As a musician, Mohammed Fairouz travels to other countries frequently.
Usually, there’s no problem.
But recently, after getting off an eight-hour flight from London, immigration officials at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York stopped him, Fairouz said. He was told to go into a room, where he said he stayed without knowing why he was there.
Fairouz, a United States resident who was born in the United Arab Emirates, told The Washington Post that he was given no reason for his detention, other than his Muslim name. He said he was allowed to leave after going through a screening process that lasted nearly four hours.
In a statement Tuesday, a spokesperson for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection said internal documents and surveillance video showed he was released within 51 minutes. The agency said people entering the United States, including American citizens and legal residents, must prove they’re eligible to enter or re-enter the country.
The agency added that customs officers “strive to treat all people arriving in the country with dignity and respect.”
But for Fairouz, detaining someone without explaining why isn’t “an ideal way to treat people.”
“Other countries have a dedicated line for their citizens and residents. Those lines are designed to expedite the process of getting passports stamped so that entry is as seamless as possible. The stamp is often punctuated by someone saying ‘Welcome home,’ ” Fairouz wrote in a column published Friday by the Independent, a British online newspaper. “Indeed, many have this experience in the United States — but not me. The behavior that I experienced and witnessed is behavior that distinguishes the United States in the most embarrassing way possible.”
Fairouz said he arrived at the New York airport about 11 p.m. Monday after spending a few days in Britain, where he recorded a string orchestra.
As he made his way out of the airport, he walked to a machine on which he scanned his passport and entered his fingerprint. A customs officer then told him he needed to go through additional screening and escorted him to a room. There, he and dozens of other people waited, while officers told them periodically that nobody could leave without clearance, Fairouz said. They were not allowed to use their phones or access their belongings.
When he was allowed to leave, he still did not know why he was detained, Fairouz said. All he was told, he said, is that his name is “super common.”
“Yes, my name is common but my fingerprints are not,” Fairouz wrote in his column. “So I didn’t feel like I was getting the whole story.”
In February, Muhammad Ali Jr., son of the late boxer Muhammad Ali, and his mother were detained at a Florida airport and asked about their religion after they returned from Jamaica. A family spokesman told The Washington Post that the two were stopped by officers with Customs and Border Protection because of their “Arabic-sounding names.”
The following month, Ali was detained again, this time at Reagan National Airport outside Washington. Ali and his mother had come to the District to lobby against racial profiling — a response to what happened to him in Florida.
The incidents involving Fairouz and the Alis happened not long after President Trump signed an executive order banning citizens of some predominantly Muslim countries from coming to the United States. Many found themselves trapped at airports across the country after the president signed his order in January. Federal courts have since blocked enforcement of Trump’s entry ban, as well as a watered-down version of it.
Fairouz said he does not want to jump to conclusions or blame the Trump administration’s stringent immigration policies for his detention. He believes the problem is more systemic than racial.
“I am not attacking Donald Trump. I’m pretty sure this was happening during the Obama administration,” he said. “I’m not making a racial argument. What I’m saying is that we have a f—– up system and they’re treating people very, very badly.”
He said the experience has left him feeling more sad than angry that it happened in the United States, his home.
“It is very distressing when you’re in the middle of it. It causes a lot of stress, a lot of exhaustion and a lot of humiliation to people,” he said. “I just don’t think people should be going through this when they travel if they don’t have any criminal intent, no criminal record, and have never been arrested before.”
Since Fairouz, who is based in New York City, spoke out about his experience, some on social media have accused him of seeking his 15 minutes of fame.
“Fake news,” a Twitter user said.
But Fairouz, an internationally renowned composer whose music has been performed at Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center, said he wants to shed light on a problem.
This story, originally posted on April 29, has been updated.