By: Kristin Smith

Hina Shamsi, Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, wrote a blog entry on February 7, 2017, explaining the extensive questioning she was subjected to when reentering the United States. Ms. Shamshi explained that while in transit back to the United States (from a work trip to Dominica focused on the ACLU’s case against psychologists associated with the CIA’s torture program) she was questioned by a Customs and Border Protection agent at length about her job at the ACLU and about her Pakistani nationality. The agent repeatedly questioned why an organization such as the ACLU “with ‘American’ in its name” would be representing non-citizens, sending its employees abroad frequently, and using foreign or international law as part of its work. They also expressed skepticism toward her status as a long-time legal permanent resident, despite the fact that Pakistan is not one of the seven countries included in the Trump administration’s January 27 travel ban.

A protest of the travel ban at San Francisco International Airport, Jan. 29, 2017. Source: Peg Hunter, via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]

A protest of the travel ban at San Francisco International Airport, January 29, 2017. Source: Peg Hunter, via Flickr [CC BY-NC 2.0]

This line of questioning is deeply troubling. First, the fact that it happened to an individual who has devoted her career to the protection of American civil liberties demonstrates the unintended consequences of incoherent immigration policy and skepticism based solely on one’s nationality. It also presents a larger problem in the way that international engagement is sometimes perceived as detracting from domestic affairs.

“The agent pressed. Did my meetings and talks abroad focus on U.S. law or the law of other countries? Not understanding what any of this had to do with my ability to return home, I found myself explaining that in addition to the Constitution, the United States is bound by international treaties. I explained that there are fundamental human rights that belong to everyone and apply in all countries in the world, including the United States, and that my work covers both.”
– Hina Shamsi, Flying Home from Abroad, a Border Agent Stopped and Questioned Me… About My Work for the ACLU (Feb. 7, 2017)

These questions seem to claim that there is incongruence between being interested in international issues, or in using international law, and being “American.” The ACLU, of course, does important work that engages both domestic and international law (in human rights protection, seeking information on targeted strikes that killed U.S. citizens abroad,  or asserting the rights of Guantánamo detainees), for exactly the reasons Ms. Shamsi describes. As has been previously written on this blog, the United States is subject to many international conventions that detail human rights applicable to citizens and non-citizens alike, including the Convention against Torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and others. The protection of personal freedoms, the protection from discrimination based on immutable characteristics, the right to criticize and challenge government action through litigation, and respect for the rule of law (including international law) are exactly the kinds of American values that U.S. officials seek to encourage and strengthen around the world through diplomacy and foreign policy. When they are not respected within our own borders, these laws and policies begin to lose their power and persuasiveness both domestically and internationally.


Note: Hina Shamsi spoke at Washington University School of Law as part of the Public Interest Law and Policy Speaker Series in 2016. You can watch her lecture through the link below.
Hina Shamsi, Feb. 29, 2016:  See Something, Say Something: Post 9/11 National Security Profiling and Policies