Muslim American Grilled at Border Over Religion, Letter to the Editor
Zakariya Muhammad Reed spent 20 years serving in the National Guard. For the last eleven years, he's been a firefighter in Toledo.
But this hasn't kept him from being viewed with suspicion by his own government.
"Now, not only am I being persecuted for my faith, but I'm being persecuted for a personal opinion. This is getting too Orwellian. Is this what it comes down to? Is this where I live? Is this the country I love?"
Four times in the last six months, Reed has been detained coming over the border from Canada.
He goes up there because his wife's family lives in Ontario.
The Canadians don't bother him, he says. But the Americans do.
His is just one of many such cases reported by Muslim Americans. The ACLU has a lawsuit pending against Homeland Security for its alleged religious and ethnic profiling.
Reed's case is a particularly eye-opening one.
The first time, Reed, his wife, and their two small children were coming back at about 11:00 p.m, so the kids would be asleep, he says.
"We pulled up to the booth at the Windsor-Detroit crossing," he recalls. "They asked for my ID, I gave them my passport, they swiped it, and the there was a look of shock on the guard's face as he closed the window. Suddenly, there were five guys surrounding the car with their hands on their weapons. They told me to turn the car off and keep my hands on the wheel, and they opened my door and led me into the building."
His wife and their two children had to come in and stay in a common area, he says, as border agents took him down the hall.
"They put me up against the wall and frisked me and took everything in my pockets," he says. "Then they put me in a four by eight foot room with two armed guards."
About a half hour later, he continues, "someone comes in with a legal size paper and asks me why I was in Canada and who I was seeing there. Then they noticed I'd changed my name."
Reed's name at birth was Edward Eugene Reed Jr.
"Why did you change your name?"
"For personal reasons, based on faith."
"What faith was that?"
Reed says he asked them, "Am I being arrested for something?" And they said no, you're being detained.
"We'll get back to you on that."
After about an hour more of waiting and answering questions, Reed was getting impatient.
"Can I go see my kids and talk to my wife?"
"No, you need to stay here. Your kids are being taken care of."
Not true, his wife told him.
"They wouldn't even let her go to the car to get a diaper bag to change their dirty diapers," he says.
He also says the guards engaged in some nasty banter.
"You know, we're really too good to these detainees," one said, according to Reed. "We should treat them like we do in the desert. We should put a bag over their heads and zip tie their hands together."
After about three hours, Reed says they took his photo and his fingerprints, and made him wait a half hour longer before giving him his passport back and telling he could go.
"Our car was completely trashed," he says. "My son's portable DVD player was broken, and I have a decorative Koran on the dashboard that was thrown on the floor."
But six weeks later, virtually the same thing happened all over again.
"The first time, we thought it was a fluke," he says. "The second time was the most shocking because I realized something was really wrong."
Reed says he told the guards: "Look, I just did this six weeks ago. Can't you look me up on your computer and see that it's me?"
No such luck.
They asked him about the Lebanese stamp in his passport.
"My wife is originally from there," he told them. "We went there on our honeymoon."
Meanwhile, his wife was talking with the guards, asking if they should expect trouble every time they try to cross.
"I advise you not to take your hubby with you," the guard told her, according to Reed.
Reed contacted Representative Marcy Kaptur's office and talked with aide Dan Foote.
The trouble is "no doubt because you probably changed your name to a Muslim name," said Foote, who told him the Congresswoman would pursue it.
On January 5, Representative Kaptur wrote to the Congressional liaison at the immigration service.
She noted that Reed was an "honorably discharged veteran and U.S. born American citizen" who had "no criminal record nor has he exhibited probable cause to make law enforcement think he may be associated in any way with anti-American elements." She concluded: "I would request that your office act to prevent Mr. Reed from experiencing further delays and detentions and do what you can to update his record in the computer."
A few weeks later, Foote told Reed by e-mail that it was not going to be so easy. "Your name is on every computer at every crossing point into the U.S.," Foote wrote on January 30. "We have to approach the problem at the Director level."
But so far nothing has happened.
"We're waiting for them to respond," Foote tells The Progressive. "The thing has to work its way up the food chain and then have someone in authority have somebody in the border patrol get back to us. Traditionally, we don't comment on individual cases. But we're trying to work within the system and fix the problem."
On February 2, Reed sent a letter to the Interagency Border Inspection System.
"Nobody will give me any information as to why I am being detained," he wrote. "I would like to know exactly what I am being accused of and why is it that I am having so much trouble reentering the home of my birth. . . . My entire life has revolved around the service of American citizens and suddenly I am being treated like a criminal because there 'is a problem with my name,' to quote one of the border officers. . . . What do I have to do to get my name from this list? . . . I have been treated like a criminal and my wife and children have been mistreated and disrespected in the name of Homeland Security. All we want is to go on with our lives as before. I have never taken part in any subversive activity to cause harm to this land or its people. I have never done anything criminal in my life."
On March 15, Patricia M. Duffy, acting executive director, National Targeting and Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, wrote Reed back.
"Thank you for your recent letter, in which you expressed your concern regarding difficulties that you have experienced during U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing," she wrote. "We have recently completed our review of this matter. Based on the information you provided and our research into the issues you raise, records have been modified where appropriate."
Meanwhile, Reed keeps getting hassled.
The third time was in mid-March.
Basically, the same thing happened as before, Reed says, the same questions, the same fingerprinting.
But this time there were two disturbing variations.
First, a border agent takes his weapon out and puts it on the table during interrogation, Reed says. "He takes the clip out of his weapon, looks at the ammunition, puts the clip back in, and puts it back in his holster. I'm thinking, this is intimidation!"
Second, another agent asks him about a letter to the editor Reed wrote to the Toledo Blade back on September 8, 2006. It was entitled, "The World Sees an Arrogant America," and it was critical of Israel's invasion of Lebanon and its occupation of Palestinian land, as well as Bush's invasion of Iraq. "These are but a few reasons that have put America on the 'most hated' list," he wrote.
"I see you like to write for the newspaper," the agent told Reed, he recalls. And the agent had downloaded a copy of the letter, which was on the table, Reed says.
"Nothing, I'm just curious. I googled your name and saw these things that were printed in the newspaper."
This unsettled Reed.
"I was terrified," he says. "This is a whole new ball of wax here. Now, not only am I being persecuted for my faith, but I'm being persecuted for a personal opinion. This is getting too Orwellian. Is this what it comes down to? Is this where I live? Is this the country I love?"
He says when he got home, he felt like a zombie.
On April 29, Reed says he was detained again.
Ron Smith is a Customs and Border Protection public affairs officer in Detroit.
"I can't talk about specific individuals because of privacy concerns," he says, "so I can't speak to particulars about Mr. Reed. But Customs does not practice nor condone any kind of profiling. It's completely against our policies. If an individual is found doing so, they would be subject to discipline, up to and including dismissal."
About the hooding and zip tieing comment that Reed relayed, Smith said: "That would be something we would definitely take action on. It's not allowed. It's not something we allow our officers to say."
Reed is worried about what will happen the next time he and his family go visiting to Canada.
"I'm sad," he says. "I'm disillusioned. This can't be happening."
Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive magazine.
© 2007 The Progressive