The airport has long posed frustrating challenges for Muslim Americans, from being “randomly” selected for extra screening to being detained at the airport returning home.
But it appears the Trump administration has escalated harassment of Muslims at the airport to a new level when Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers recently detained the mayor of a New Jersey town holding him and his family for three hours, and confiscating his phone for nearly two weeks, returning it only after lawyers from the Council on American Islamic Relations threatened a lawsuit.
And the most disturbing part is that the motivation for these actions may have been, at least in part, to punish this elected official for vocally criticizing Trump and publicly defending two of Trump’s favorite Muslim targets, Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.
Mohamed Khairullah—the mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, a town of 6,000 located about an hour’s drive from New York City—has made public service the focus of his life. Born in Syria, he came to the United States as a teenager along with his parents in the 1990s. After serving as a volunteer fireman in his new hometown, he ran for town council, winning a seat only one year after becoming a U.S. citizen in 2000. Later he successfully ran for mayor, and has since been re-elected three times. All told, he has now served 18 years as an elected official, works full time as an educator and volunteers countless hours working on humanitarian projects, such as helping refugees.
But to Trump’s CBP Officers, he posed a threat. We don’t know the exact nature of this threat because they refused to tell him at the time. In fact, to this day, CBP has still not explained why they detained him—along his wife and their four children aged 1, 2, 9 and 10—after they touched down at JFK following a trip to visit family in Turkey.
When the Khairullah family exited their flight, CBP officers were waiting and took them to a holding room. CBP officers soon began asking Khairullah questions about possible ties to terrorism, such as, “Do you know about any terrorist groups forming over there, or did you meet any terrorists?” The questions continued after Khairullah explained to the CBP officers he was a mayor and had travelled many times before to Turkey without incident—all facts that could be easily documented.
Was this simply Muslim profiling? Certainly, Khairullah believes that was part of it. But he added that something even more sinister could be at play. Khairullah noted that he had been to Turkey to visit his Syrian family members over a year ago and experienced no issues upon his return to the United States. But weeks before his most recent trip, Khairullah took to Facebook to criticize Trump’s bigoted attacks on these two members of Congress with posts that included a screen grab of Trump’s tweet saying the two should go back to their own country, writing, “It is sickening when the President of the greatest nation on Earth speaks publicly like a racist street thug. You are an embarrassment to our nation and we are not going back to anywhere.” Shortly before that he posted an article that featured a photo of Omar and Tlaib, writing, “Because Palestinian children deserve a better future too.” And in May, Khairullah posted a photo of himself meeting Tlaib at an event, calling it an “honor.”
Khairullah wondered if CBP’s actions were an effort to silence him as a Muslim American Democratic elected official given how Trump has been trying to silence Omar and Tlaib. “The beauty of our country we can speak our mind on political issues without fear of retribution from the government,” Khairullah stated, adding, “but when the government is run by a man like Trump who admires dictators, we must be concerned that Trump is violating the U.S. Constitution and diluting our rights.”
Khairullah’s concern comes as CBP has been checking social media postings of people trying to enter America. And as Trump made headlines this summer viciously attacking Tlaib and Omar as somehow not really American.
While it’s highly unlikely there’s a CBP policy in place that says punish Muslim American Democrats who criticize Trump, there’s little doubt that’s the culture Trump has fostered and it may animate some who work in the Trump regime or support him.
Khairullah debated whether to go public with his story, but did so last week in an effort to pressure CBP to be more transparent. “If they are doing this to an elected official, I can only imagine what they are doing to the average Muslim American or Hispanic American,” Khairullah remarked.