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U.S. keeps Disneyland-bound British Muslim family out of the country

30 Dec

LONDON — As Mohammed Tariq Mahmood sat in the departure lounge of London’s Gatwick Airport last week, he was surrounded by giddy children, ecstatic for the 11-hour flight that would ferry them to Disneyland.

“Mickey Mouse – I’m looking forward to seeing you tomorrow,” Mahmood’s 10-year-old niece scribbled in her diary, alongside a colorful illustration complete with oversized ears. “I’ve got to go now. We’re getting on the plane.”

But they never did. A border control officer, on orders from Washington, intervened, Mahmood said, telling him and his brother that their family of 11 had been barred from the flight.

What was supposed to be a dream vacation instead became on Wednesday just the latest flash-point in a debate over Islam and security that inflamed passions on both sides of the Atlantic.

U.S. officials strongly denied that the Mahmood family was targeted based on their religion. But the case prompted America’s largest Muslim advocacy organization to call for an investigation into whether Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States was being “implemented informally” by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

A prominent British parliamentarian, meanwhile, demanded that Prime Minister David Cameron press U.S. officials for an explanation – something that Mahmood said he had not been given more than a week after the aborted Dec. 15 flight.

“The only explanation I can think of is that my name is Mohammed,” said Mahmood, the 41-year-old owner of a northeast London gym, in an interview Wednesday evening.

U.S officials said little about the case on Wednesday, citing federal laws protecting the privacy of air travelers. But they emphasized that under U.S. immigration law, a traveler cannot be denied admission into the country due to “religion, faith or spiritual beliefs.”

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency said in a statement that the law lists more than 60 other possible reasons for inadmissibility including “health-related, prior criminal convictions, security reasons, public charge, labor certification, illegal entrants and immigration violations, documentation requirements and miscellaneous grounds.”

But on both sides of the Atlantic, Muslims said they feared that the true cause of the Mahmood family’s ban – and others like it – was the anti-Muslim hysteria being whipped up on the Republican campaign trail.

Trump this month called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” The proposal came days after a husband and wife pair shot up an office party in San Bernardino, Calif., killing 14 people in an attack that the Islamic State claimed to have inspired.

Since then, President Obama has used an Oval Office address to preach tolerance, and to remind Americans that “it is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country.”

But in a letter to DHS on Wednesday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations asked for a probe into whether the department was effectively implementing Trump’s proposal. The letter cited “a real and growing perception in the Muslim community that it is being increasingly targeted by DHS officials.”

Those charges were echoed in Britain, where Muslim leaders said the Mahmood family’s case was hardly unique.

A well-known British imam, Ajmal Masroor, reported that he was told last week his visa had been revoked, and he was prevented from flying to the U.S.

“I am baffled, annoyed and angry,” Masroor wrote in a Facebook post. “USA has the right to issue and revoke visa — I fully understand that. However not forwarding any reasons infuriates ordinary people. It does not win the hearts and minds of people, it turns them off.”

Masroor also wrote that he had been invited to a meeting that day at the U.S. embassy “to clear up the visa mess they created.”

“It was an interesting meeting to say the least,” he wrote.

But for Mahmood, there’s been no meeting, and no rationale given.

Mahmood said he found the last-minute cancellation of his family’s Disneyland trip “humiliating,” and that his children, nieces and nephews had been “traumatized” by the experience.

The family, he said, had applied online for a visa waiver using DHS’s Electronic System for Travel Authorization. The waivers were granted, he said, and the family was able to check in for their flight and clear security without any problems.

The trip, Mahmood said, had been the idea of his children and their cousins, who teamed up to lobby for a visit to Disneyland. “I gave in to the kids,” he said. The family saved for months, and paid more than $13,000 for 11 tickets – money the airline now says is nonrefundable.

Mahmood said it was only minutes before the flight was due to board, as they waited in the departure lounge, that a border security official took Mahmood and his brother aside to tell them their right to travel to the United States had been cancelled on orders from Washington.

“The kids saw right away that we had our heads down,” he said. “They never see us like that, so they realized something was wrong. They had tears in their eyes.”

Stella Creasy, who represents the family’s diverse and immigrant-heavy northeast London neighborhood in Parliament, revealed the family’s plight in a Guardian column that called for Cameron to press U.S. officials for answers.

A Downing Street spokeswoman, speaking under the condition of anonymity, said the government was looking into the matter and that the prime minister “will respond in due course.”

Creasy said in an interview that she had gone public with the Mahmood family’s case because she spent a week trying to get information from the U.S. embassy and had “hit a brick wall.” By late Wednesday afternoon, she said she still had not received substantive responses from either the British or American governments.

Creasy said that others have since come forward with similar stories of having been blocked from boarding U.S.-bound flights — including, she said, a U.K. government civil servant.

“Nobody is suggesting that American officials shouldn’t be able to manage who comes into their country,” she said. “But this is happening on U.K. soil, and there is a growing concern that it is the religion of these people that is the issue.”

A State Department official told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last week that the United States has revoked more than 122,000 visas since 2001, including about 9,500 that were pulled due to terrorism concerns.

In remarks prepared for the committee, Michele Thoren Bond, assistant secretary for the agency’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, said the State Department has “broad and flexible authority to revoke visas” and will use its authority “to protect our borders.”

Officials can be alerted to new information at any time, Bond said, noting that security reviews continue after visas have been issued.

“Almost every day, we receive requests to review and, if warranted, revoke any outstanding visas for aliens for whom new derogatory information has been discovered since the visa was issued,” she told the committee last week. “In those circumstances, the department can and does use its authority to revoke the visa immediately, and thus prevent boarding.”