Agents accused of aggressive searches

February 7, 2008 7:57:21 PM PST
Allegations over aggressive searches of U.S. travelers returning home from abroad.

There are concerns that the constitutional rights of travelers crossing U.S. borders are being violated.

To find out, Bay Area civil rights groups want the government to explain its policies for detaining people at the border.

San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus and Electronic Frontier Foundation, say they've been contacted by 20 Northern California residents who are alarmed by they way customs agents are questioning and searching travelers at the U.S. borders.

Those travelers run the gamut from citizens and residents, to immigrants and visitors. So the ACL and EFF have filed a lawsuit to try to find out what are the government's policies, and do they violate the law?

Nabila Mango has been a U.S. resident since 1965. In December, she arrived at SFO on a flight from Frankfurt after a three-week visit to the Middle East.

She says she was detained by Customs Agents while they took her cell phone, went through her receipts and books and subjected her to aggressive interrogation asking very personal questions -- including contact information for her U.S. born daughter.

She went home deeply shaken.

"I became very anxious. I was worried about the safety of my daughter, my own safety. The safety of my family home, the safety of all my friends on my cell phone," said Nabila Mango.

Mango is one of 20 Northern Californians who have contacted the Asian Law Caucus or the Electronic Frontier Foundation with concerns about the government's border policies.

For instance, how do they decide to make a copy of a laptop's hard drive?

"When individuals protested, including American citizens, they were told, this is the border and you have no rights," said Asian Law Caucus attorney Shirin Sinnar.

The ACL and EFF say they asked the Department of Homeland Security to release its policies and practices on border searches under the Freedom of Information Act --- with no response, the groups have filed suit.

U.S. citizen Amir Khan is a Silicon Valley I.T. consultant. He says he's been detained five times since 2003. Agents ordered him to give them access to his laptop, which he says contained confidential work information.

"At this point it seems that customs and border protection takes the position that it needs no suspicion whatsoever to conduct a search of someone's laptop or cell phone and anything else really that they're carrying as they enter the country," said Sinnar.

Border security activist Rick Oltman thinks the government should not have to reveal its border policies.

"Any time we reveal practices and polices we are making it easier for the enemy to develop ways to defeat them," said Rick Oltman from Americans for Population Stabilization.

The Department of Homeland Security could not be reached for comment.