MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) – Muhammad Ali Jr. feels like he is being targeted – possibly because of his religion and possibly because of his recent comments that were critical of the Department of Homeland Security’s screening procedures.
For the second time in about a month, Ali was held up and questioned by federal officials at a Washington, D.C. airport, this time prior to a domestic flight.
Ali said he was detained but the TSA told CBS4 that he was not detained at any point.
Ali said his trouble began when he tried to get his boarding pass for a flight to Fort Lauderdale Friday afternoon.
“They told me I can’t board the plane,” he said. “I can’t get a boarding pass.”
Ali said he was flagged by the TSA and asked for his social security number, asked where he was born and told his driver’s license wasn’t sufficient to board the plane. He showed them his passport instead. He said a JetBlue employee asked him those questions while on the phone with TSA and that no federal officials questioned him in person. Eventually he was allowed to board his flight.
“It’s very appalling, I tell you,” he said. “I can’t travel in peace without being harassed.”
The holdup happened one day after Ali testified before a Democratic subcommittee about his ordeal last month when he was detained by the Department of Homeland Security for two hours in Fort Lauderdale after returning from a trip to Jamaica.
“They asked me what was my religion,” Ali testified Thursday.
During that encounter Ali said they asked him about his religion. He said that did not come up during Friday’s episode.
“I told them that this never happen to me until (President) Trump got into office so obviously somebody have a vendetta out,” Ali said.
By sheer coincidence, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was on the same flight as Ali. She did not see Ali’s interaction at the ticket counter but was alerted to the situation after it unfolded. She posted a smiling picture of the pair on Twitter once both were on board the plane. She wrote that Ali was religiously profiled.
“We’re talking about somebody who has no criminal record,” she said. “He’s an American citizen. He was doing nothing other than traveling and who happens to be a Muslim-American.”
Late Friday, the TSA released new information about the episode.
It said that an 11 minute call was made to verify Ali’s identity at the airline check in counter. TSA did not specify why that call was made.
TSA said there was a 7 minute screening procedure for Ali because his large jewelry alarmed a checkpoint scanner.
TSA says Ali was not detained because TSA does not have the authority to detain passengers.
CBS4 News asked Wasserman Schultz’s office for a comment on the TSA statement. We were told they would not be making any additional comments. The congresswoman said she does plan to try and get some answers from Homeland Security.
Ali’s attorney, Chris Mancini, who witnessed Friday’s encounter, said he believes the TSA statement doesn’t address the main issues – why Ali was flagged and why his driver’s license was rejected as a form of identification. Ali’s attorney said they are considering legal action over these two episodes.
On Thursday, Muhammad Ali’s son and ex-wife headed to Washington to declare a “showdown” over religious freedom against President Donald Trump.
Muhammad Ali Jr. and his mother, Khalilah Camacho Ali, met with lawmakers to discuss the issue and their experience. They are also calling for an end to Trump’s travel ban and are launching a “Step Into the Ring” campaign, drawing on support of former boxing greats including Evander Holyfield, Larry Holmes and Roberto Duran. They are framing the effort directly as a fight against the president, using the hashtag #AlivsTrump.
Trump has shown admiration for Ali in the past, calling Ali a “truly great champion” when the boxer died of Parkinson’s disease in June. Trump also singled out an Ali exhibit during a recent visit to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington.
The Alis were invited by Democrats to a forum organized by members of the House subcommittee on border security. The Alis will address lawmakers and push to testify at a formal hearing.
“There shouldn’t be a travel ban,” said Khalilah Camacho Ali. “If I don’t speak up now, they’re going to keep harassing us.”
The mother and son, both born in the United States, were returning from a Black History Month event in Jamaica on Feb. 7 when they were detained and questioned at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. They said they were asked if they were Muslim and explained their relationship to the former heavyweight champion repeatedly.
“I’m paranoid. I’m just waiting for somebody to mess with me. That’s not a good feeling when you have to travel,” Khalilah Camacho Ali said when asked how the incident has affected her.
The experience left them convinced that they were targeted because they are Muslim and have Arabic names. Khalilah Camacho Ali, who was born and raised Muslim, said she has always fought for religious rights, and pushed her former husband to use his fame to do the same.
“We, as a family, have been fighting this for a very long time,” she said. “We are going to continue to fight for religious justice.”
A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection has said Ali Jr. was held for questioning, but not because of his name or religion.
Trump signed his first travel ban a week into his presidency. The executive order sparked confusion across the country, causing chaotic scenes at airports and prompting lawsuits.
This week, he announced a revised version that bars new visas for people from six Muslim-majority countries and temporarily shuts down America’s refugee program. It also removes Iraq from the list of banned countries and removes language prioritizing religious minorities that some viewed as a way to help Christians get into the United States while excluding Muslims.
The new order is set to take effect on March 16.
Muhammad Ali, a three-time heavyweight boxing champion, also fought for civil rights. He refused to enter the military draft during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector after converting to Islam. The decision cost him his heavyweight title and he was convicted of draft evasion.
The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled in his favor.
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