A Somali-American family of six detained at the U.S.-Canada border for more than 10 hours in 2015 after the father’s name was found on a terror watch list has sued the U.S. government for allegedly violating their constitutional rights.
The family was released after authorities determined the father wasn’t a threat, but the experience terrified the family’s children, caused the father to pass out at one point and shook the parents’ faith in the rule of law, according to their suit.
“My family and I were detained at gunpoint,” Sagal Abdigani said in a statement posted on the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) website Thursday. Abdigani was held with her four children while her husband, Abdisalam Wilwal, was questioned. “I’m afraid it will happen again,” she wrote.
The family wants Wilwal’s name removed from the terrorist watch list and a prohibition against any future arrests or detentions involving them because of the list.
Their lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court Thursday, was submitted by attorneys for the ACLU and Robins Kaplan.
The family was not available for an interview Thursday. The Department of Homeland Security’s press office did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment.
According to the lawsuit:
The family left from their Eagan home bound for Regina, Saskatchewan, to visit Abdigani’s sister in March of 2015. They crossed the border at Portal, N.D., but a Canadian border official there told them their records included a notation from U.S. officials, and that they might be questioned “more than usual” upon return.
They returned to the Portal crossing a few days later on their way home. Minutes after turning over their passports and birth certificates, the family was detained at gunpoint by Customs and Border Patrol officers.
One officer pointed a gun at Wilwal and shouted “Don’t use weapons!” Wilwal put his arms out his window to show that he was unarmed. He was handcuffed and taken away for questioning, while Abdigani and the children, ages 5-14, were held separately.
Wilwal was asked if he was Muslim and accused of being a terrorist, according to the suit. He was left handcuffed alone in a room for several hours and passed out at one point when he stood up. He awoke to paramedics, but refused to go to the hospital because he was concerned about his family. He was given water.
About 10 hours after Wilwal was first detained, two federal investigators arrived and questioned him about his travels, religion and employment. He was then released.
She said she asked at one point during their detention if she could take her children home and return for her husband but was told everyone was a detainee. Her 8-year-old daughter said, “Maybe they’ll kill us after sunset,” Abdigani wrote, adding that she can’t forget those words.
“My children are traumatized and we are all too scared to travel again,” she wrote.
The suit says the watch list maintained by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center uses uncorroborated information such as a single social media post or an anonymous letter to gather names of suspected terrorists. The family doesn’t know why Abdigani’s name is on the list.
They filed a formal request two years ago with the Department of Homeland Security to have Wilwal’s name removed, but never received a response.