McGill student’s run-in with border agents prompts lawsuit

A Montreal university student was detained at the U.S. border, held for several hours, interrogated, had his personal belongings searched and saw his computer confiscated for over a week.

MONTREAL — A Montreal university student was detained at the U.S. border, held for several hours, interrogated, had his personal belongings searched and saw his computer confiscated for over a week.

What caught the authorities’ attention? His doctoral research on Islamic studies, he says.

In a case that has attracted media attention in the U.S., Pascal Abidor has become embroiled in a drawn-out legal battle with the American government — and a poster child for civil-rights advocates defending the right to privacy and due process.

Abidor, a 28-year-old American and French dual citizen, was returning by train to Brooklyn in May 2010 when a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent stopped him at the border in Champlain, N.Y.

The agent turned on Abidor’s computer and found photos of rallies by the Hamas militant group. He says he explained that he had downloaded them from Google as part of his McGill University doctoral dissertation on the modern history of Shiites in Lebanon.

The agent also saw stamps in his passport that showed he had travelled between Jordan and Lebanon.

Abidor said the agents handcuffed him, took him off the train and kept him in a holding cell for several hours. He was grilled over his interest in Islam and past trips to the Middle East, before he was let go at the border. He was able to catch a ride on a bus passing through the border and continue to Brooklyn.

When Abidor’s laptop was returned 11 days later, there was evidence that many of his personal files, including research, photos and chats with his girlfriend, had been opened, he said.

Abidor, who isn’t Muslim, said the experience was eye-opening. It was the first such incident in the many times he had passed through the Canadian-American border.

In the days that followed, he had trouble sleeping and developed an “unhealthy mix of rage and fear,” Abidor said.

“Ridiculous and absurd are the words that come to mind,” he said of the episode.

“I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to at least try to do something to make a stink out of this.”’

Civil rights groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, took up his case, and filed a lawsuit on his behalf in September 2010.

The lawsuit contests policies adopted by U.S. government agencies permitting the search of all electronic devices that contain information, including laptops, cameras, mobile phones and smart phones.

More than 6,600 people had their electronic devices searched as they crossed U.S. borders between October 2008 and June 2010, according to the ACLU. Some 22 per cent of those people — 1,477 of them — were Canadians, the most of any nationality besides American.

“We’ve received many complaints over the years about people having their electronic devices searched and even seized at the border, and in some cases held onto for a very long time,” Abidor’s lawyer Catherine Crump said in an interview.

“The government asserts that when it comes to electronic devices, people who cross the border have no rights. They argue that they can take your cell phone or laptop and keep them as long as they like.”

Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has said inspections of electronic media are used only “in limited circumstances to ensure that dangerous people and unlawful goods do not enter our country.”

Chandler said the department “has been transparent about these searches,” with the policies and a privacy impact assessment of them available on the department’s website.

But Crump argues that the practice violates the U.S.’s first amendment right to free speech, because laptops “contain so much protected, expressive material,” and also violates the fourth amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

With the amount of data stored on laptops and other electronic devices, Crump said the practice is a major intrusion.

“You shouldn’t have to risk that the government is going to go through your family photographs and financial information just because you choose to cross the border,” she said.

“They (border guards) have to have some reason to think that a search will turn up evidence of a wrongdoing. It doesn’t mean that they have to have an airtight case, but they do have to have something.”

A federal judge heard arguments in July 2011 by the U.S. government for throwing out the lawsuit.

While Abidor’s lawyers argued the search was unconstitutional, the government said it has the right to search belongings at the border without cause.

The judge has yet to rule on whether he will dismiss the case.

Just Posted

New admissions have been suspended for Engineering Technology diplomas (Instrumentation, Electrical and Mechanical) and the Transitional Vocational Program at Red Deer College. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
Developmentally disabled impacted: Red Deer College suspends program

Transitional Vocational Program comes to an end

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw is asking Albertans to do their part by observing gathering limits, staying home if unwell, wearing masks and maintaining physical distance. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Three new Central zone COVID-19 deaths, Alberta adds 1,433 cases

Red Deer down to 802 active cases of COVID-19

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman holds up freedom of information requests that turned up no records. The Opposition requested back-to-school re-entry plan correspondence between Education Minister Adriana LaGrange and school boards, teachers and the media. Photo via Facebook live
NDP renews calls for Alberta gov’t to scrap K-6 draft curriculum

The NDP is once again calling on the Alberta Government to get… Continue reading

Earlier this week Alberta Health Services warned that Rocky Mountain House Health Centre emergency department would be temporarily without physician coverage from May 12, at 6 p.m., to May 13, at 7 a.m. (Photo contributed by the Town of Rocky Mountain House)
Doctors needed in Rocky Mountain House

Emergency department temporarily closed due to doctor shortage

The owner of Mae’s Kitchen in Mirror, says hamlet residents were ‘disheartened’ by a recent anti-restriction protest. The restaurant is following all the health restrictions in place. (Photo courtesy Mae’s Kitchen Facebook)
‘We don’t need that’: Mirror restaurant against recent anti-restriction protest

A week after a large anti-restriction protest at The Whistle Stop Cafe… Continue reading

Bo’s Bar and Grill owner Brennen Wowk said the hospitality industry is looking for more clarity from the province around what conditions must be met to allow for restaurants reopening. (Advocate file photo)
Frustated restaurant owners want to know government’s reopening plan

Restaurant owners feel they are in lockdown limbo

Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault is seen during a news conference Thursday, June 18, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Guilbeault doubles down on Bill C-10 as opposition MPs demand Lametti testify

Guilbeault doubles down on Bill C-10 as opposition MPs demand Lametti testify

In this image from video, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., speaks on the floor of the House of Representatives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, April 23, 2020. A U.S. lawmaker who has made a political crusade out of getting the border with Canada reopened is once again pressing his case with President Joe Biden. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-House Television via AP
New CDC guidance makes it clear: time to reopen Canada-U.S. border, congressman says

New CDC guidance makes it clear: time to reopen Canada-U.S. border, congressman says

Cows and their calves graze in a pasture on a farm near Cremona, Alta., Wednesday, June 26, 2019. Thanks to a decade of rapid growth, there are now 279 facilities across Canada creating biogas from methane emitted by agricultural waste, landfills, green bin programs and municipal wastewater treatment facilities. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Methane-capturing biogas projects in Canada reach 279, says association report

Methane-capturing biogas projects in Canada reach 279, says association report

A man watches the financial numbers at the TMX Group in Toronto's financial district on May 9, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese
North American stock markets recover to end week slightly off record highs

North American stock markets recover to end week slightly off record highs

Canadian Pacific Railway locomotives are shuffled around a marshalling yard in Calgary, Wednesday, May 16, 2012. Canadian Pacific Railway has a big decision to make after rival CN Rail amended its bid to win favour from Kansas City Southern. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
CP Rail stands by bid for KCS as U.S. Justice Department opposes CN voting trust

CP Rail stands by bid for KCS as U.S. Justice Department opposes CN voting trust

Interfaith efforts strained by Israeli-Palestinian violence

Interfaith efforts strained by Israeli-Palestinian violence

People participate in an Eid al-Fitr ceremony in Overpeck County Park in Ridgefield Park, N.J., Thursday, May 13, 2021. Millions of Muslims across the world are marking a muted and gloomy holiday of Eid al-Fitr, the end of the fasting month of Ramadan - a usually joyous three-day celebration that has been significantly toned down as coronavirus cases soar. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Ramadan drives donations, memberships to giving circles

Sahina Islam can still recall the day when she heard an elderly… Continue reading

.
Pandemic record for Manitoba: Province reports 560 new COVID-19 cases

WINNIPEG — The Manitoba government reported a record 560 new COVID-19 cases… Continue reading

Most Read