Somali-American Family Sues After Border Crossing Detainment

July 13, 2017 07:06 PM

A Somali-American family held at a U.S.-Canada border crossing for nearly 11 hours in 2015 after the father's name appeared on a terror watch list is alleging its rights were violated during the long detainment, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday.

The lawsuit filed by Abdisalam Wilwal, his wife Sagal Abdigani, and four children — then ages 5 to 14 — says the family was denied food for hours, Wilwal passed out after hours of having his hands cuffed behind his back, and the ordeal caused so much fear that at one point the 8-year-old girl told her mom, "maybe they'll kill us after sunset."


According to the lawsuit, which is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, the family members were stopped by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials as they re-entered the United States after visiting Abdigani's sister in Saskatchewan. The lawsuit says Wilwal's name is on the government's terror watch list for no reason.

The suit alleges officials violated the family's right to be free from unlawful search and seizure, and that those responsible for the terror watch list violated Wilwal's right to due process.

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"The government has refused to tell Mr. Wilwal why his name appeared on the watchlist, and it has not provided him with a meaningful opportunity to correct or challenge whatever error led to his placement on it," the lawsuit says.

The family is now afraid to leave the country.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction that would bar authorities from arresting, searching or interrogating Wilwal and his family again because of his inclusion on the list. It also asks that authorities remove him from the list.

Some of the Frequently Asked Questions about terrorism screening, courtesy FBI's Terrorism Screening Center  

-What is the Terrorist Screening Database?

The Terrorist Screening Database, commonly referred to as "the watchlist," is the U.S. Government's consolidated database containing sensitive law enforcement and national security information concerning the identity information of those who are known to be or reasonably suspected of being involved in terrorist activities. The Terrorist Screening Center serves as a bridge between homeland security, law enforcement, the intelligence community, and select international partners for the purpose of sharing, as appropriate, terrorism-related information.

- What is the No Fly List?

 The No Fly List is a subset of the Terrorist Screening Database. Inclusion on the No Fly List prohibits an individual who may present a threat to civil aviation or national security from boarding a commercial aircraft that traverses U.S. airspace. Before the Terrorist Screening Center places an individual on the No Fly List, there must be credible information demonstrating that the individual presents a threat of committing an act of terrorism with respect to an aircraft, the homeland, U.S. facilities or interests abroad, or is a threat of engaging in or conducting a violent act of terrorism and is operationally capable of doing so.

- If an individual has an adverse experience while traveling or wants to contest their possible inclusion in the watchlist, how can they seek resolution?

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has established the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP) ( to provide a single point of contact for individuals who have inquiries or seek resolution regarding their alleged U.S. Government watchlist status. DHS TRIP allows travelers to submit a redress inquiry in a single request via a secure website, and is the vehicle through which individuals may seek redress for travel difficulties they perceive to be the result of their inclusion in the Terrorist Screening Database.

Named in the suit are the heads of several federal agencies as defendants, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

The Department of Justice didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

According to the lawsuit, after Wilwal gave his family's travel documents to border officers in Portal, North Dakota, three officers ordered him out of the minivan at gunpoint. He was separated from his family and handcuffed for nearly 11 hours — at one point passing out and requiring medical attention.

He was questioned about his religious practices and travels, the lawsuit says, and was denied access to a lawyer or interpreter.

The rest of the family was kept together. When Abdigani realized her 14-year-old stepson had his phone, she used it to call 911 for help. An officer confiscated the phone and police never came. Authorities searched the phone and took the boy to a separate area where he was given a pat-down. He was told to remove his clothes for a strip search, but he refused.

All of the family members are U.S. citizens.

"Our own government just shouldn't be treating my family and me or anyone else this way," Wilwal said in a statement. "It's wrong."

KSTP spoke with Omar Jamal, a self-described activist in the Somali-American community.

"I've worked with and seen a lot of innocent people on the watch list. It's easy to get on that list and hell to get out of it," Jamal said. "They feel they've been marginalized and turned all of them into suspects, and that is very frustrating and heartbreaking."

Teresa Nelson is the interim executive director for the ACLU of Minnesota.

"This is our government detaining people arbitrarily and arbitrarily treating people poorly based on this vague notion of terrorism," Nelson said. "These are American citizens who had no problem entering Canada and getting into Canada to visit and it's when they are coming home when they are experiencing this."


Associated Press

(Copyright 2017 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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