Akif Rahman, 34, was born in Springfield, Illinois. Like a lot of young entrepreneurs, he went into the computer business, establishing his own consulting firm. With employees not only in the United States but also in Pakistan and India, Rahman travels a lot.
And he gets hassled a lot.
Four times within a 14-month period, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection yanked him out of line and held him for questioning.
“The first time I was detained was in March 2004,” he says. “I was flying back from a business trip into LA from Hong Kong and Pakistan. While I was picking up my bags, I was asked to come to secondary screening area.”
Customs agents started to drill him, he says, asking questions like: “Why were you traveling? Who did you meet? Why were you in Pakistan? Why are you returning to LA and not Chicago?”
Rahman says he felt “absolutely alarmed. I didn’t know what this was all about.”
After a couple hours, they let him go.
Five months later, Rahman was returning again from a business trip to Pakistan.
This time, he flew in to O’Hare.
“I was met on the jet way,” he says.
Once again, they took him to a screening room and ran him through a similar battery of questions.
“At first they were hostile, and somewhere in the middle they’d get a little kinder,” he recalls.
When he asked them why they were doing this to him again, they said, “Just standard procedure.”
Rahman asked to speak to a supervisor, who told him he could fill out a Freedom of Information Act Request. Rahman took the paperwork.
The very next month, Rahman went to Montreal with his parents. On the way back, at the airport in Montreal, U.S. customs officials delayed him for more than three hours, he said. “I went through the whole drill again,” he says. As a result, he ended up missing his flight and a business meeting.
At that point, Rahman decided he better find out what was going on, so he filled out the FOIA request.
“In April of ’05 I got a response saying I was misidentified,” he says.
But that didn’t prevent Customs from misidentifying him again one month later.
“I was visiting my in-laws in Canada with my wife and two little kids, who were four and two at the time,” he says. “We drove back across the Detroit-Windsor tunnel. Basically, I pulled up to the booth, handed them our passports, and then was told to turn off the engine and hand over the keys to the car.”
Immediately, they asked him whether he had a weapon, which he didn’t.
“I was walked into the border office, with two agents standing right behind me,” he says. “When I went into the office, I was put against the wall, with my hands up in the air. My body was searched, one of the agents kicked my feet apart, and then they handcuffed me behind my back and cuffed me to a chair.”
The handcuffs hurt, he said. “I asked the agent whether they were necessary,” Rahman says. “They said this is part of the normal procedures.”
But this time they didn’t ask him the same old questions.
“I was interviewed by an un-uniformed agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” he says. “He asked me whether I knew someone who was funding terrorist activities or whether I knew any of the 9/11 hijackers. I felt like a suspect, like a criminal. They were asking me a bunch of questions I have no knowledge of.”
After more than five hours, they finally released Rahman to his wife and kids. The little ones were crying.
Rahman had enough.
“You’re scared, you’re frustrated, you’re humiliated, you’re confused, you’re concerned about why it’s happening and whether it will happen again,” he explains. “I’ve never been handcuffed before in my life, and who knows what’s going to happen next time?”
A day or two after getting back from Canada, Rahman contacted the ACLU of Illinois.
On June 28, 2005, he filed suit against the government for violating his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights. And on June 19, 2006, he joined a lawsuit the ACLU of Illinois filed on behalf of eight others, including his wife.
“I can’t comment on the specific suit,” says Bill Anthony, senior spokesman for Customs and Border Protection at the Department of Homeland Security, “but we will not let anyone in the county until we know who they say they are and that they are not here to do harm to our citizens or violate our laws.”