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Portland comedian sues U.S. Customs and Border Protection for unlawful detainment at Spokane Intermodal Center

UPDATED: Thu., April 25, 2019

Portland comedian Mohanad Elshieky photographed at Tom McCall Waterfront Park in Portland. He filed a tort claim against U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Thursday, April 25, 2019, alleging the agency violated his Fourth Amendment rights. (Eder Campuzano / The Oregonian/OregonLive)

A Portland comedian who earlier this year ignited a viral tweet storm after being stopped by immigration authorities at Spokane’s Intermodal Center is suing U.S. Customs and Border Protection for unlawful detainment.

Mohanad Elshieky is seeking $250,000 in damages for charges of false imprisonment and false arrest, alleging Border Patrol agents violated his Fourth Amendment privilege against unlawful search and seizure.

“We’re trying to raise the ante for these unlawful stops,” said attorney Matt Adams at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which is representing Elshieky. “If you’re not listening to the city of Spokane, you’re not listening to the individual complaints. We’re going to seek damages against you.”

The comedian’s interaction with Border Patrol agents drew national attention when he tweeted shortly after he was briefly detained on Jan. 27, drawing rebukes from city leaders and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected New York Democrat who has led progressive calls to “abolish ICE.”

On Twitter and in interviews with several news outlets, Elshieky said he was pulled off a Greyhound bus headed from Spokane to Portland by Border Patrol agents who accused him of being in the country illegally. When he showed his work permit and driver’s license, he said the federal agents, who boarded the bus, insisted he should have been carrying proper documentation.

Elshieky claims he provided an agent a valid Oregon state driver’s license, but once the agent learned he was not a citizen his “demeanor shifted.”

“He placed one hand on the seat in front of Mr. Elshieky, and another on the seat beside him, blocking Mr. Elsieky’s exit and restraining his movement from the seat,” the claim reads.

After asking for further documentation, Elshieky produced an employment authorization document issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the lawsuit says. The agent asked Elshieky to follow him off the bus, where he was questioned further.

The lawsuit says Elshieky explained to the agent that he was recently granted asylum, and while he didn’t have the notice on him, the employment authorization document was approved based on his asylum application.

“Instead of acknowledging the valid work permit, the officers reported that ‘illegals fake these (documents) all the time and use them,’ ” the lawsuit says. “Mr. Elshieky tried again to explain his status to the officers, but they disparagingly dismissed his explanation claiming ‘we’ve heard this all before’ and that ‘illegals say that all the time.’ ”

After a second officer made a phone call and verified the information, the lawsuit says Elshieky was allowed to leave. But not before he was yelled at to “take his hands out of his pockets” while talking with the original agent.

“What we’re seeing at these border patrol stops is racial profiling,” Adams said.

This is the second claim filed by the ACLU and Northwest Immigrant Rights Project against the Border Patrol for stops in Spokane. The first was filed in June by a Mexican national seeking $75,000 in damages.

That suit also involved a stop of a Greyhound bus headed to Portland, when Mexican national Andres Sosa Segura was taken aside by federal agents. The claim says the agents asked him for “papers” to which he responded by handing them a “know your rights” card – a document he’d received from his immigration attorney, that instructed law enforcement that he would not answer questions until his lawyer was present.

Segura was placed into a van, the lawsuit says, and taken to a facility “approximately an hour away,” where he was placed into a holding cell. After verifying his immigration status, he was permitted to leave and driven back to the bus station.

“As a result of his unlawful treatment by Border Patrol agents, Mr. Segura suffered humiliation, emotional distress, and other damages,” the lawsuit says.

In October, the Spokane City Council passed an ordinance requiring Border Patrol agents to obtain written permission from the mayor before entering the Intermodal Center, or any other city-owned property that’s not accessible to the public.

Councilman Breean Beggs, a civil rights attorney and vocal critic of the warrantless searches, said he wasn’t surprised to learn a second claim had been filed. The first one, he noted, was before the city passed its law.

“The Border Patrol is interfering with lots of people every month without a warrant,” Beggs said. “It’s only a matter of time before someone damaged by the behavior would bring a case forward.”

The recipients have six months to respond before the lawsuit moves forward in federal court. Bill Kingsford, a spokesman for the Spokane sector, declined a request for comment on behalf of the agency, saying, “We don’t comment on current litigation.”

In the past, the agency has dismissed criticisms that the searches are unlawful, saying the Intermodal Center – about 93 miles from Canada – is just within a 100-mile zone within which federal law permits them to conduct searches without warrants on privately owned buses.

Adams, meanwhile, said the Greyound buses, which do not drive north, aren’t under any threat of transporting people illegally.

“They’re instead abusing their authority,” he said. “They’re trying to assert this broader arrest authority that they don’t have.”

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