When he tried to return home from Kenya last year, Utah Muslim leader Yussuf Awadir Abdi was blocked from boarding a plane because, he was told, the United States would not allow his re-entry into the country.
Abdi — who believed he must have been put on a government no-fly list — finally made it back to Salt Lake City on June 18, 2017, after his lawyers got assistance from the U.S. attorney’s office in Utah to get him on a flight.
Meanwhile, his lawyers, who are with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Refugee Justice League of Utah, had filed suit against five federal agencies — including the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and FBI— alleging there is “good evidence” Abdi was put on a government terror watchlist after he left the United States.
The lawsuit — which alleges Abdi’s constitutional rights to due process and equal protection were violated and he was discriminated against because of his race, religion and ethnicity — sought his removal from any watchlist that burdens or prevents him for flying or entering the United States, and sought a way for people to contest their inclusion on a watchlist.
Abdi, a U.S. citizen and imam of Salt Lake City’s Madina Masjid Islamic Center, has no criminal record and the government has no reason to believe he presents a threat to the United States, according to the suit.
But on Monday, U.S. District Judge Dee Benson granted a government motion to dismiss the suit, ruling Abdi has not shown a sufficient basis for his allegations that his rights were violated. The judge said the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the right to travel as a constitutionally protected interest but added that the high court “has not recognized a right to convenient or unimpeded travel.”
Benson also noted that Abdi flew on three separate occasions in 2017 after his return from Kenya — to San Jose, Calif.; to and from Mecca, Saudi Arabia; and to and from Virginia — and was subjected to a lengthy screening process each time.
“Plaintiff has failed to show that the right to movement is a liberty interest that is protected under the Constitution,” Benson wrote, “particularly where, as here, Plaintiff has been able to travel, albeit inconveniently.”
The judge also said the watchlist’s alleged disparate impact on Muslim Americans is insufficient to establish “intentional discrimination” in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.
Gadeir Abbas, a CAIR lawyer, said he believes Abdi was allowed to come back to the United States because of the lawsuit. And since his return, he said, the imam has been been able to travel and “the federal government seems to be treating him much like everyone else.”
“The lawsuit has already accomplished so much,” Abbas said, adding that he is still studying the ruling and no decision had been made yet on the next step in the litigation.
Abdi, who has been an American citizen since 2010, had traveled to Kenya to pick up his wife and five children. His wife and two of his children have visas; the other three kids are legal immigrants.
His family was allowed to board a plane to the United States, but Abdi said officials at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport pulled him aside. The next day, the imam tried to find out from the U.S. Embassy in Kenya why he was denied boarding, but representatives there did not provide any information, court records say.
The day after that, on June 16, Abdi was allowed to fly to Los Angeles but a lengthy screening process made him miss his connecting flight to Salt Lake City. His family stayed with Abdi while his lawyers worked to untangle the matter and they all arrived in Utah on June 18.
Earlier in the year, President Donald Trump’s immigration and refugee executive orders sought to temporarily limit travel to the United States and fulfill his campaign promise of a “Muslim ban,” but the courts blocked them. It’s unclear why Kenyan officials kept Abdi from his flight. Kenya is also not one of the seven Muslim-majority countries targeted by Trump executive orders.
According to court documents, the Terrorist Screening Center, which is administered by the FBI, has a Selectee List and No Fly List. Travelers on the Selectee List are subject to extra screening at airports and land border crossings, while those on the No Fly List are prevented from boarding flights that fly into, out of or through U.S. airspace.
The lawsuit, which was amended several months after it was first filed, alleges Abdi had been on the No Fly List initially and was placed on the Selectee List after his return from Kenya.
Abdi filed a redress request through the Department of Homeland Security in 2016 and received a standard form letter that neither confirmed nor denied the existence of any watchlist records relating to him, court records say.