The traveller has been placed on the government's terror watchlist - or the more serious no-fly list - and clearing one's name becomes a legal and bureaucratic nightmare.
On Monday Abbas sent letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and FBI Director Robert Mueller requesting assistance for his two most recent clients. One is a resident of Portland, Oregon, who is trying to fly to Italy to live with his mother. The other, a teenager and US citizen living in Jordan, has been unable to travel to Connecticut to lead prayers at a mosque.
``All American citizens have the unqualified right to reside in the United States,'' Abbas wrote Clinton seeking a change in status for the client in Jordan.
In his cases Abbas, a lawyer with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, tries to piece together the reason why a client has been placed on the list.
• Perhaps a person has a similar name to a known terrorist.
• Maybe their travels to Yemen or some other Middle East hot spot have garnered suspicion.
• Maybe they told the FBI to take a hike when they requested an interview.
From Abbas' perspective, the reasons are almost irrelevant.
Whose rights are paramount?
Placement on the no-fly list amounts to a denial of a traveller's basic rights he says.
US citizens can't return home from overseas vacations, children are separated from parents, and those under suspicion are denied the basic due process rights that would allow them to clear their name.
Abbas describes the security bureaucracy as Kafkaesque, a labyrinthine maze of overlapping agencies, all of which refuse to provide answers unless they are threatened with legal action.
Cases follow what has become a familiar pattern:
• A passenger is denied travel
• Abbas either files a lawsuit or exposes the case to public scrutiny through the media
• Within a few days the individual in question is able to travel
• Government officials then ask a judge to dismiss any lawsuits that were filed, saying the cases are now moot
``The amount of people who experience tragic, life-altering travel delays is significant,'' said Abbas, who estimates he gets a call at least once a month from a Muslim American in dire straits because their travel has been restricted.
Government officials, of course, see it differently. They say they have a Traveller Redress Inquiry Programme that lets people wrongly placed on the no-fly list, or the much broader terrorist watchlist, fix their circumstances.
No right to international travel or travel by airplane
The government has argued in court that placing somebody on the no-fly list does not deprive them of any constitutional rights. Just because a person can't fly doesn't mean they can't travel, the government lawyers argue. They can always take a boat, for example.
``Neither Plaintiff nor any other American citizen has either a right to international travel or a right to travel by airplane,'' government lawyers wrote in their defence against a lawsuit by another of Abbas' clients. The teenager from Virginia had found himself stuck in Kuwait after suspicions about has travel to Somalia apparently landed him on the no-fly list.
Who knows how many?
It is unclear exactly how many people are on the government's lists.
Some of the most recent estimates, from late 2009, state that about 400,000 individuals are on the ``watchlist,'' which requires a ``reasonable suspicion'' that the person is known or suspected to be engaged in terrorist activities.
A much smaller number - about 14,000 - is on the ``selectee list,'' meaning they will likely have to undergo rigorous screening to travel. And officials estimated that 3,400 individuals, including roughly 170 US residents, are on the no-fly list.
Does the safety of other travellers outweigh the rights of the individual?
What if you were the individual who was denied travel because of a “maybe, possible, perhaps” reason? What if instead of Fred Allen, your name is Farid Ali? North American born, raised and schooled. Not overly religious or observant. Not political.
What if you’re flying overseas to attend a business conference and you get hauled off a plane because you’re on a “list?”
How will your colleagues react? If you’re Fred Allen, when it’s all over, they’ll probably make jokes and buy you a drink. But if you’re Farid Ali, you can be sure there are some who will never look at you the same way again. The fact that your name rightly or wrongly is on a list will brand you.
What is the point?
Some Farid Alis will be terrorists – as will some Fred Allens. I suppose the point is not to jump to conclusions. Far too frequently these days otherwise intelligent, moderate, generous people jump on the “terrorist” bandwagon when they in fact mean an “anti-immigration” bandwagon.
With few exceptions, we are all immigrants in North America. Some are just less obvious than others.
But, perhaps we could look again to the inscription on the Statue of Liberty.
The New Colossus
"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!"
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
—Emma Lazarus, 1883