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Know Your Rights Before Traveling Abroad

February 16, 2023 Perspective


Caroline Marks

Caroline Marks

Staff Attorney, National Security & Civil Rights

Caroline Marks

Staff Attorney, National Security & Civil Rights

Caroline Marks is a Staff Attorney in the National Security and Civil Rights program at Asian Law Caucus. Caroline’s work focuses on, among other things, state legislative and administrative advocacy challenging surveillance and counterterrorism programs and narratives that harm Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian communities and other communities of color.

Before coming to ALC, Caroline worked on litigation and advocacy with the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU Law, to hold the United States responsible for its extraordinary rendition program—whereby the U.S. kidnapped and transferred individuals to black sites and proxy governments for their subsequent torture and secret detention. Specifically, Caroline participated significantly in litigation before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in the case Mohamed et al. v. United States.

Caroline graduated from NYU School of Law and holds a BA in International Relations from Brown University. During her time at Brown, Caroline spent a semester Amman, Jordan learning the Levantine dialect and expanding her knowledge of modern standard Arabic.

Zoha Raza

Zoha Raza

Communications Associate

Zoha Raza

Communications Associate

Zoha Raza serves as the communications associate at Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus. Prior to this position, she led and managed communications work statewide for CAIR, coordinated youth leadership programs, and aided different social justice efforts around the Bay Area and beyond.

She has been published by a number of different news outlets including San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Spotlight. She also volunteered as a NextGen Councilmember for ABC7, where she shared insight from local communities to contribute to story development.

Zoha graduated from the University of California, Davis with a degree in Communications. Outside of work, Zoha enjoys writing, playing basketball, and trying new food spots.

Many ALC clients and community members experience heightened anxiety when traveling abroad. Especially after 9/11, travelers who are Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (AMEMSA) are more likely to endure intrusive questioning, searches, and even detention after returning to the U.S.

Federal agents often justify their targeting of travelers on the basis of their religion, race, or nationality through discriminatory policies or secretive watchlists that disproportionately include common AMEMSA names. These policies have also permitted agents to stereotype those who appear to be visibly practicing their faith, such as the ethnic or religious attire they wear or the places they may have visited while abroad.

In the face of such disproportionate government targeting, the National Security and Civil Rights (NSCR) program at ALC represents community members who are profiled and subject to discriminatory questioning, searches, or detention at airports throughout the Bay Area.

Person Standing Inside Building of Airport

What You Should Know Before Traveling

There are some key things to know before you travel internationally or return back home to the U.S.:

1. Everything you carry, including electronic devices, can be subject to a search by border security agents.

2. Before arriving at the airport, be sure to pack all of your documentation, including:

  • Government ID or passport if flying internationally;
  • Relevant documents for non-citizens, including green card, visa paperwork, or I-94/I-20 documents; and
  • Printouts of your flight itinerary and emergency contact information.

3. Some community members are advised by attorneys to retain counsel before traveling. If you have received such guidance, follow your attorney’s instructions. Often, this can mean carrying a completed and signed USCIS form G-28, which may allow an attorney to represent you if you are held for questioning before or after your visit abroad.

What You Should Do If Questioned and/or Detained at the Airport

At times, community members may be questioned or detained at the airport, often without any clear reason or justification. These moments can cause understandable concern, and without knowing your rights in advance, it can be hard to know what to do.

If you are questioned by federal agents at the airport, your rights often depend on your immigration status. All U.S. citizens have an absolute right to enter the U.S. and are not legally required to answer questions in order to cross the border. However, in practice, border agents may still delay a citizen’s entry if they refuse to answer questions about the nature or purpose of their travel.

Lawful permanent residents (those with “green cards”) also have the right to enter the U.S. if their travel abroad was for less than 6 months and they did not break any laws during the trip. Still, people who are not U.S. citizens may be denied entry if they refuse to answer questions.

No matter your immigration status, it is important that all of your answers are truthful. False responses may result in a felony conviction or delay your entry. If you have questions regarding your immigration status, reentry to the U.S., or other considerations, we recommend you consult with an immigration lawyer before traveling.

In some instances, travelers may be questioned about their political or religious views, or about other people. If this happens to you, there are important steps you can take to assert your rights:

1. State: “I am not comfortable answering questions about my religious or political beliefs, or about who I know.”

2. If agents persist with questions, politely let them know that you wish to speak with an attorney.

3. Ask agents for their business cards and agent identification, keep record of incident details, and contact ALC to consider your legal options.

5 ALC staff members taking a selfie at Gurdwara Sahib El Sobrante during outreach.

ALC Representation in Action

For many community members targeted at airports, the experience can feel isolating and dehumanizing. We encourage people to share their stories and experiences to help empower others to assert their rights and know that there are ways to get help, even in the face of opaque and discriminatory federal policies.

For instance, we currently represent a Bay Area community member who is a U.S. citizen of Palestinian descent and faculty at a local college. Their job requires frequent travel, but each time they arrive at an airport when returning to the U.S., they have been harassed by border agents and pulled aside for additional screening, despite their status as a U.S. citizen.

In representing this community member, we filed complaints with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Traveler Redress Inquiry Program and DHS’s Civil Rights and Civil Liberties office. Through these filings, we were able to obtain a redress number for our client, which gave him a way to distinguish his identity from someone who shares his name and may be on a federal watchlist. Since then, the harassment at airports has stopped. We’ll continue to monitor the client’s future international travel to ensure they are not singled out by the government for discriminatory treatment.

NSCR attorneys and advocates are here to help if you have any questions or would like to report an incident. Contact us at 415-896-1701 or fill out the Contact Us form to request free legal advice and learn more about your rights while traveling.


CLEAR: KYR: Flying While Muslim

This resource provides information on your rights while traveling, and what steps you can take to make your travel experience safe and less distressing.

ALC and CA Partners: Know Your Rights at U.S. Embassy Interviews and if Your Passport Is Revoked

This resource provides know your rights information at U.S. embassy interviews, the reasons the government can revoke a passport and what to do if this happens.

EFF: Digital Privacy Guide for Travelers

This resource names precautions that travelers may take before travel and at the U.S. border to protect their privacy and data.