New Jersey mayor says he was detained at airport for 3 hours, profiled for being Muslim

By Caitlin O'Kane

/ CBS News

A New Jersey mayor says he was racial profiled when Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers detained him at JFK airport for three hours last month, questioning him about whether he knew any terrorists. Prospect Park Mayor Mohamed Khairullah, who is Muslim, says he was singled out based on his faith.

Khairullah says it happened when he was traveling back to the U.S. with his family on August 2 after a visit to Turkey. NorthJersey.com was first to report on his story Friday.

Khairullah told the local publication he was stopped for what he was told was a random screening. CBP officers asked what he studied in college, where he works, his mother's name, his nicknames, where he traveled and if he visited any towns with terrorist cells.

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The mayor said he was also asked if he personally met with any terrorists. "It was definitely a hurtful moment where I'm thinking in my mind that this is not the America that I know," Khairullah told NorthJersey.com. "I am very familiar with our laws and Constitution, and everything that was going on there was a violation."

Mohamed Khairullah, mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey. Facebook/Mayor Mohamed T. Khairullah

Khairullah's family moved to the United States in 1991, when he was a teenager, after fleeing persecution in Syria and living in Saudi Arabia for some time. Khairullah is now 44 years old and an education supervisor at Passaic County Technical Institute, NorthJersey.com reports.

"It's flat-out insulting," he said of the airport questioning. "It's flat-out stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs." Not only is Khairullah the long-time mayor of Prospect Park, he is also a humanitarian activist who visits refugee camps in Syria, Turkey and Bangladesh. CBS News has reached out to the mayor's office for further comment.

A CBP spokesperson told NorthJersey.com he could not address any individual case due to federal privacy laws, but said the agency "treats all international travelers with integrity, respect and professionalism while keeping the highest standards of security."

The mayor had traveled to Turkey with his his wife and four young children, who range in age from 1 to 10. They not only vacationed there, Khairullah also did some work, meeting with several mayors to talk about government and business, NorthJersey.com reports.

Khairullah said he feels a great appreciation for the United States, a country which gave him freedom and the opportunity to become a firefighter, town council member and then mayor. However, he feels the CBP agents who knew little about him stereotyped him based on his Muslim heritage.

When he was detained at JFK airport, the mayor was asked to hand over his phone, which was taken into another room, NorthJersey.com reports. After speaking with his attorneys, Khairullah said he no longer consented to the search of his phone.

The agents, however, did not give his phone back — they kept it for 12 days until a lawyer from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in New York helped Khairullah get it back.

In 2017, the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the federal government over alleged "warrantless and suspicionless searches" of electronic devices at the U.S. ports of entry. The ACLU said the search and seizures of electronic devices violated the First and Fourth amendments.

CBS News has reached out to the ACLU and CAIR for a statement on Khairullah's CBP questioning at JFK.

"Mayor Khairullah's account describes profiling against Muslims," Representative Bill Pascrell, who represents the community in Congress, said in a statement obtained by Insider NJ. "If he was targeted by authorities as a criminal or even a national security threat for no reason, the Mayor deserves answers on his detention."

"Whether someone is a longtime mayor, a Harvard freshman, or a regular Joe, this is America, and profiling is un-American. We have heard too many reports of Americans being harassed for their names, their skin colors, and their national ancestries. Americans must stand up against this devolution as one community, one people, one nation," Pascrell's statement continued.

First published on September 16, 2019 / 11:09 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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