Comedian Mohanad Elshieky has lived in the US since 2014. First the Libyan citizen was on a J-1 visa as a student, but when the situation in his hometown of Benghazi worsened, Elshieky, who had been an outspoken political activist and radio personality while in Libya, began to receive credible death threats and warnings from his friends and family to stay in the US. He applied for asylum in December of 2014 and was finally granted it last October. His legal status in the country, however, doesn't protect him from being hassled by the authorities, as Elshieky's viral Twitter thread from Sunday showed:
The thread explained how Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents—he mistakenly called them ICE agents on Twitter—got on his Greyhound bus heading from Spokane, Washington, to his hometown of Portland, Oregon, and brought him and a few other people outside for questioning. As the encounter escalated, the officers insisted his documentation was falsified and that they could find no record of his asylum status.
Ultimately, Elshieky was released and let back on the bus, where he funneled his anger into a tweetstorm that captured the internet’s attention and raised a number of commonly held concerns about American's militarized border enforcement regime. The CBP later issued a statement that largely corroborated Elshieky’s version of the events, but suggested there would not have been an issue had Elshieky been carrying his proof of asylum documents with him. Elshieky says that he has always been advised by immigration lawyers and government officials to keep this crucial, extremely difficulty to replace document in a safe place at home.
VICE got on the phone with Elshieky to try and get a better understanding of how the legal immigrant found himself in such a scenario and where his story fit into the larger issues regarding America’s immigration policies.
VICE: Why do you believe you were singled out and taken off the bus?
Mohanad Elshieky: The bus had like 20 people on it and most of these people were either older white folks or people who were my age and also white and [the CBP agents] did not ask them [for papers], although they now insist that they did ask everyone. The way I know for a fact that I'm not hallucinating or something is because they were asking for passports. It’s such an outrageous claim to say that 20 people on that bus had US passports on them. Most people, even citizens, don’t even have passports. People don’t travel. I know for a fact that everyone they asked was a person of color.
Was anyone brought off the bus with you detained further or were you ultimately all let back on?
They asked me and two other people to leave the bus. From what I remember, I and another person were let back on. You can see from the pictures I took that they were taking one person away with them in their car. Based on the way that guy who was taken was talking, he seemed Hispanic.
When you got back on, did any other passengers give you any signals of support or solidarity?
The vibe on the bus was as if nothing has happened at all, like nothing occurred outside. They were relieved when I got on because finally they can continue with this trip. I did not get anything negative or positive, like nothing. No one even tried to talk to me or asked me what happened. The driver got on the speaker and was like, OK, yeah, now we're moving, and mentioned the stops or whatever. And it ended there. It was like no one was searched, no one was asked where they’re from, no one was just taken outside off the bus and driven away. It was all very normal to everyone.
How does a “normal” document check typically go for you?
Before, when I've been asked for my identification, it was only at the airport and I have showed my driver's license and had no trouble. Bolt busses and in the city, I have never been asked to show my documents. This was the first time I’ve had to do such a thing.
What do you think a corporation like Greyhound’s responsibility is when it comes to these situations?
I believe that, as a private company, they should take the side of their customer. We all pay them to use their services to take us from point A to point B. For the money I pay, they should provide the best customer service, which includes not being harassed by anyone. So, they should have not consented to letting the agents on the bus.
What I learned from lawyers who have called me since the thread went up is that this was one of many cases where they've done this on Greyhound. I believe the reason they do it on Greyhound is because it’s very cheap so it's the best mode of transportation for people who are poor or who are more likely to be people of color. They know exactly who they are targeting.
I had someone from Greyhound call me to talk to me about it and he apologized to me and said that they were working to stop CBP from doing that and I asked him what sort of thing they were doing. He said, Oh, well, we're working on making posters that have both English and Spanish and we're going to put them all around in different stations. And we’re working with the ACLU and doing this and that. So, in my mind I’m thinking maybe I’m too hard on these guys, but soon after I look on Greyhound’s Twitter and it wasn’t what they told me. It was basically like they’re not going to stop them from coming on. (Note: VICE reached out to Greyhound for comment and the company did not respond.)
You originally thought it was ICE that pulled you off the bus, but later learned that it was CBP. Does that change your opinion on either agency or what you feel needs to be done to address the systemic problems that led to your detention?
I feel they’re the same. The only reason I assumed it was ICE and not CBP is because I always assumed that the Border Patrol only functioned on the borders. And I obviously don't know the differences between their outfits, but to me there's no difference between ICE and Border Patrol. They do the same job. They both work for Homeland Security. They both detain people.
I know people are like mad at me because I said they are “racist trash.” Yeah, that's what I said, and the people who captured me kept asking if I was an “illegal,” so I still fully stand behind my statement. Anyone can feel free to quote me. I don't care.
The immigration system in general is very broken and that was something I knew because I've been an immigrant for five years now and even though my whole process was done legally with a lawyer, it was far from easy. I upheld my end of the process, and on their side, there would be so many delays and uncertainties. It was very, very chaotic.
But for these two agencies, I’m not gonna go full steam like we need to dismantle them. I know a lot of people say that, but I won't as I’m not an expert in that stuff. I don’t want to just speak out of emotion, because emotionally, yes, fuck both of them. They can burn in hell. But logically, as a person who understands that there needs to be laws, there should just be a better system.
In the Twitter thread, you mentioned never having felt as terrible as you did that day. What has the outpouring of support online been like, and has that left you on the other side of this ordeal in a more optimistic place than before you posted it?
The amount of support was very overwhelming. Yes, I have gotten a lot of trolls and people saying bad stuff to me and whatnot, but compared to the amount of support, the negative reaction is nothing to me. I have people reaching out to me from not just all around the country, but just all around the world. It was amazing. It gives me more hope for for this country. I like living here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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