A Minnesota family says they were stopped at gunpoint by border patrol agents while crossing back into the U.S. from Canada, and unlawfully held for hours with little to no food, and fewer answers.
The family's story is coming out now through a lawsuit highlighted by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Here's what Abdisalam Wilwal and Sagal Abdigani say they and their four children were put through for 10 hours. The details below come from the ACLU or Abdigani, unless noted otherwise.
When asked if they had a response to the lawsuit, spokespeople for both the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection told GoMN they do not comment on pending litigation. A Department of Justice spokesperson said they decline comment.
'We didn’t know where they took Abdi, and they wouldn’t tell us'
Sagal Abdigani wrote a blog post for the ACLU about the experience. She fled the civil war in Somalia in 1991, and lived in a Yemeni refugee camp for nine years – at which point she won the lottery to immigrate to America.
"I couldn’t believe my luck. I couldn’t stop smiling," she said in the post.
She eventually met her now-husband Abdisalam Wilwal (whom she calls Abdi), and the couple have four children. One of Abdigani's sisters lives in Maine, the other in Canada.
In March of 2015, they were returning to their home in the Twin Cities after visiting that sister in Saskatchewan. They crossed the U.S.-Canada border into Portal, North Dakota, when "officers suddenly surrounded our minivan and pointed guns at the entire family."
The commotion woke up the sleeping children, and border officers took Wilwal away. Abdigani and the kids were taken to and held in another room.
"We didn’t know where they took Wilwal, and they wouldn’t tell us. We didn’t know if we’d ever see him again," she wrote.
Her kids were scared and given no substantial food for six hours, despite requests. Abdigani was given nothing. They tried to call 911 for help, but a border officer took the phone away. Law enforcement wanted to strip search her 14-year-old son, but he refused.
They had no idea Wilwal was being held in handcuffs, and given no food or water that entire time.
Wilwal, according to the ACLU, was asked if he was a Muslim and accused of being involved with terrorism. Wilwal said yes he's a Muslim, and an American citizen.
They left him in a room, hands cuffed behind his back. He was given no food or water.
At one point he passed out, and officers had to call an ambulance. After that they gave him some water and cuffed his hands in the front instead of behind him.
When Homeland Security agents came hours later, he asked for an attorney – and was told he had to answer their questions if he wanted to leave. They asked him about his religion, travel, family and job for about 45 minutes.
Then they let him and his family go. It had been more than 10 hours since they were first detained.
Wilwal is on a watch list
As the ACLU explains, when Wilwal and Abdigani got back to their home in the Twin Cities, they were told the stop probably happened because he was on a government watch list. A Department of Homeland Security document obtained by the ACLU indicates that's the case.
"This shocked us because we don’t know why the government would put Abdi on such an awful list — and it won’t tell us," Abdigani wrote.
Wilwal and Abdigani filled out a form saying it was a mistake, and asking him to be removed from the watchlist. But they've heard nothing back.
News organizations havewrittenabout the far-reaching ambiguity of terrorism watchlists – many using a leaked 2013 document obtained by The Intercept as a starting point. The ACLU in its news release points to the documents saying "concrete facts are not necessary" to put someone on the list, and that even some suspicion can be enough.
"The watchlisting system is a due process disaster," ACLU attorney Hugh Handeyside said. "It is wrong and unfair for the government to place people on a secret blacklist and then harass them on that basis, all without giving them any meaningful way to clear their names and get off the list."
Now Wilwal and Abdigani are suing Homeland Security and other federal agency heads, saying the treatment they received was unlawful, and violated their Constitutional rights.
Wrote Abdigani in her blog post: "I want to go back to believing that my family and I can travel and come home safely, without our own government’s officials harming us."