For Immediate Release

Organization Profile: 
Contact: 

Abdullah Hasan, 646-905-8879, ahasan@aclu.org

ACLU Files Complaint With DHS Over Unfair Blacklisting of U.S. Citizen

WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union today filed a formal complaint with the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of Zainab Merchant. Since September 2016, Merchant has been subjected to excessive and humiliating searches, questioning, and detention by federal officers every time she has traveled by air or reentered the United States from a trip abroad.

Merchant is a U.S. citizen and the Orlando-based founder and CEO of ZR Studios, a multimedia site about current affairs, politics, and culture. She is also a graduate student at Harvard University and mother to three young children. The government refuses to tell her why she is repeatedly harassed every time she travels or give her a meaningful chance to correct whatever error is causing it.

Merchant's experiences at airports have included Transportation Security Administration officers calling in an explosive unit and, on a separate trip, a team of dogs to search her. Agents have separated her from her two-year-old child for individual screening, and have taken Merchant to private rooms and forced her to open her pants and show her underwear. Officers have removed and inspected all of the contents of her bags in full view of other travelers passing through the checkpoint. After she clears security, TSA officers are often waiting for her at the gate and require her to undergo additional pat-down searches in front of the passengers who will travel with her on the flight. Border officers have also questioned Merchant about her religion and her online opinion writing criticizing government policies, raising First Amendment concerns.

“This has become my new normal. I’ve learned that TSA agents will pat me down multiple times and rummage through my belongings while other travelers watch. And I’ve learned to be prepared for anything, including teams of dogs and explosive units,” said Zainab Merchant. “My husband and I bonded when we first married over our love of travel. Now our adventures together have greatly diminished, as has our dream to take our children around the U.S. and abroad. I’ve even contemplated giving up my studies at Harvard because of the anxiety and humiliation that comes with the inevitable harassment on my flights to and from Boston.”

The complaint filed today calls on DHS to stop singling Merchant out for this treatment, which is likely the result of placement on a government watchlist. The complaint also calls for an investigation of the conduct of TSA and Customs and Border Protection officers, and disclosure of any relevant records.

“Zainab’s terrible experience is yet another indication of the unfairness of the watchlisting system and the harms it inflicts on individual lives,” noted Hugh Handeyside, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project, in a post about today’s filing. “As with other national security-related policies in the post-9/11 era, these consequences are borne overwhelmingly by members of American Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities.”

A video documenting Merchant’s experiences can be found here: https://youtu.be/StXLEsaqx8E.

Handeyside’s blog post on today’s filing can be found here: https://www.aclu.org/blog/national-security/discriminatory-profiling/womans-endless-ordeal-shows-how-watchlisting-system.

The complaint filed today with DHS can be found here: https://www.aclu.org/letter/zainab-merchant-administrative-complaint-department-homeland-security.

This release can be found here: https://www.aclu.org/news/aclu-files-complaint-dhs-over-unfair-blacklisting-us-citizen.

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