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"Did you meet any terrorists?" New Jersey mayor says he was detained at airport for 3 hours, profiled for being Muslim

A New Jersey mayor says he was racially profiled when Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers detained him at JFK airport for three hours last month, questioning him about whether he knew any terrorists. Prospect Park Mayor Mohamed Khairullah, who is Muslim, says he was singled out based on his faith.

Khairullah told CBS News his family initially missed their flight to Turkey in early July because of an issue with the TSA that he believes was racially motivated. When they returned to the airport the next day, the family allowed extra time to go through security, and it took them nearly five hours to get through one screening, he says.

When the family's trip was over and they returned back to New York's JFK airport on August 2, they were stopped almost immediately after stepping off the plane. Khairullah says he and his family were racially profiled again.

The mayor told CBS News a CBP agent told him it was random screening and made light of the situation. But once Khairullah was taken into an office by himself, the mood changed. 

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Mohamed Khairullah, mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey. Facebook/Mayor Mohamed T. Khairullah

"It was like a wolf in sheep's clothing," Khairullah said about the CBP agent. "He was a sheep while walking into the room, but while he had me in the room, he changed his face and tone flat out to ask me if I met with any terrorists."

"They changed their story," he said. "They told us DHS instructed them to stop us." The CBP agents asked Khairullah his name, nicknames, where he went to college for both his bachelor's and master's degree, and then asked if he knew any terrorists.

"He directly asked me if I knew of any terrorist cells being developed in Turkey," Khairullah told CBS News. When he told the CBP agent "no," he was asked again: "Did you meet any terrorists there?"

"That's when I realized the discussion was non-productive. I don't have any ties to terrorism," Khairullah said. 

Bewildered by the questioning, he asked if he could speak to a lawyer. Khairullah said his lawyer told him the agents could only ask his name, where he went and why he went there. CBP could also inspect his luggage, Khairullah's lawyer told him.

The agents weren't searching his luggage, so Khairullah asked if the questioning was done and if he and his family could leave. They told him no, they had to inspect his phone. 

After speaking to a second lawyer, Khairullah told the agents he no longer consented to the search of his phone. CBP said they had to hold the phone and then proceeded to search the family's bags and pat Khairullah down. Finally, they were able to leave — without his phone.

Khairullah got his phone back 12 days later, with the help of a lawyer from Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). 

CBS News has reached out to CBP for comment about Khairullah's allegations. A CBP spokesperson told NorthJersey.com — which first reported on this incident — that he could not address any individual case due to federal privacy laws, but said the agency "treats all international travelers with integrity, respect and professionalism while keeping the highest standards of security."

In 2017, the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the federal government over alleged "warrantless and suspicionless searches" of electronic devices at the U.S. ports of entry. The ACLU said the search and seizures of electronic devices violated the First and Fourth amendments.

CBS News has also reached out to the ACLU and CAIR for a statement on Khairullah's experience at JFK.

Khairullah told CBS News he and his family fled Syria and then moved to the United States in 1991, when he was a junior in high school. He became a citizen in 2001. Since moving here, Khairullah has served as a firefighter, town council member and, currently, mayor.

In addition to serving his community, Khairullah does humanitarian work, making seven trips to Syria to help refugees. The mayor has also helped humanitarian efforts in Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. 

"I serve out of the love for my community," Khairullah said, adding he didn't want to use his title as mayor for special privilege with CBP. "But I think [CBP] crossed a line there." 

The mayor and his family had traveled to Turkey for vacation as well as business. His wife and four young children, who range in age from 1 to 10, came with him to visit family. Khairullah also met with several mayors to talk about government and business, he said. 

He said he was more worried about his wife and children during the CBP detainment. "I worried about [my family's] state of mind, their well-being. I think the ordeal they went through was more stressful for them than it is for me," Khairullah said. 

"As a person who came to the U.S. with family because of what the U.S. is all about and what it has to offer, the fact that civil rights are eroding is what scares me and what worries me," he said.

Khairullah shared his story on social media, but didn't want to make it all about himself, "But, given the opportunity by the media, I obviously spoke to it because it is a important it is an important topic of discussion," Khairullah told CBS News. "Our civil rights should not be diluted at the border ... our Constitution and our values are what make America great." 

Representative Bill Pascrell, who represents Khairullah's district in Congress, said in a statement obtained by Insider NJ that Khairullah's account describes profiling against Muslims. "If he was targeted by authorities as a criminal or even a national security threat for no reason, the Mayor deserves answers on his detention."

"Whether someone is a longtime mayor, a Harvard freshman, or a regular Joe, this is America, and profiling is un-American. We have heard too many reports of Americans being harassed for their names, their skin colors, and their national ancestries. Americans must stand up against this devolution as one community, one people, one nation," Pascrell's statement continued.

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