Americans returning from trips overseas are often greeted by border officers with a “welcome home." But Abdirahman Aden Kariye, a Muslim American imam living in Bloomington, Minnesota, says there have been no such greetings for him.
Kariye, a son of refugees who came to the U.S. from Somalia, told ABC News that his airport experiences are defined by a deep sense of anxiety. He claims he is often “singled out” and taken into private rooms for hours-long interrogations by U.S. border officers.
“I've been stopped many times, almost 90 percent of the time,” Kariye said, recounting his experience traveling domestically and internationally.
But over the past few years, he alleges these additional screenings upon his return from international trips were coupled with a barrage of questions scrutinizing his religious beliefs and practices.
“Those experiences made me feel that I had to make myself less visible as a Muslim,” Kariye said, claiming that the questioning brought on so much anxiety that while traveling he stopped praying at the airport, stopped carrying religious texts written in Arabic and even stopped wearing his kufi, a brimless cap that some Muslim men wear around the world.
“I feel like I don't have the freedom to be a Muslim in America,” he added.
Some of the questions asked by U.S. border officers, according to Kariye, included what type of Muslim he is, whether he’s Sunni or Shia, how many times a day he prays, what mosque he attends, his views on a particular Muslim scholar, whether he listens to music, whether he studies Islam and where he studied Islam.
“When you ask these types of questions about my personal beliefs … you're telling me that you have a suspicion about Muslims, that they are, you know, inherently a threat to national security,” Kariye said.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit on Thursday on behalf of Kariye and two other Muslim Americans who allegedly experienced similar religious questioning at the border.
The lawsuit was filed against the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. border officials in the United States District Court for the Central District of California on behalf of Kariye, Mohamad Mouslli and Hameem Shah, who allege that they were subjected on multiple occasions to detailed questions about their religion by border officers.
Shah is a U.S. citizen who lives in Plano, Texas and works in financial services, while Mouslli works in commercial real estate and lives in Gilbert, Arizona, with his wife and three children, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit contends that the questions violated the plaintiff's constitutional rights by violating their First Amendment right to freedom of religion, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a law passed by Congress in 1993.
“Because this questioning imposes substantial pressure on the plaintiffs to hide their religious expression when they're traveling – to alter it at the airport, and because it serves no legitimate law enforcement purpose, it violates the [RFRA], and it also violates the Constitution,” Ashley Gorski, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, told ABC News.
ABC News reached out to DHS and CBP but requests for comment were not returned.
Kariye said that he was questioned about his religious beliefs and practices during at least five separate incidents at various airports upon returning to the U.S. from trips and vacations overseas between Sept. 12, 2017, to Jan. 1, 2022.
“By asking intrusive questions about Islamic religious beliefs, practices, and associations, the U.S. government is conveying disapproval of Islam," Gorski said. "It is conveying a stigmatizing message; it's saying that it views adherence to these religious beliefs and practices as inherently suspicious."
According to the lawsuit, Kariye has been experiencing “travel issues consistent with placement on a U.S. government watchlist” since 2013.
When traveling for vacation or to visit family overseas, Kariye said that he frequently can’t print his boarding pass at the self-service kiosk until an airline employee makes a call to obtain clearance from a supervisor or government agency – a process that has taken up to two hours, the lawsuit alleges. And upon receiving his boarding pass, the travel document is marked “SSSS,” which stands for “Secondary Security Screening Selection.”
Kariye said that he doesn’t know why he might have been placed on this list.
Gorski said that Mouslli, one of the two other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, has also had similar travel issues and while “the government doesn't confirm or deny someone's placement on a watch list,” both men had “a series of repeated experiences that are consistent with placement on the watch list.”
Kariye said that some of those experiences in a post-9/11 America have made him feel that, as a Muslim, he is seen as “less American.” He said that he hopes by speaking out he can empower others who have had similar experiences.
“The important thing is that we want to change the condition of our Muslim community here in America. We are American, we are here to live here and be part of this American experience,” Kariye said.
“For me, I see this as part of my service as an imam – to be a voice for those who don't have one and advocate for justice.”
ABC News' Luke Barr and Quinn Owen contributed to this report.