A Portland, Ore.-based comedian says U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents forced him Sunday to get off a Greyhound bus in Spokane, Wash., and show proof of citizenship. The agents then accused him of having fake documents, comedian Mohanad Elshieky said in a Twitter thread that went viral, reviving outrage about the agency’s practice of boarding intercity buses and demanding identification and proof of citizenship from passengers.
“I explained to them that I was granted asylum here in the United States, and that the work permit they currently hold and the license are impossible to get unless your presence here is legal,” said Elshieky, a native of Libya. The interrogation went on for 20 minutes, he said. “They told me that I was lying and these could pretty much be falsified.”
Customs and Border Protection officials have said the agency had been doing such “routine” checks for several years, but civil rights advocates have described the searches as uncommon. A request for comment to CBP on the Spokane incident was not immediately answered.
At the Spokane bus station where Elshieky was asked to get off his Portland-bound bus, officials have described multiple instances in which Border Patrol agents checked passenger identification. A City Council member two years ago said he learned Border Patrol conducts routine bus checks “a couple of times a day.”
However, complaints have increased and the incidents have garnered more attention amid the debate over U.S. border protection and President Trump’s demand that a wall be built along the nation’s southern border. On the East Coast, a video went viral last year showing a Border Patrol officer asking Greyhound passengers for ID and taking a woman into custody. In that case, a bus en route from Orlando to Miami was stopped in Fort Lauderdale on a Friday afternoon when two uniformed officers boarded the bus and introduced themselves as Border Patrol agents. Border Patrol officials later said the inspection had lead to the detention of “a passenger who was illegally residing in the United States.”
Border Patrol practices have ignited lawsuits and also protests targeting Greyhound. Lawyers in California in the fall asked a state judge to order Greyhound to stop allowing federal immigration agents to board its buses to demand proof of citizenship from passengers. Greyhound, the country’s largest motor coach operator, has responded by sending alerts to passengers about their rights should immigration officers board buses.
The company advises passengers that they have “the right to remain silent,” to refuse a search of their belongings and to not answer questions about citizenship or immigration status. Riders also have the right to refuse to sign paperwork without the advice of a lawyer, the company advises.
“As a passenger on an intercity bus, you should know that federal officials may stop and board a bus within 100 miles of any border under federal law. You may be asked questions and/or for documentation,” the company warns riders.
In an October statement, the company said it understood customers’ concerns about Border Patrol practices and that while it neither coordinates with nor supports the agency’s actions, it intends to comply with federal law.
Elshieky’s tweetstorm prompted new outrage over the practice.
“I am absolutely ashamed and sorry this has happened to you,” Spokane City Council member Kate Burke tweeted at Elshieky, citing a City Council measure to prevent federal agents from conducting such searches that hasn’t been executed.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) retweeted Elshieky’s thread and offered the incident to support her call for eliminating Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (The inspection, however, was conducted by the sister agency, Customs and Border Protection).
Elshieky, 27, who started telling jokes at a radio station in Benghazi and was recently named one of the three funniest people in Portland, frequently makes his audience laugh with immigration jokes. He has told his immigrant story onstage: the years waiting for asylum to be granted, the interview process, life as an immigrant with an accent.
"My name is Mohanad. That is my name. I am an immigrant, and it’s super weird being an immigrant now in this country,” he told an audience last summer at the Helium Comedy Club in Portland. “I don’t know if you have been watching the news lately,” he paused to a laughing audience, “for the past 20 years.”
It sure is difficult to be an immigrant, he said Monday in an interview.
Early Sunday he was traveling home from Pullman, Wash., after a performance Saturday night at Washington State University. He was transferring buses at Spokane when his own joke about being taken by immigration officials almost came true. The agents, wearing uniforms, selectively asked four people of color for documents, asking three riders, including himself, to step off the bus, Elshieky said in an interview Monday.
“I have boarded so many planes with my Oregon ID and nobody ever asked for a passport,” he said. “This is a proof to me that it doesn’t really matter if I am legal or illegal. ... Even if I have a passport, they are going to question me because I have an accent or I look Hispanic."
He said officers got on the phone with immigration officials to verify his status, and he could hear “the person on the end of the line saying that yes they can see my name and yes, I entered the country legally,” Elshieky wrote. But the agency, he said, “ended the call and then said ‘there are no records of your asylum.’ ”
He said he it’s “ridiculous” to think he needs to be carrying his asylum approval on him when he has other forms of identification.
“I have never felt as terrible as I did today. I have never imagined that I would have to go through this,” Elshieky said. “@GreyhoundBus. You could have easily not let those agents on the bus."