This comedian says Border Patrol pulled him off a bus. Now he’s suing the government
Libyan funny guy Mohanad Elshieky often riffs on cross-cultural quirks, such as the tendency of Americans to tell him that in this country, his name is pronounced “Mohammed.”
“It’s just not how names work, they’re not based on location,” the New York-based comedian said in a Comedy Central stand-up viewed 380,000 times on YouTube. “If your name is Miles and you go to France, no one’s going to come to you and be like, ‘Hmm, actually here, it’s pronounced Kilometers.’”
In that performance, titled “What to Say if You’re Interrogated by an Extremist Militia,” Elshieky described an incident that was not funny, one that he says still gives him nightmares about being deported to Libya. On Jan. 27 last year, he said, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents took him off a Greyhound bus in Spokane, Wash., and challenged his employment and residency documents.
Elshieky, 28, who was granted U.S. asylum in 2018, is applying for long-term permanent residency. He’s suing the federal government, claiming he was racially profiled and illegally detained before agents told him they would “‘let him go this time,’ implying they were doing him a favor — even though,” as the suit contends, “Mr. Elshieky was at all times lawfully present, and CBP officials had no basis to seize him.”
The suit, filed Feb. 14 in U.S. District Court in Spokane, raises questions about tactics of Border Patrol agents, who routinely board Greyhound buses in the eastern Washington city, looking for people in the country illegally. Civil liberties advocates criticize the sweeps, which CBP officials maintain are legal within 100 miles of an international border or coastline — Spokane being just within that distance of the U.S.-Canada border.
Greyhound representatives, who did not respond to requests for comment, have said that federal law requires the company to allow agents to board the buses. But a CBP memo obtained recently by the Associated Press said that the Constitution’s 4th Amendment bars agents from boarding buses and questioning passengers without a warrant or consent of the company.
Either way, Elshieky’s legal team, which includes American Civil Liberties Union attorneys, says his rights were violated.
“Even if CBP obtains consent to enter a bus, what they can’t do is profile people or detain people like Mohanad who produce documents that show they’re entitled to be in the country,” said Aaron Korthuis, an attorney at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a Seattle-based advocacy organization.
Jason Givens, a CBP spokesman, declined to discuss the suit, saying the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation, but he defended the agency’s practices in an emailed statement. “For decades, U.S. Border Patrol agents have routinely engaged in enforcement operations at transportation hubs,” he wrote.
Enforcement operations away from the border “function as a means of preventing smuggling and other criminal organizations from exploitation of existing transportation hubs to travel further into the United States,” the statement said.
In an interview, Elshieky said his experience reminded him of being stopped by militias in Libya, a country torn by civil war that he left in 2014 for the United States, entering originally on a student-exchange visa.
“I have been stopped and questioned before by people who are militia members, where there are no laws at the time to stop them from doing so,” he said. “It just shows you that people across the world can have the same mentality, which is not OK. It’s an abuse of power that needs to stop.”
In his recurring dream, he said, he’s trying to return to the United States after having being deported. “It takes place at an airport somewhere in Libya,” he said. “I’m trying to fly back to the U.S. and they’re telling me, ‘You don’t have the papers to do that.’”
According to the suit, Elshieky had changed buses in Spokane and boarded a coach for Portland, Ore., where he lived at the time, after performing the previous night at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash. He says he watched as two agents boarded the bus, one of them checking documents of passengers who appeared to be Hispanic, while bypassing white people.
When the agent learned that Elshieky was not a U.S. citizen, “the officer’s demeanor shifted,” and he positioned himself to block the comedian into his seat, the suit says. Elshieky says he produced an Oregon driver’s license and an employment authorization document, showing his asylum status and attesting to his right to be in the United States.
Elshieky was ordered off the bus into the terminal, where he says agents were questioning two other people of color. He says that although he overheard an agent on the phone verifying his immigration records, one of them said that “illegals fake these … all the time.” The agents detained him for about 20 minutes before letting him back on the bus, he says.
He said he feared that he would be unlawfully deported to a country where — as airports were bombed soon after his departure — people had raided his room seeking proof of his allegiance to one or another warring faction.
“Mr. Elshieky burst into tears when he re-boarded the bus and was consumed by anxiety during his 6.5-hour bus ride to Portland,” the suit said. “CBP’s unlawful detention caused Mr. Elshieky to suffer loss of liberty, significant humiliation, fear, trauma, stress, disruption, emotional distress, economic loss and other damages.”
Elshieky had nightmares that he says continue. Back in Portland, he canceled several shows. When he took to Twitter, describing the incident, he received hateful, xenophobic messages.
People told him he was ungrateful for being in the United States, and told him to go back to Libya. News of his suit has generated more such comments on Twitter, where his following has grown to exceed 26,000.
“These people on the one hand respect law enforcement so much and think the law is perfect, but now that I’m using the same laws to file a suit, people are upset that I’m doing that,” he said.
But Elshieky’s career took off, with more travel, TV appearances and work in New York as a digital producer at “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.” He moved to the Big Apple, seeking to make it in big-time comedy.
He’s been featured on Conan and Comedy Central, toured with Pop-Up Magazine and listed as one of Thrillist’s 50 Best Undiscovered Comics. He finds New York audiences more diverse and demanding than Portland, making him work harder, which he enjoys.
Elshieky feels that his growing public recognition gives him the opportunity and obligation to speak up and take action for others whom he feels have been mistreated. He’s applying for a green card, and hopes ultimately to become naturalized as a U.S. citizen.
Elshieky credits his father’s side of the family for instilling his humor, a trait he developed on a call-in show at a Benghazi radio station, whose building was burned down after jokes offended local Islamic groups. “My dad’s super funny,” he said. “We like to make fun of things, no matter how bad they are.”
Toward that end, Elshieky weaves accounts of his Border Patrol encounter into stand-up routines.
“That’s what comedy is,” he said. “I’ve taken terrible things that happened to me — someone says something that’s racist, or doesn’t make me feel good at the moment — and I’m like, OK, how can I make this relatable to people?”
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