The American Civil Liberties Union is taking action on behalf of artist Aaron Gach, who was detained and forced to turn his iPhone over to US customs and border patrol agents as he tried to reenter the United States after traveling to Brussels for an exhibition at the STUK House for Dance, Image, and Sound.
On February 23, as Gach got off his flight at San Francisco International Airport, he was directed to a secondary waiting area. His passport was taken from him and he was asked not to use his cell phone while he was interrogated about his reasons for traveling.
During the questioning, the agents repeatedly told the artist to surrender his cell phone stating that if he refused, Gach’s phone would be confiscated. After asking about his rights and why he was being detained, Gach handed over the phone because he was worried that the agents would also seize the rest of his belongings including his laptop if he chose not to comply. The agents told him they needed access to the device in order to complete their investigation. Gach said that his phone was out of his sight for approximately five to ten minutes. After the agents concluded their questioning, they escorted him to an exit.
Gach, a US citizen, said he was surprised by the invasiveness of the questioning and the violation of his constitutional rights. Yet, according to PEN America, this incident is one of many that have been occurring since Trump took office. While the Trump travel ban targeted seven predominantly-Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa, citizens from European countries have also been facing a higher level of scrutiny.
Children’s author Mem Fox, an Australian citizen who was detained at the Los Angeles International Airport while en route to Milwaukee in February, said that officials were so aggressive while interrogating her that she felt like she had been “physically assaulted.” Also in February, celebrated French historian Henry Russo was held for ten hours at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. The fear of being singled out and held for an indeterminate amount of time at an American airport has deterred international writers, artists, and other cultural figures from making trips to the United States.
In a statement the ACLU said: “Aaron’s complaint is just one round in our ongoing fight to make the government recognize that the US Constitution applies with full force at the border. The ACLU also submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to CBP today demanding information about its compliance with a 2013 appeals court decision that imposes limits on device searches. Last month, we filed an amicus brief in federal court arguing that the government must obtain a warrant, or, at a minimum, have probable cause to conduct these searches. And we are supporting a bill by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) that would codify these standards and impose additional safeguards on such searches.”