Comedian’s border patrol run-in on Spokane bus raises enforcement questions

Mohanad Elshieky is a Portland comedian who was removed from a Spokane bus for questioning by immigration officers. (Photo by Nicolle Clemetson.)

Comedian Mohanad Elshieky was on his way home to Portland from Spokane — about 90 miles away from any international border — when U.S. immigration agents pulled him off the bus and demanded to see his papers.

Elshieky, a comedian originally from Libya, was granted asylum last year. But he said U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents accused him of being in the United State illegally after they forced him off a Greyhound Bus in Spokane on Jan. 27 and demanded to see his documentation.

He said he was one of only four people on the bus who were removed from the bus and questioned.

Immigration rights advocates say Elshieky’s encounter, which went viral on Twitter, is another episode that raises questions about when and where — and from whom — U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents can demand to see a person’s immigration documentation.

Elshieky was traveling back to his home in Portland after performing stand-up at Washington State University in Pullman the day before.

On Twitter, Elshieky described his encounter with the immigration authorities. He also addressed the encounter during his stand-up set at the White Owl Social Club in Portland on Jan. 28.

He first identified the authorities as being Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and later corrected this to identify them as Customs and Border Protection agents.

Before his bus departed from the Spokane Intermodal Bus Station, agents boarded the bus and asked for four people to step off the bus and show their IDs, Elshieky told Willamette Week, a Portland alt-weekly paper. They then asked if Elshieky was a U.S. citizen. He then explained his visa status and that he had been granted political asylum in the country. He also provided the agents with his work permit.

At this point one of the agents called to verify the permit number. Elshieky stated that he could hear the person on the other end of the line verify that he was in the country legally, but that then the agent ended the call and told him that there were no records of his asylum. The agents then told Elshieky that he needed to carry his asylum approval document on him at all times. The agents eventually let him return to the bus and told him to carry these documents in the future.

A statement by a CBP spokesperson confirmed the encounter at the Spokane Intermodal Bus Station, stating that during the performance of transportation checks, agents made contact with Elshieky. The statement verified that Elshieky was asked to leave the bus and that the encounter lasted approximately 20 minutes before he was allowed to re-board.

Customs and Border Protection contended that Elshieky was “not in possession of the immigration documents required by law.”

“All immigrants 18 years and older are required to carry immigration documents showing they are in the United States legally,” the spokesperson wrote. “Neither an [Employment Authorization Card] nor a driver’s license is considered a valid document to satisfy this law.”

The statement goes on to say that a valid I-94 or paperwork showing a person in currently in the asylum process “would have worked to resolve this inquiry quickly.”

A spokesman for the agency could not confirm how many people from Elshieky’s bus were detained, according to The Spokesman-Review.

Elshieky is one of hundreds of other immigrants who have been stopped at the Intermodal Center, which serves as a nexus for Amtrak and Greyhound, according to The Spokesman-Review. As of July 2018, the border patrol had arrested nearly 200 people there since the start of fiscal 2013.

U.S. law allows for immigration officers to “board and search for aliens” in any rail car, aircraft, conveyance, or vehicle and perform searches without warrants “within a reasonable distance from any external boundary of the United States,” according to the Immigration and Nationality Act. The reasonable distance is defined as being within 100 air miles from the border or any “external boundary” of the U.S, including the coasts.

While the Intermodal Center where Elshieky was questioned falls about 93 miles from the Canadian Border, much of the U.S. population is also affected within this 100 air-mile range — including Seattle and Portland. Roughly two-thirds of the U.S. population lives within this 100-mile zone, according to the ACLU. This includes nearly 11 whole states, including Massachusetts and Michigan and New York, and nine of the ten largest metropolitan areas in the country. According to a CityLab analysis, this zone also includes 75 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population.

Within this zone, the border patrol can operate immigration checkpoints, although they are unable to pull anyone over without “reasonable suspicion” of an immigration violation or crime.

However, the ACLU says that the border patrol often ignores these limitations in practice. The organization says this is because of a lack of oversight by the CBP and Homeland Security, as well as poor training for agents. People traveling through these checkpoints are often asked if they are U.S. citizens, CBP and DOJ guidance allow agents to profile under certain conditions, according to CityLab.

During 2018, immigration rights advocates called for Greyhound to stop letting border patrol agents perform searches on its buses, according to The Fronteras Desk, a news project by KJZZ, a public radio station in Phoenix, Arizona. And a woman sued Greyhound in November 2018 after a bus driver let border patrol agents board and question passengers. As a result Greyhound published a list of rights on its website that gives advice on how passengers can deal with border patrol, including the right to refuse searches and to remain silent.

However, immigrants rights supporters in Spokane say incidents like the one that happened to Elshieky shouldn’t have happened at all.  They blame Spokane Mayor David Condon’s refusal to enforce a city ordinance to block the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency from entering the bus station or any other city property.

The Spokane City Council in October passed an ordinance requiring that the border patrol obtain written permission from the mayor before entering the bus station or any other city property requiring purchase to enter, according to The Spokesman-Review. This ordinance was supported by representatives from the ACLU, the Spokane Coalition of Color, and others.

Condon’s initial veto of the law was overridden, but he refused to enforce the ordinance, which has led to continued questionings at the Intermodal by Customs and Border Protection.

Spokane Councilmember Kate Burke responded to Elshieky’s post on Twitter by criticizing Condon’s decision.

“Our mayor, David Condon, has failed to execute that law,” she said. “This failed leadership continues to have real consequence.”