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A New York City man prevented from returning home from overseas by the federal government’s security apparatus has landed in the United States after a three-week delay, rights advocates say.
Samir Suljovic, 26, entered the United States on Friday night in Philadelphia, where he was questioned at length by Customs and Border Protection agents, causing him to miss his connecting flight to New York. He boarded a train, arriving in New York late Monday night.
Suljovic, who was born and raised in Queens, told NBC New York he believes he was banned from flying because he's Muslim.
"I wear a cap, I have a beard, I roll my pants up," Suljovic he told the NBC station. "They discriminated against me because I'm Muslim. What else could it be?"
"They made me feel like I'm some kind of terrorist, some kind of criminal for no damn reason," he said. "I'm an American citizen. I'm being played here."
Suljovic, who has worked as a security guard in New York, had been visiting relatives in Montenegro and was attempting to come home on Oct. 1 when he was denied boarding his U.S.-bound flight from Vienna, Austria.
His story echoes those of dozens of other Americans, many of them Muslims, who have been stranded overseas by their apparent inclusion on the U.S. "no-fly" list, prompting legal challenges to the government.
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U.S. security watch lists currently have about 50,000 names, of which about 20,000 are on the 'no-fly' list of people who are "known and reasonably suspected terrorists," and among those are about 500 Americans, according to an official at the FBI Terrorist Screening Center, who asked not to be named.
The official would not say whether Suljovic’s name was on the no-fly list.
"Government policy is not to disclose that for security reasons," said the official. As an example, the official said, an aspiring terrorist who learned he or she was listed might change his or her identity.
Airline ticket agents in Vienna handed Suljovic a note from the Department of Homeland Security and instructed him to apply for a redress number for people who think they may be mistakenly on the "no-fly list."
The Department of Homeland Security redress procedure, which goes by the acronym TRIP for Travel Redress Inquiry Program, is set up to weed out people who are on the list because of mistaken identity. The TRIPS process does not provide a way for people who think they are wrongly placed on the list for other reasons to challenge those reasons.
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The U.S. Embassy in Vienna told Suljovic he was cleared for a flight back to the United States from Munich, Germany.
But after traveling by train to Munich, he was again denied boarding and instructed to go to the U.S. consulate there, where he did not get resolution. He says that he was instead interrogated by embassy personnel who also searched his cellphone without his permission.
The Council on American Islamic Relations, a nonprofit Muslim advocacy and civil rights group, wrote letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and the U.S. Embassy in Munich seeking an explanation of obstacles to his return home.
Suljovic told NBC New York on Monday he had to eat the cost of two flights that he was prohibited from boarding, and spent about $2,000 in Vienna and Munich while trying to get clearance to go home.
"I was like a mouse in a maze. I didn't know where to go, and I was wondering when I'd come home," he said. "I had nowhere to stay. I slept at the airport for the first few days."
Suljovic said he's frustrated that government officials haven't been able to tell him why he couldn't come home, and that they haven't been able to tell him if he is on the no-fly list at all.
After a number of tries over the course 22 days, Suljovic was finally allowed to board the flight to Philadelphia on Friday. No explanation was given for his delays, or for his ultimate ability to fly home.
The opaqueness of U.S. security policy has prompted a a number of challenges to the use of the no-fly list. The most significant case, working its way through courts in Oregon, was brought by the ACLU in 2010 on behalf of 17 plaintiffs against the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI Terrorist Screening Center. That case challenges the constitutionality of the no-fly list, arguing that it deprives individuals of due process.
A separate lawsuit filed in April by the Michigan chapter of CAIR alleges invasive questioning of American Muslims by CPB officials at land borders.
"Samir is back in the United States because it is his right to be here,” said Muneer Awad, executive director for the New York chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. "It is his right today, and it was his right twenty-two days ago when our government prevented him from boarding any return flight home."
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