For 13 years, Mohamed Khairullah has been the mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, a town of nearly 6,000 people where he previously worked as a volunteer firefighter.
But none of that mattered when he got off a flight in August and was pulled aside by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers who questioned him for hours, probing him about whether he had met with any terrorists during a family vacation to Turkey. Though the agents eventually agreed to let him go, they insisted on holding onto his phone for nearly two weeks, Khairullah told reporters at a Friday news conference.
“I believe that my constitutional rights were violated,” said Khairullah, 44.
The mayor’s trip had gotten off to a rough start: Four members of his family, including his infant child, were selected for additional screening and searched when they showed up at the airport for their flight to Turkey at the start of July, he said. At Friday’s news conference, Khairullah held up his 14-month-old’s boarding pass, which had been marked with “SSSS,” for “secondary security screening selection,” according to InsiderNJ.
The delays meant that they missed their flight and had to rebook, only to be subjected to “extensive” pat-downs when they returned to the airport the next day, the mayor said. When they finally boarded the plane, they were searched for a second time.
“As a person who travels a lot, I know that is not a normal procedure,” Khairullah said.
Khairullah, who describes himself as “the American mayor who happens to be a Muslim,” fled Syria with his family in 1980, according to the Bergen Record. They lived in Saudi Arabia before moving to the United States in 1991, when he was a teenager. In 2000, Khairullah became a U.S. citizen. The following year, he ran for office for the first time, and was elected to the borough council for Prospect Park, about 20 miles northeast of Manhattan.
Other members of Khairullah’s extended family who fled persecution in Syria ended up in Turkey, which was one reason for his visit this summer. He also took the opportunity to build relationships with local elected officials, he told the Record, and met with the mayors of different towns in between family outings to beaches, historical sites, and famous mosques.
“We just wanted to go and have a good time,” he said at Friday’s news conference.
On Aug. 2, Khairullah flew home from Turkey with his wife and four young children. Two CBP officers were waiting at the gate when they landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport, he said. The officers asked everyone on board to take out their green cards and passports. When the mayor handed over his family’s documents, they took a look and then informed him that they wanted to talk. Khairullah said that one agent joked about the situation while bringing him to a private room, telling him, “You know, this way you get past the long lines.”
Though the agent claimed that the process would only take a few minutes, Khairullah spent three hours in custody, he said. At first, the questions seemed routine: The officers wanted to know his name and where he worked, and why he had been in Turkey. But then they turned to more esoteric inquiries, asking him about what he had studied in college, what his mother’s name was, and if he had any nicknames, he told the Record. They also wanted to know if any of the towns he visited were home to terrorist cells, and if he had personally met with any terrorists.
Khairullah, who is also an education supervisor at Passaic County Technical Institute, told reporters Friday that he was “insulted” by the question and asked to contact an attorney.
“Asking me if I knew any terrorists was just flat-out profiling as far as I am concerned,” he said, according to TAPinto Hawthorne, a local news site.
While Khairullah didn’t know for certain why he had been detained, he suspected that his past travels could have been a factor. Since becoming mayor in 2006, he has been part of numerous humanitarian missions overseas, delivering food and medical supplies to refugee camps in Syria in addition to raising awareness about the plight of the Rohingya in southeast Asia and traveling to Tunisia to talk about democracy and municipal government.
“I’ve been interviewed before, and I understand, I travel to Syria, and if there’s anything that I can share with my government, I would,” Khairullah said. “However, I don’t go on exploratory missions, I don’t go near shady organizations. I go in, do the job, provide relief, and leave.”
The agents asked to “glance through” his phone, and Khairullah consented. In a video posted to his YouTube channel, he explained that he didn’t see a problem, since he was confident that there was nothing there that could be used against him. But after 30 to 45 minutes had passed, he grew frustrated. His children – ages 1, 2, 9, and 10 – were getting antsy, and his brother and mother were waiting for him. He asked the agents to give him his phone back and let him go.
After patting him down one more time and searching his family’s bags, the officers agreed to release him, but said that they would need to keep his phone. Khairullah said it took 12 days, and the help of an attorney from the New York chapter of the Council of American Islamic Relations, before he got it back. In the meantime, he asked his constituents to contact him on Facebook or email.
A spokesperson for CPB told NJ.com on Friday that while federal privacy laws prevent them from commenting on Khairullah’s claims, the agency is “committed to preserving the rights and privacy of all people while conducting necessary and lawful actions to secure our border.” All international travelers entering the country are subject to inspection, the official added, and for a “minuscule” number of travelers, that may include a search of their electronic devices.
Advocates have long argued that this policy disproportionately affects Muslim travelers. In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the government over the practice, noting that there had been a sharp uptick of warrantless searches on electronic devices in recent years. The lawsuit, which argues that such searches should be considered unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment, is still pending.
Khairullah said Friday that he believes he was detained for no reason and that the agents violated his privacy when they searched his phone. He hasn’t ruled out the possibility of taking legal action, he said, adding that his wife, who has a green card, is now scared to leave the country to visit her family in Canada and Turkey. He and his children are all American citizens, he said, but that didn’t seem to matter when he was stopped. Neither did being an elected official with decades of public service on his résumé.
“Even with U.S. citizenship, even with the 13-plus years as mayor, being a volunteer firefighter three years after I came to the U.S. … all these hours of community service obviously doesn’t matter when my name is Mohamed Khairullah,” he said.