NEW YORK – The fact that American Muslim Syed Ali served for years inside his country as a police officer and abroad as army veteran did not protect him from being detained at Kennedy Airport when he arrived on an evening flight from Istanbul last month.
“There’s no one who you would think should be able to sail through immigration at the airport more than Syed,” Justin Cox, a staff lawyer at the National Immigration Law Center, who spoke with Officer Ali after the incident and is following the treatment of Muslim immigrants at airports, told The New York Times on Tuesday, May 16.
“None of that mattered because he’s brown and Muslim. That’s what his case underlines.”
Ali is an American citizen, an officer in the New York Police Department, a combat veteran and a major in the United States Army Reserve.
Returning from a vacation in Istanbul, after a two-year military deployment to Kuwait, he landed in Kennedy airport to be detained for hours for a secondary check on his passport.
When he asked, after more than an hour of waiting, whether it would take much longer, an officer threatened to incarcerate him, he said.
“If you can’t sit patiently, I can gain compliance from you by putting you in a detainment cell,” he recalled a Customs and Border Protection officer’s telling him.
“I feel like my rights were violated,” Officer Ali said in an interview, still sounding a little shaken.
“Are you telling me that every guy with the last name Ali is a terrorist? Are you telling me every guy with brown skin coming in from overseas is a terrorist?”
Officer Ali is one of a number of Muslim Americans who have complained that since the start of the Trump administration they have been subjected to additional scrutiny when returning from abroad, facing hours in airport custody and what they described as hostile questioning.
A retired North Carolina police chief, Hassan Aden, recounted an experience similar to Officer Ali’s, also at J.F.K., in March.
“I’m more concerned with, what is the average citizen going through?” Officer Ali said.
“It’s happening to other people and it’s probably a lot worse.”
Enlisting in the Navy before he turned 18, Officer Ali said his feeling of powerlessness in airport custody “was one of the lowest points in my life.”
“I’ve dedicated my life to public service,” he said. “I want my country to treat me fairly, too.”