BUFFALO, N.Y. – Five Muslim-Americans who were fingerprinted, searched and held up to 6 ½ hours by U.S. border agents upon their return from a religious conference in Canada are suing the Department of Homeland Security (search).
The suit filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn charges the government violated their constitutional rights to practice religion and against unlawful searches.
Plaintiff Karema Atassi, 22, of Williamsville, was among at least three dozen Muslim-American men and women who were stopped at two western New York border crossings in December. They had been attending an annual "Reviving the Islamic Spirit" conference in Toronto.
Atassi said she attended the conference to hear respected scholars and learn more about her religion. At the border, she said, her husband was taken behind closed doors and asked "Do you have reason to harm America?" and other "very offensive questions."
The plaintiffs said they had to surrender credit cards, cell phones and other belongings and were searched, questioned, fingerprinted and photographed without explanation. No one in the group was charged.
A call to the department seeking comment on the suit was not returned.
Earlier this month, Daniel Sutherland, a Homeland Security civil rights official, traveled to Buffalo in response to concerns over the incident. He declined to say why the searches had taken place but said officials had made policy changes to prevent a repeat.
"If they want to beef up security I'm all for it. I'm totally against terrorism. I want to be protected, I'm an American, too," plaintiff Galeb Rizek said. "If they're going to do this to everyone I have no problem whatsoever. ... But that night, that time, it was only us."