While 2020 was a tumultuous year for travel worldwide, American Muslims were particularly hard hit by border closures and heightened scrutiny related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our attorneys actively responded to community members by assisting individuals who faced harassment and intrusive questioning while travelling. Indeed, the profiling of Muslim travelers by CBP agents and airline employees have led to the normalization of #FlyingWhileMuslim, a hashtag that best captures the experiences of individuals traveling while being visibly or identifiably Muslim.
In an incident involving airline misconduct, CAIR-LA was contacted by a well-known and respected medical doctor who dealt with discriminatory treatment during travel to and from Los Angeles International Airport (“LAX”). The doctor, a practicing Muslim and U.S. citizen of Egyptian descent, intended to travel to perform Umrah, a religious pilgrimage, to Mecca, Saudi Arabia by booking two flights operated by a reputable international airline. Having confirmed both his departing and returning flights, the client encountered no security issues at LAX. However, on his international connecting flight, the airline would not honor his booking and denied him boarding without providing an explanation other than that his flight was international. The client was forced to fly through another airline but without the same issue. On his return flight home, the client was once again prevented from boarding his international connecting flight at the Frankfurt airport. This time, the client was informed that he could not board his flight because the U.S. authorities did not want him to board this flight.
Embarrassed and confused by the airline’s action, the client demanded an official explanation for his mistreatment and harassment despite being a U.S. citizen with the right to return to the U.S. After being passed from one unhelpful employee to another, a supervisor eventually confessed that he was being denied boarding because he was a practicing Muslim with an Arabic name, curtly stating “you have been to Saudi too many times and your middle name is too long for the computer to recognize.” Despite this admission, the supervisor made no attempts to assist the client in boarding the flight and instead directed him to another airline for assistance with his return to the U.S. With no option available to him, the client once again booked a separate return flight with another airline without being informed of any similarly contrived ‘security’ issues.
These incidents of harassment and public embarrassment left the client with several costly travel delays, financial losses, and undue stress. Our civil rights attorneys reached out to the airline company directly to request immediate redress for the arbitrary and discriminatory actions against the client. In a letter, CAIR-LA attorneys detailed the harassment and discrimination the client suffered and demanded a financial settlement along with immediate policy changes. The requested policy changes included blanket prohibitions on the recurrence of similar behavior against customers based on their perceived race, national origin, and religion, as well as relevant cultural competency training for all employees. CAIR-LA was able to secure satisfactory monetary compensation for the client. Most crucially, the airline apologized for their treatment of the client and stated that they had reinforced their existing policy to ensure that their staff would not repeat this egregious mistake.
In another incident, CAIR-SFBA represented a 66-year-old American Muslim woman of Middle Eastern background and her family, who was ordered to remove her hijab in public after being racially profiled on a flight from Cancun, Mexico. The client, a practicing Muslim who wears hijab as part of her religious beliefs, was also wheelchair bound during the encounter due to a chronic hip condition. At the gate, the client and her daughter were approached by a Delta employee informing them that the airline needed to conduct additional security screening of the client, stating, “We have a profile of people we screen for international flights who don’t speak English.” Upon questioning why her mother was being singled out, the client’s daughter was informed by another employee nearby that this was standard procedure, “TSA requires this, so complain to them in Boston. We do this all the time.” No other passengers including those without English language proficiency were selected for additional security checks.
During the screening, the client suffered a panic attack and requested medical attention and water, but neither was provided. The client was also required to remove her hijab in public, and it lay by her feet as she continued sobbing. Meanwhile, the client’s daughter was threatened with arrest by airport security guards for trying to aid her mother and attempting to record this incident. Hearing the threats to arrest her daughter, the client was further agitated and stood to unzip her pants exclaiming, “I’ll take off whatever you want! I don’t want my daughter in jail.” The ordeal ended with the client being cleared for boarding but without any follow up response from the airline’s staff to tender an apology to check on her welfare.
CAIR-SFBA attorneys responded with a demand letter expressing concern over the behavior of the airline’s employees displayed in response to the client’s request for urgent medical attention as well as the discriminatory way the search was conducted. Our attorneys demanded monetary damages, a formal written apology, and revamping of the airline’s passenger screening policy to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws.
While the case ended without a satisfactory settlement due to the absence of legislation imposing civil liabilities on airline carriers for discriminatory screening, CAIR-CA continues empowering travelers to report and challenge harassment while traveling. CAIR-CA remains committed to ensuring that individuals traveling with airlines are not subject to differential treatment based on their religious beliefs and how they choose to observe their faith.
As the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated its devastating grip, governments including those in the U.S. and Yemen closed their borders catching many Yemeni Americans by surprise.34 While such travel restrictions happened abruptly, the State Department launched repatriation flights safely returning at least 56,000 U.S. travelers from countries including Peru and India after considerable pressure from congressional officials and advocates such as CAIR-CA. However, Yemen was excluded from the charter flights, leaving thousands of Yemeni Americans who were visiting loved ones adrift in a situation where the ongoing civil war put them at risk of violence and the ravages of the pandemic, without access to quality healthcare.35
After hearing from community members across the state, CAIR-SFBA undertook to bring together advocates and impacted families in the aptly titled ‘Bring Them Home’ coalition, a nationwide collaborative effort which demanded the immediate repatriation of U.S. persons in Yemen and was made up of key stakeholders such as Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, Yemeni American Association of California, Yemeni Alliance Committee, and Yemeni American Merchants Association. Returning individuals stuck in Yemen without appropriate means of transportation including chartered flights was further made urgent given reports of the rapid deterioration of hospitals in Yemen causing medical personnel to flee the country or avoid working due to the high risk of infection.36 In a joint letter to the State Department, the coalition demanded the scheduling of immediate guaranteed flights from Yemen and neighboring countries to the U.S. for Americans awaiting repatriation.37 The coalition highlighted the need to urgently assist U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents with expiring or expired documents by processing handling of consular requests through secure online video conferencing and in-person validation by consular staff in countries where the U.S. maintains an active embassy or consulate. The coalition further requested that Secretary Mike Pompeo make available financial assistance to individuals in the form of promissory loans that can be paid back.
Among the many hundreds of cases that CAIR-CA’s legal staff handled is a moving story of an individual stranded in Yemen during the COVID-19 pandemic who required an emergency medical operation that could not be performed in Yemen, because of the lack of healthcare infrastructure and hospitals being at full capacity due to the pandemic. The individual’s family, based in Stockton, reached out to CAIR-SV/CC for advice and assistance in pressuring the State Department to arrange an emergency medical evacuation for their family member whose life would be in peril in the absence of immediate action. The client had been visiting family in Yemen when he suffered seizures causing cerebral hemorrhaging. CAIR-SV/CC promptly contacted the family’s congressional representative, Rep. Jerry McNerney of California’s 9th congressional district, and collaborated with his staff to pressure the State Department to demand the expedited repatriation of his critically ill constituent. While the State Department took its time, the family flew to Yemen where they were able to bring the family member to an airport in Cairo en route to Istanbul. Our representatives worked closely with Turkish Airlines agents to ensure that the flight from Istanbul to San Francisco went smoothly. This supportive action ensured that the family was reunited, and that the individual was able to receive life-saving treatment.