Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Making sure our borders are secure

Lewiston_Bridge_Customs

About a month ago, I wrote Traveling while Muslim, a story of how Western New Yorkers who attended a conference in Toronto on Islam were harassed by the US Border Patrol and Homeland Security on their return.

Today Muslims detained in this episode filed a federal lawsuit.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Five Muslim-Americans who were fingerprinted, searched and held as long as 6 1/2 hours by U.S. border agents upon their return from a religious conference in Canada filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Department of Homeland Security.

The suit in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn charges the government violated the group's constitutional rights to practice religion and against unlawful searches.

"This lawsuit is not about money damages, but about vindicating individual rights, the rights of Muslim-Americans to be treated as Americans according to American values and law," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.


The conference these people attended was not some obscure secretive event; the mayor of Toronto and the Ontario premier, Dalton McGuinty, addressed its sessions.

But apparently the idea of religous freedom for Muslims was lost on US authorities. According to the Buffalo News, court papers describe a spokeswoman for Homeland Security as saying "Conferences such as the one that these 34 individuals just left in Toronto may be used by terrorist organizations to promote terrorist activities."

The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages, but rather to stop border agents from detaining, interrogating, fingerprinting and photographing Muslim-Americans just because they are returning from religious conferences. It also asks that all fingerprints and photos either be returned to the five people or destroyed.

This story broke my heart because the porous character of the US-Canadian border in the Buffalo and Niagara Falls area was one of the delights of my childhood. Canada was the most ordinary of day trips; heck, Canada was a place I swam to across the Niagara River as a teenager. As recently as 1998 I crossed the border to run along the Canadian side before dawn with not a thought in the world. No longer.

Today tourism promoters for the town of Lockport, New York, post an entire web page of advice on how to have an easy crossing. Some tidbits:

SPECIAL TERRORISM ERA UPDATE
Expect delays at all border crossings due to increased security. Now, more than ever, it is recommended that travelers follow the cautions on this page, especially in regard to giving straight, no-nonsense answers at the borders. Those heading into Canada may get radio updates in their cars, within about 10 miles of Niagara Falls, by tuning to the special FM station at 105.1 MHz. ...If you have a Passport, bring it, even though it is still not a requirement for US and Canadian citizens crossing the border.



This same page gives the news that, not content to question travelers at bridges, "the United State Border Patrol hopes to begin soon the installation of four, low-light cameras spaced at approximately even intervals along the Niagara River between the city of Niagara Falls (atop Wrobel Towers' subsidized apartments) and Fort Niagara. The remote-control, rotating cameras will be high enough above the Niagara Gorge to provide several miles of observational territory. Their purpose is to spot illegal border crossings and to save the cost of border patrol agents staking out long stretches of the US-Canadian border along the Niagara River."

This area of the Niagara River is a deep gorge carved by the rushing river which has just passed over Niagara Falls and which flows swiftly down to Lake Ontario. It seems an unlikely place for illegal crossings, but we can't be too sure, can we?

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