PROSPECT PARK, NJ - As previously reported by TAPinto Hawthorne in August, Prospect Park Mayor Mohamed Khairullah was stopped and questioned for hours at JFK airport following his family's arrival from a trip to Turkey. Following a North Jersey interview published in the morning, on September 13, a press conference was called by Mayor Mohamed Khairullah at 12:45 p.m. to make a further statement.
Standing outside the Municipal Building on Brown Avenue, Khairullah addressed gathered reporters.
"Our constitutional rights are under attack," Khairullah said. "I traveled with my family on July 4th one day late from our original flight. We wanted to visit our families in Turkey and obviously there almost four million Syrians in Turkey due to the crisis in Syria. We just wanted to go and have a good time and join our families. I met there with elected officials as well to learn from their experience as I believe that they do a wonderful job making sure their cities are beautiful."
The Prospect Park mayor, who was born in Syria, moved to the US in the early 1990s, and is a US citizen. " When we returned to the US, as we left the airplane, we took a few steps down and there were two border patrol security officers asking everyone to take out their green cards and passports. Upon the inspection of our documents, the agent said he wants to take us in to talk to us and the other agent with him followed, so at that point their search stopped as far as I remember. During our walk to the room where I was interviewed, the agent was making light of the situation saying, 'You know, this way you get past the long lines and it'll be a few minutes' which turned into three hours."
"At that point I had an infant, a toddler, a 9 year old, and a 10 year old, along with my wife who were held up there," the mayor said. "He took me in and started asking me questions, starting with my name, where I worked, which I thought were routine questions even though he had the passport. He continued to ask questions including what did I go to Turkey for, who did I meet, and the line of questioning went to where he started asking me if I knew of any terrorist cells in Turkey, to which I said no."
Cell Phones Searched and Held
"We did speak about my activities in Syria which are very transparent. I did go to Syria seven times during the uprising on humanitarian missions, I traveled to Bengladesh on a humanitarian mission regarding the Rohingya, I traveled to Tunisia to speak about democracy and municipal operations, and all my actions were always very transparent, I shared it on social media. But when he got to the question asking if I met any terrorists, I felt insulted at that point and that's when I drew the line and I said I want to speak to a lawyer. He did allow me to make a phone call, based on the discussion with the first lawyer, I gave them access to my phone, they told me they were going to glance through it, but it took too long, my kids were getting restless, and I had my mother and brother waiting for me outside. As an American citizen I didn't feel that I needed to be asked unnecessary questions."
Khairullah felt eventually things had gone too far. "Based on the advice of the first lawyer I spoke to, we established that he asked me the three questions that he can ask me, and based on his line of questioning, I believe that he went beyond what he was supposed to ask, which is where did you go, why did you go, and my basic information. Asking me about my educational background, my employment, and who I met with in Turkey, I believe was out of line. Asking me if I knew any terrorists was flat out profiling as far as I'm concerned and I ended up telling them that I needed to end the discussion. I asked are we done with our questions, based on my discussion with the lawyer, he said yes but we do have to take your phone, which I allowed them under the concept that they're only going to glance through it, and then it took too long. I received a call from a second lawyer and at that point based on my discussion, I asked that the search or 'glancing' stop and at that point they said 'OK, but we're going to hold your phone' and that followed after with a search of all of our bags, a second pat down of my entire body in a room, and then we were released almost three hours later."
The mayor got his phones back twelve days after the incident.
"I believe that my constitutional rights were violated, that there was an invasion of my privacy with the search of my phone, there was no reason as to why I was held." Khairullah did not believe that the agents speaking to him were being entirely honest. "In the beginning, they said it was a random stop, but during my discussion with him [the agent] in the private room, he said they were instructed by DHS to ask me questions, so he already contradicted himself. The idea that this was random was absolutely false."
Original Flight Missed, Infant Selected for Screening
The mayor and his family said that the reason they left on July 4 rather than July 3 was because of hours of delays and harassment, causing them to miss their flight. "Our harassment started when were trying to leave on our vacation on July 3rd, to the point that we missed our flight, and we had to come back the second day to fly out. During that time, finally, after they had issued our boarding passes, my infant received the designation of SSSS, which is the highest level of search."
SSSS stands for "Secondary Security Screening Selection" and appears on the bottom of a boarding pass. It is not entirely clear what constitutes the conditions which has a person placed on the TSA lists that designate a passenger as subject to SSSS. "So, my 14 month old was searched. Four of us out of the seven received SSSS, but the other three children who did not receive SSSS were part of the extensive search. I do want to clarify and say that we returned as six, we left as seven. My teenaged son did return ahead of us, in the middle of vacation, as he is a high school senior and was going to start a job and start his practice for his SAT."
The mayor was asked if he believed he was specifically targeted when he left. Khairullah responded in the affirmative. "I believe so. We were not able to board our flight on July 3rd due to an extensive and long conversation with the TSA and ticketing agent. It led to the point where the ticketing agent said we can't get you on the flight anymore, it's too late. Then the following day, we were on line for almost five hours between the TSA having to rebook our flights, and having to go through the extensive pat, which was only the first level of pat downs. As we entered the plane there was a second search of all of us as well. As a person who travels a lot I know that is not a normal procedure."
Asked if he had experienced anything similar prior, Khairullah said, "Nothing like this. I've been interviewed before, and I understand, I travel to Syria, and if there's anything that I can share with my government, I would. However, I don't go on exploratory missions, I don't go near shady organizations. I go in, do the job, provide relief, and leave. I do remember at one point, probably 2013 or 2014, I was interviewed by a border patrol agent as I was headed to Turkey, but it was by the counter, it was very brief, and I was very forthcoming with them as well."
Khairullah denied that the timing of the 9/11 anniversary had anything to do with the press conference two days after, but that it was prompted by the publication of the North Jersey article. "I was not aware that it was going to be shared today."
The mayor was asked how long the authorities went through his phone before he had had enough. "It was between half an hour and forty-five minutes. I had an infant and a toddler, at that point I had no phone, there was no way to communicate with the outside world except through my wife's phone. There was just a lot of uncertainty and the agents were not forthcoming. Everything was very blurry in terms of answers."
"I think the main message is that the constitution is not blurry at the border for US citizens," Khairullah said. "They need to respect the constitution, our privacy, and as a whole. If there's something against anyone, not just me, Arabs, Muslims, they need to be very clear about it. We need to be able to clear our names. I don't know why this happened. I traveled twice during the month of May on fundraising trips to Michigan and California, I had no issues. I don't know if this is a result of me raising funds for people in need in Syria. But if they have a problem with that, they need to be forthcoming about it. We're working through legitimate organizations, and if there are issues, we need to be aware of it, not targeted at the airports when we're trying to enjoy ourselves."
Family Feel Shaken as a Result
Khairullah expressed his concern about future travel and for his family abroad. "We have a lot of family overseas, I hope that we are not subjected to the same type of harassment again. I do have children who were born in the US who are American citizens who can run for president. They have full rights, more than me, because I can't run for president because I wasn't born here. So, for them to be dealt with as second class citizens is unacceptable."
"We're nervous," he said, speaking on behalf of his family. "The uncertainty of why were were held is nervewracking. If we're doing anything wrong, we need to be aware of it, but my wife who has her entire family in Turkey and has two sisters in Canada is not certain if she can see them again. She's afraid to leave before she attains her US citizenship. But even with US citizenship, even with the thirteen plus years as mayor, being a volunteer firefighter three years after I came to the US, all these hours of community service obviously doesn't matter when my name is Mohamed Khairullah."
"I think it's very heartwrenching. I value my relationship with him as a municipal administrator and see him as a second father," Borough Administrator Instashan Chowdhury told TAPinto Hawthorne. "I know he's a father first and foremost and I know it's difficult on that end. Secondly, his community wanted him back here, people look at him--you're not mayor for 13 plus years for no reason. People were calling him, looking for him, making sure he was OK and you saw the love and warm reception he received here. For me, it was a little difficult, too, because you heard the emotion in his voice when he called me, saying he was held up and the frustration: he gives his all to this government and it's all about public service."
"I just wish that people could see the character of this individual, and individuals alike, rather than looking at where they're from and categorizing them in that way," Chowdhury said. "It was definitely tough, it was tough on a lot of us on the staff, that's our leader, and he's a great mayor and a great mentor."
Chowdhury is a Bengali-American Muslim and said that he has not been immune to receiving prejudicial remarks. "I was traveling to Miami, Florida, and I've heard derogatory comments. They had a ground stop on all planes due to some sort of issue, and this person on the plane commented 'Oh that's exactly why Donald Trump is doing what he's doing' and he looked at me saying that for validation." The words stung him, and he looked to Khairullah for his thoughts. "The first person I called was the mayor and he offered me advice. I think one of the great things is his sense of professionalism and ability to stay calm in all this, there are a lot of people who are really upset."
Khairullah had said that he had not yet ruled out taking legal action following his incident at JFK.
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