Did You Hear the One About the Immigrant Comedian Detained by Trump’s Border Patrol?
Mohanad Elshieky came here in 2014, was granted refugee status, and is building a successful stand-up career. But border agents made him stand up for a different reason.
I’ve been on some painful road trips in my day as a comedian but nothing compares to what 27-year-old Mohanad Elshieky just went through. Elshieky, who was born in Benghazi, Libya, where he told jokes on a local radio show, came to the United States in 2014 on a student visa.
And despite English being his second language, Elshieky has been moving up the ranks of the stand-up comedy world in his adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon. He was recently a runner-up in Portland’s funniest comedian contest and has been getting paid bookings out of town.
In fact, it was a booking in the neighboring state of Washington that led to Elshieky being detained by Donald Trump’s Customs and Border Protection agents (CBP.) The young comedian was booked to perform at Washington State University on Saturday night in the small town of Pullman in the eastern part of the state. The next morning, he took a 7 a.m. Greyhound bus heading home which required a transfer in nearby Spokane, Washington.
Well, while Elshieky was on the bus waiting to depart the Spokane bus station, several CBP agents boarded and began looking around at the passengers. They then told Elshieky and a few others to exit the bus.
From there the agents asked if he was a citizen, to which the Libyan native responded that he wasn’t, but he handed the agents his identification, including his Oregon driver’s license and his government issued work permit. He also explained that he was granted asylum in 2018. But none of that was good enough for the agents.
As Elshieky told the local press, despite showing his documents, he was accused by the agents of lying and the agents kept repeating the word “illegals” over and over. Finally, after one agent made a phone call that verified his status, the comedian was allowed back on his bus. (CBP has confirmed detaining him for 20 minutes.)
Elshieky returned to the bus where he shared what happened via Twitter in a series of tweets that went crazily viral. At first though he mistakenly identified the CBP agents as part of ICE (Spokane is 97 miles from the Canadian border and CBP has jurisdiction within 100 miles of the border) writing: “This morning, ICE agents got on my Greyhound bus that was headed from Spokane to Portland. They walked around before they asked me and few others to step outside and took my documents and interrogated me for around 20 mins then claimed my papers were fake and that I’m ‘illegal.’”
He then explained, “It was an another reminder that even though I have been here for 5 years working my ass off, I was still considered ‘Other’ and I have never felt as alone as I did in that station full of people.” He added another heartbreaking tweet, “To be honest, I have never felt as terrible as I did today. I have never imagined that I would have to go through this.”
Well before he could correct his mistake about the agency involved, It caught the eye of many, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) who tweeted, “One of these days, I hope people realize that the idea that ICE should be scrapped isn’t so crazy after all. ICE jails children in for-profit detention centers funded by private equity grps. Kids are dying w/o accountability. If that’s not totally broken, I don’t know what is.”
And from there the story exploded. Elshieky’s encounter going viral was good, bad, and ugly for this up-and-coming comedian. It allowed people to hear about how brown-looking immigrants who are in the country legally are treated by Trump’s border patrol.
It also outraged the Spokane city government which had already enacted an ordinance in 2018 barring CBP from sweeps of the local bus station without prior authorization by the local government, although as a practical matter the mayor conceded it could not stop CBP.
On the ugly side, the publicity surrounding Elshieky’s stop resulted him being subjected to hate from the right wing, apparently Trump-loving bigots. Elshieky, being a comedian, did use humor to respond to some, including one hater with the Twitter handle “The Conservative Lantern” who wrote “Hey, I think I’m going to go to Libya and trash their government” to which he responded, “You guys have already done that though.”
And on a serious, defiant note, Elshieky made it clear on Twitter what he thought of the right-wing attacks: “I have survived a revolution and a civil war and lived in Benghazi my whole life and managed to get through that and come here and start a comedy career that has been taking off well. So stop sending me hate mail and racist shit into my DM because you're not gonna break me fools.”
Like any good comedian, Elshieky is having the last laugh by turning this harrowing experience into comedic material. There was Elshieky the night after being detained by CBP on stage in a Portland comedy club where he joked about the incident, telling the audience: “I’ve been living in the U.S. for four and half years and I need to speak to manager…because the product looks nothing like the image.”
And reflecting on being detained by CBP, he joked that from now on he will be carrying proof that he belongs in the United States with him at all time as he put his immigration papers on the stage and then revealed he was also carrying a bald eagle doll that was holding an American flag. Finally, Elshieky finished his set with a joke that summed it all up as only a comedian can: “The worst part of being detained is that now the whole country knows I can only afford to ride Greyhound.”