NEW YORK, April 20 -- American Muslims detained at the border as they returned from a religious conference in Toronto sued the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday alleging they were targets of ethnic and religious profiling.
The five Muslims, all U.S. citizens, say customs officials detained dozens of others from their conference in December, subjecting them to interrogations, fingerprinting and photographing. Four carried U.S.-issued passports; the other had a New York state driver's license, which is an acceptable form of identification at the Canadian border.
The plaintiffs traveled separately and arrived at the checkpoint throughout the afternoon and night. Travelers who told agents they had attended the conference titled "Reviving the Islamic Spirit" were held for questioning, and women wearing hijab were asked whether they had attended the conference, according to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Council for American-Islamic Relations.
"They were the victims once again of our government's overzealous and counterproductive ethnic and religious profiling in the name of national security," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU.
The lawsuit seeks to prevent government agencies from detaining, interrogating or photographing Muslims returning to the United States from religious conferences. The five Muslims want their fingerprints and photographs taken at the border destroyed or expunged.
Homeland security officials said that 34 people were selected for the secondary questioning at Queenston Lewiston Bridge and four others at Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls. None was charged with a crime.
"In this instance, we had credible intelligence that conferences similar to the one from which these individuals were leaving were being used by terrorist organizations to fundraise and to hide the travel of terrorists themselves," said Kristi Clemens, spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Clemens declined to elaborate on the sort of conferences that draw heightened scrutiny or whether people were held at other border crossings. She said U.S. citizens have the right to refuse fingerprinting and that the department has not received complaints about agents forcing citizens to submit fingerprints.
Sawsan Tabbaa, 43, an orthodontist in Buffalo, took her four children in the family van for their third trip to the conference, which featured imam Hamza Yusuf. Yusuf is a prominent scholar who visited the White House in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to pray with President Bush and endorse his plans for military action.
Tabbaa, who wears hijab, said that at 2 a.m. Dec. 27 she arrived at the border checkpoint where agents asked her about the conference and instructed her to wait inside the customs building. Inside, she said, "I saw all the people from my Islamic community."
Tabbaa, a Syrian-born naturalized citizen, said agents refused to let her leave unless she submitted to fingerprinting. After several hours, she said, a female agent escorted her to a room to demonstrate the procedure.
"She just grabbed my hand and [began] fingerprinting it," Tabbaa said. "I was just forced to do it. She grabbed my hand."
As part of the lawsuit, the NYCLU and CAIR have filed a Freedom of Information Act request about policies related to the fingerprinting or profiling of U.S. citizens at border crossings.