It's easy to complain about air travel, especially when TSA agents feel you up like it's prom night and then the guy behind you plops his flaking feet on your arm rest. But typically, the end reward is getting where you want to go in a conceivable amount of time.
Not for Stephen Persaud. On May 11, 2010, according to court documents, he and his pregnant wife, along with their 16-month-old son, were about to move back from the Virgin Islands to Irvine, where they would welcome their new baby and reunite with relatives. But when the family went to the American Airlines kiosk to check in, the screen flashed "error."
Five government officials appeared, and Persaud, a U.S. citizen who had been attending nursing school in St. Thomas, was taken into a room where he was questioned for two hours. "We know you were in Somalia," an FBI agent said. "We'd like to know where, why, and what parts you visited."
His wife and son were able to catch a new series of flights back to Irvine, but Persaud could not. He was eventually informed he was on the government's No Fly List, a fast-growing roster of about 21,000 people, 500 of them Americans, who are not allowed to fly because they're considered suspected terrorists. He had no idea how his name got there, and officials were not to tell him as it's classified information.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
To finally get home, Persaud endured a traveling nightmare that makes getting stuck on the runway for eight hours sound like a staycation. First, he boarded a cruise ship in St. Thomas and traveled for five days to Miami. Then he rode a train for two days to Washington, D.C, and another train to Chicago and another one to Los Angeles. The delays had him back in Irvine a month after his wife. He's still unable to board a plane, indefinitely.
Persaud is now one of 15 plaintiffs, all Muslim, in a renewed federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the federal government. They want to be removed from the No Fly List, produced by the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center since 9/11, or at least be granted a hearing where they can confront any evidence against them. As of now, people who complain that they're on the list unfairly can submit a letter to the Homeland Security Department, but they won't know the outcome of the complaint unless they buy a plane ticket and try to fly again. The union argues that depriving people of their right to travel without any notice or opportunity to object is unfair and unconstitutional.
The ACLU's filed a complaint in 2010, but it was dismissed by a federal judge in Portland who said it must be heard by an appeals court. A new complaint (PDF) was filed in February. On May 11, lawyers plan to argue before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the lawsuit should be heard in federal court.