The U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed Saturday that it held Muhammad Ali Jr., the son of the late legendary boxer, for questioning in a Florida airport earlier this month, but said Ali wasn’t singled out because he’s a Muslim.
Ali Jr., 44, and his mother, Khalilah Camacho-Ali, the second wife of Muhammad Ali, were pulled aside for questioning at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Feb. 7 while returning from a speaking engagement in Jamaica, Chris Mancini, a Florida lawyer and friend of the Ali family, told The Courier-Journal on Friday.
Mancini said the pair were detained because of their Arabic-sounding names, and Ali Jr. was repeatedly asked, “Where did you get your name from?” and “Are you Muslim?”
Customs spokesman Daniel Hetlage declined to provide details of the incident, citing policies that protect travelers’ privacy, but he wrote in an email that the agency does not discriminate on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
“We treat all travelers with respect and sensitivity,” he said. “Integrity is our cornerstone. We are guided by the highest ethical and moral principles.”
Reached by phone, Hetlage said it’s not uncommon for customs and border protection officers to pull travelers aside after initial passport inspection for a secondary screening, which can consist of additional questions and verification of a traveler’s identity. What is asked in these interviews varies depending on the situation, he said, but “we have no interest in questioning anyone for two hours about their religion.”
Questions about religion can and do sometimes come up, he said, but it isn’t something officers — who process more than 1.2 million international travelers daily — routinely ask about.
“With the number of Muslims flying in and out internationally every day, the math doesn’t even support it,” Hetlage said.
Ali Jr., who was born in Philadelphia and holds a U.S. passport, told customs officers that he is Muslim, said Mancini, who added that the questions asked of Ali Jr. are indicative of profiling. He also said he and the Ali family are considering filing a federal lawsuit following the incident.
“To the Ali family, it’s crystal clear that this is directly linked to Mr. Trump’s efforts to ban Muslims from the United States,” Mancini said Friday, referring to President Trump’s executive order signed Jan. 27 that barred people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days.
The order also halted the refugee program for 120 days and prohibited Syrian refugees from the U.S. indefinitely. A U.S. appeals court has since blocked enforcement of the travel order, upholding an earlier decision by a federal judge in Seattle.