A well-known artist was detained by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents for more than three hours earlier this month after the agents found her sketching in her notebook near a CBP facility.
Leila Abdelrazaq, a U.S. citizen of Middle Eastern descent, was with two other U.S. citizens at a port of entry in the border town of Nogales, Arizona when the group apparently roused suspicion. According to a CBP “Situational Awareness” report that was obtained by the right-wing publication Judicial Watch, agents noticed that Abdelrazaq was “looking at the direction of vehicle primary and drawing sketches on a book.”
Abdelrazaq, a graphic artist, found success earlier this year with her book Baddawi, which depicts the life of her father as a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon. In that book, Abdelrazaq incorporated motifs in black and white images, including traditional Palestinian embroidery, to provide a fuller picture of the cultural context.
Abdelrazaq and her companions told the CBP agents that they simply wanted “to see the border.” But the agents were perhaps suspicious of Abdelrazaq’s notebook — which a CBP report indicated contained writings in both English and Arabic.
Agents eventually took the three citizens to a “secondary” facility before releasing them more than three hours later. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and a Supervisory CBP Officer (SCBPO) later concluded that Abdelrazaq’s notebook didn’t contain any “derogatory information.”
The end of the CBP report referenced the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, during which two self-identified Muslims killed 14 people and wounded 22 others at a holiday party, and noted that “all personnel must be extra vigilant of their surroundings” in light of that tragedy.
The right-wing publication Judicial Watch jumped on the report, claiming that the incident was “distressing” and giving it the headline, “Team led by Middle Eastern Woman Caught Surveilling U.S. Facility on Mexican Border.”
“Taking photographs of federal buildings, including a CBP facility, that are plainly visible from public spaces is a constitutional right,” Christina Fialho, the Co-Executive Director of the immigrant advocacy group Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC) told ThinkProgress, though it’s likely that Abdelrazaq’s situation is a bit different because she was drawing what she saw in plain view. But Fialho also indicated that she has taken photos of immigration detention facilities and has “been asked to stop or intimidated in various ways.”
Though the San Bernardino shooting was a serious tragedy, alarmist measures to ensure national security can hurt the civil liberties of people of Middle Eastern descent, particularly Muslim-Americans. Over the past several months, there has been an uptick of anti-Islam incidents, as Muslims have become victim to shootings, personal assaults, harassment, protests, and attacks on their houses of worship. They have also been increasingly racially profiled. Just recently, an Indian-American firearms instructor claimed that she was racially profiled at a Dick’s Sporting Goods store after asking a question about ammunition. She was visited by the police two days later.
Abdelrazaq and her colleagues may be U.S. citizens — but citizenship hasn’t stopped border agents from detaining or mishandling other people in the past. In August, a U.S.-born Texan doctor who travels to Mexico daily to meet with patients was detained for five days over citizenship concerns.
And even though the Fourth Amendment normally does not allow for citizens to be subjected to random search and seizures, the government exempted a 100-mile wide strip that wraps around the “external boundary” — the national border — of the United States, explaining that it was in the interest of national security to make Americans endure inspections.
One border agent grabbed a man out of his car after he refused to answer questions regarding where he was going. Another U.S. citizen was thrown to the ground by an agent, while a search of her car’s trunk ultimately turned up nothing.
This piece has been updated to include comment from Christina Fialho.