A British imam whose business visa was revoked without explanation as he tried to board a flight to America has accused the US State Department of enacting the policies of Donald Trump “before he has received a single vote”.
Ajmal Masroor, 44, is the second British Muslim over the past week to report that he had been recently barred from flying to the US, saying he was stopped by US embassy staff from boarding a Virgin flight from Heathrow to New York last week despite having travelled to the US multiple times already this year.
The imam, who stood at the UK general election in 2010 as a Liberal Democrat candidate, had been due to lead Friday prayers at a mosque in Queens, New York, and says he had plans to meet friends and family. “I went through all the security barriers, showed my boarding pass on my phone, I had my security check, bag checked and went all the way to the gates when I was taken aside by an American embassy staff,” he told the Guardian.
The US has stopped a British Muslim family from going on holiday – we can’t look the other way
In the past week it has also emerged that a British Muslim family heading for Disneyland was barred from boarding a flight to Los Angeles by US authorities at London’s Gatwick airport, prompting complaints from their MP, Stella Creasy.
UK ministers are to demand an explanation from the US authorities as to why the British Muslim family was refused permission to fly to Los Angeles to visit Disneyland. Home Office sources said that inquiries would be made to enable the prime minister to respond to a letter from the Creasy, who has publicised the case and said she is concerned this is happening to a growing number of British Muslims.
Mohammad Tariq Mahmood, one of the family members turned away from the flight, was travelling with his brother and nine of their children. He told the Guardian that his brother was once stopped and questioned at Tel Aviv airport about 10 years ago while trying to enter as part of a Middle East tour.
According to a Reuters report, an unnamed US official said only one male member of the family had been deemed to be prohibited from flying. But because all 11 passengers had booked their travel together, they were all denied boarding at the instruction of the Customs and Border Protection agency of the US Department of Homeland Security. A department spokesman approached by the Guardian for comment would not confirm that account.
In the latest case to emerge, Masroor said he was used to being profiled and receiving further questioning and bag searches when flying to the US. “Yet this time,” he said, “when I handed over my passport they took me aside.”
He said a man who said he was from the US embassy began to question him and asked him why he was travelling to the US. He described the official as “cold, calculated and very unhelpful”.
He was also asked about his itinerary and where he would be staying. “After some other frivolous questions, [the official] said: ‘I’m afraid your visa has been revoked’.”
Ajmal Masroor. Ajmal Masroor says he was prevented from boarding a Virgin flight to New York after being stopped by US embassy staff at Heathrow airport. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Masroor added that when he asked further questions, the official said: “You must have done something wrong ,” before walking away. He claims to know of other British Muslims who have also been turned away.
Masroor had withdrawn from the 2005 general election after being linked to a Muslim group accused of anti-semitism.
However, Masroor has previously received death threats for speaking out publicly against extremism, most notably after the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in London, which he said all Muslims condemned as “inhumane and unacceptable”. In October 2013 Masroor was alerted by anti-terrorist police that he been threatened by al-Shabaab, the Islamist insurgency group in Somali, for speaking out.
He said he saw the official interrogate others, and “every single person they took aside was visibly Muslim”. Masroor said he saw the official interrogate a young couple, the woman in hijab. “I saw him do that for a good 10 to 15 minutes, asking them all sorts of silly questions and giving them hell.” He said the couple were eventually able to board the plane.
Masroor first applied for an Esta, the electronic travel visa, in 2014 and was refused. After being contacted personally by staff from the embassy, he applied for a business and tourism B1/B2 visa that allows multiple entry to the US. Two interviews and further screening later, he said, he was given the visa and he has since then travelled to the US five times.
“In my mind, the refusal and revoking of my visa was calculated. For me it’s very callous.” He said he received a phone call from the US embassy who said they wanted to sort the matter out.
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The US embassy in London said: “The embassy is aware of this matter. We are in contact with the individual and therefore have no further public comment at this time.”
Trump, who is seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency, prompted global condemnation this month when he pledged to ban Muslims from entering the US. But the US Customs and Border Patrol, which posts officers at foreign airports, said that “religion, faith or spiritual beliefs of an international traveller are not determining factors about his/her admissibility into the US”.
To demonstrate that they can enter the country, CBP said applicants must “overcome all grounds of inadmissibility”. There are more than 60 grounds of inadmissibility, divided into categories such as immigration violations, security reasons and health.
Mahmood, whose family spent £9,000 on tickets for the Disneyland flights, told the Guardian that they were not given an explanation when they were told they could not board their plane at Gatwick. But he said he thought it was “because of the attacks on America – they think every Muslim poses a threat.”
He told Sky News: “We had our visas. We had our Estas – maybe because we are Muslim and had a Muslim name … they have not given us any other explanation. We have not been in trouble with the police before.”
He also dismissed any suggestion his family had links to a Facebook page that talked about a connection with a radical Islamic group. “We are a normal family. We pay our taxes. We are normal people,” he said.
Creasy said she knew of other cases of families being denied access to the US. A wide variety of people were affected, she said, but what they all had in common was that they were Muslim.
She said she hoped Cameron would be able to assure her that “prejudice” was not becoming a factor in tacking national security.
“Nobody is suggesting that the Americans don’t have a right to monitor and manage who enters their country,” she told Sky News. “But as this is happening on UK soil, and does impact on UK citizens and how they feel, I think it is important that we have more scrutiny about what is going on.”
Michele Thoren Bond, the state department’s assistant secretary for consular affairs, testified in Congress last week about the state department’s screening process. Bond said the US has revoked more than 122,000 visas since 2001. Of those, 9,500 were pulled because of terrorism concerns.
“We face dangerous and adaptable foes,” Bond said. “We are dedicated to maintaining our vigilance and strengthening the measures we take to protect the American public and the lives of those travelling to the United States.”
She said all visa applicants’ data is reviewed through the State Department’s Consular Lookout and Support System, a database that has nearly 36m records of people found ineligible for visas “or against whom potentially derogatory information exists”. The information is drawn from US government records and sources.
She said the department also uses an “enhanced ‘pre-departure’ initiative” that relies on records to recommend that airlines not allow certain individuals to board US-bound flights.
“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,” Bond said.
“In those circumstances, the department can and does use its authority to revoke the visa immediately, and thus prevent boarding.”
Categories: The Muslim Times