: “You went to Gaziantep — Gaziantep, a border city! Why Gaziantep?”
Why Gaziantep? Where else would I go? I was visiting my mother and brothers, and Gaziantep is where they live. I was not allowed to call my husband, who was waiting outside with our children. Instead, an agent seized my phone. When it was returned, nothing worked as it had previously. I am left to assume that its contents were copied.
Toward the end of the ordeal, after a 13-hour flight, I put my head down on the table in exhaustion. Then, abruptly, my wallet was returned to me with all my credit cards and identification in a jumbled stack, and I was told to leave.
I intend to file no lawsuit, seek no apology. My only hope — as a Muslim, of course, but primarily as a citizen — is to alert my fellow citizens to the ongoing erosion of our rights.
The so-called border search exemption means that the 4th Amendment’s requirement of probable cause does not apply to customs officials, and the practice of “detaining” cellphones began under the George W. Bush administration. But cellphone searches by the Department of Homeland Security have exploded in 2017 — DHS officials searched more phones in February of this year than in all of 2015. (Four members of Congress introduced a bill this week that would require agents to obtain a warrant before searching a U.S. citizen’s electronic device.)
President Trump’s new security regime wastes yet more of our time and our taxpayer money and shows outright scorn for the spirit of the 4th Amendment.
Lubana Adi, born in Italy to Syrian parents, cares for her three children in Los Angeles County and volunteers at their neighborhood school. She was assisted in writing this account by members of Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana.
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