Muhammad Ali was never shy or average, and over the course of his celebrated life, the world took proper note. If you type “Muhammad Ali death” into Google, you get more than 13 million returns.
So word that his son – conveniently named Muhammad Ali Jr. – had been detained for almost two hours at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Feb. 7 was bound to generate attention. Ali’s lawyer, Chris Mancini, said Ali and his mother were stopped by customs agents on their return from a trip to Jamaica.
Mancini said Ali, an American citizen, was questioned about the origin of his name and whether he is a Muslim. Being a lawyer, Mancini naturally made a stink about these claims in the news media. (In a statement to The Washington Post, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol said it “does not discriminate based on religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.”)
One goal of President Donald Trump’s aggressive posture on matters such as undocumented immigrants in U.S. communities and untrusted Muslims in U.S. airports, is to “take the shackles” off federal agents, as White House press secretary Sean Spicer said.
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Freed from their Obama-era chains, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol agents can now spend more time with people such as Ali. Amazingly, Ali and his mother were stalled again later in February, Mancini said, when they sought to fly home to Florida from Washington D.C.
A ticket agent told them they couldn’t proceed to the gate. Ali was put on the phone with a Department of Homeland Security agent, who proceeded to interrogate him once more.
“The second instance was clearly retaliation,” Mancini said in a telephone interview. “This is an American citizen, born and raised, trying to fly home.”
There is always a possibility that the double inconvenience, and intrusive questions, resulted from bureaucratic incompetence. But it’s almost as if the government went looking for a conflict with a Muslim with worldwide name recognition and instant access to the news media.
Ever since Sept. 11, American Muslims have complained of receiving extra scrutiny when they fly. Last week, Hassan Aden, a retired North Carolina police chief, was detained at Kennedy International Airport in New York for more than an hour. The difference now, compared with the more measured era of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, is that the White House all but encourages hostile encounters.
As stories of “unshackled” agents proliferate, they serve the Trump administration’s goals. True, some stories, such as the case of a U.S. citizen who was detained for days in Colorado, provoke outrage. But they also generate news and word of mouth. And that translates, most importantly, into fear.
If Muhammad Ali Jr., an American citizen with one of the most famous names on the planet, can’t get through an airport without a hassle, what hope should other Muslims have?
Likewise, when federal agents detain an undocumented woman seeking protection from domestic abuse at a courthouse in El Paso, Texas, other undocumented immigrants get the message clearly: No place is safe.
Government officials know how to encourage self-deportation. “They understand that they don’t have the funds to ferret out 11 million people,” said David Leopold, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, in an interview.
“They’re creating an atmosphere that causes fear and trepidation and anxiety not only throughout the undocumented community but throughout the whole country. The object is to make life as miserable as possible so the ones they can’t get their hands on will leave.”
The news media, opponents of administration policy and immigrants themselves become unwitting accomplices. Word of mouth is how I learned the story of a New York woman, Maura Furfey, a U.S. citizen whose husband and child were briefly detained at Newark Liberty International Airport when they returned home from Mexico.
When I tracked her down and asked about it, she said that her husband told her that a fellow passenger on the flight had been drinking and mentioned to a flight attendant that their fair-skinned daughter didn’t look like the Mexican father.
That’s all it took. The father and the child were detained and interrogated when the plane landed. The father, a green-card holder, was terrified. The daughter, a citizen, was in tears.
None of these people did anything illegal. Yet they were made to feel vulnerable, powerless, afraid. Their stories spread through social networks, the way scary stories do. Trump famously uses his Twitter feed like a blunt instrument of his aggression. Turns out he’s using the rest of us the same way.
Francis Wilkinson writes columns on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.