One of the most shocking news stories this week is of a NASA scientist, who is a natural born United States citizen but happens to be of South Asian descent, who was stopped at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport along with refugees and travelers from the seven Muslim countries immediately following the Trump travel ban and asked to unlock his mobile phone by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. This was reported by CNN yesterday February 13, 2017. (See, “US-born NASA scientist says he was told to unlock his phone at border,”). I, as a lawyer and a US citizen, found this terribly disturbing. I am sure millions, if not a large majority of the country would feel the same, particularly if this happened to them.
According to The Independent, Sidd Bikkannavar, a scientist who works for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was returning back to the United States from Santiago Chile, where he was racing solar powered cars. Aside from being a US citizen, Bikkannavar also had enrolled in the CBP Global Entry program, that allows much faster entry to the US from abroad and which you cannot get without being subjected to a special background check. (See: “NASA scientist detained at US border until he unlocks his phone,”). However, CBP agents held him in a room along with other travelers detained following the issuance of Trump’s travel ban Executive Order and refused to release him until he turned his NASA issued cellular phone over to them.
Being a lawyer, I began doing a little research about whether the Government can legally do this and not surprisingly, this is not the first time this has occurred. This also happened to a Wall Street Journal reporter, Maria Abi-Habib, who is also US citizen in July 2016. (See: http://money.cnn.com/2016/07/21/media/wall-street-journal-reporter-phone-feds). Ms. Abi-Habib, posted an account of what happened on her Facebook page. (See: https://www.facebook.com/maria.abihabib/posts/10153973225688533). As noted in an article on Zero Hedge website, and a frightening thing most people do not know, but the government – CBP agents in particular – has the right to confiscate and search personal electronics including mobile phones, tablets and laptops of anyone entering the country without suspicion and without a warrant within 100 miles of the US border (an area which constitutes approximately 66% of the entire US population). (See: “WSJ Reporter’s “Shocking” Discovery: DHS Can Confiscate Any Device Along The Border Without Suspicion,”). According to that article, these laws have been on the books since 2008, enacted under the Bush administration for the reason of “national security.” They were also renewed by the Obama administration in 2010 and re-confirmed by the Department of Homeland Security in 2013.
This situation should be a wake-up call to everyone living in the United States, both citizens and non-citizens, as well as those who wish to visit our country, to be aware that these seizure tools, which clearly eliminate the constitutional rights of the Fourth Amendment, will be used by the government—particularly this administration—for whatever they deem is a “national security” purpose. Only the people who elect the government can change this, but will they?