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A Secret CBP Team is Targeting and Detaining Innocent Travelers. We’re Suing.

A CBP agent inspecting a passport
For too long, the government has acted as if it has carte blanche at the border. No more.
A CBP agent inspecting a passport
Tarek Ismail,
Counsel, CUNY Law School CLEAR Project,
CUNY Law School
Scarlet Kim,
Staff Attorney,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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December 18, 2019

U.S. Customs and Border Protection is deploying secret teams that target, detain, and interrogate innocent travelers. We’re suing to expose their activities.

In November 2018, three CBP officers detained Andreas Gal, a former chief technology officer at Mozilla Corporation and current Apple employee, at San Francisco International Airport after he landed from a business trip to Sweden. Andreas was offered no reason for the detention, except a receipt from a Global Entry kiosk that was marked with the letters “TTRT.”

The officers asked Andreas questions that focused on his First Amendment-protected speech and activism. Andreas is an outspoken proponent of online privacy and has spoken publicly about his opposition to warrantless mass surveillance and views on the current administration’s policies. The officers also repeatedly sought to search Andreas’ electronic devices, which included the contact information of his family and friends, correspondence, and further information about his opinions and views.

Andreas, a U.S. citizen, was eventually allowed to leave. Abdikadir Mohamed, an immigrant, was not so lucky.

Abdi was at JFK International Airport in December 2017. On his way to board a connecting flight to reunite with his pregnant wife and his daughter in Columbus, Ohio, two CBP officers approached him. By that point, Abdi had already cleared immigration and security screenings. Nevertheless, the officers asked to examine Abdi’s stamped documents, and his boarding pass, which he provided. Unsatisfied, they asked him to come to a separate room for additional questioning, and told him to unlock his cell phone.

After 15 hours of interrogation, the officers declared Abdi ‘inadmissible’ and sought to deport him. Abdi chose to contest his deportation and seek asylum, following which he was sent to ICE detention in New Jersey. After 19 months in detention, an immigration judge granted Abdi’s asylum claim and reunited him with his family in the United States.

CBP’s treatment of Andreas and Abdi is disturbing, and they are not isolated incidents. We now know that the officers that targeted Andreas and Abdi are part of a secretive team CBP has deployed to at least 46 airports and other U.S. ports of entry. We also learned during Abdi’s asylum proceeding that these teams are called Tactical Terrorism Response Teams, which we now know explains the acronym, TTRT, printed on Andreas’ Global Entry receipt.

While TTRTs operate largely in secret, we know from public statements by CBP officials that the teams are explicitly targeting individuals who are not on any government watchlist — as flawed as even those are — and who the government has never identified as posing a security risk. Even more concerning, former CBP Commissioner and former acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan has indicated that TTRT officers may rely on their “instincts” or hunches to target travelers.

An officer’s reliance on “instincts” creates the risk that these secretive teams are targeting travelers based on explicit or implicit biases. Such targeting may result in unlawful profiling if officers detain, search, and/or question travelers on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin. It may also result in officers detaining and questioning travelers because of their speech or associations, which may be protected by the First Amendment. Finally, these teams’ activities raise due process and fairness concerns when information inappropriately gathered by them results in further government scrutiny, such as placement on a government watchlist. 

In fiscal year 2017 alone, these teams denied entry to over 1,400 individuals with valid travel documents.

There is still a lot that we don’t know about these secret teams, and CBP failed to respond to our request for information. Now, together with the New York Civil Liberties Union, we’re asking a federal court to order the agency to turn over information about these secretive teams.

The public has a right to know how these teams operate, how their officers are trained, and whether the guidelines that govern their activities contain civil liberties and privacy safeguards. We also want to know just how many individuals are subject to detention, questioning, and/or denial of entry into the U.S. by these teams, and the basis for these decisions.

There can be no meaningful accountability if there is no transparency. For too long, the government has acted as if it has carte blanche at the border. It’s time to shed light on the shadowy operations of CBP’s secret teams.

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