A month after he was held by immigration officials and questioned about his Muslim faith at a Florida airport, Muhammad Ali Jr. was stopped and questioned Friday at Reagan National airport in Washington, D.C., at the ticket counter and again at the security checkpoint.
The incident was first reported in a tweet sent Friday afternoon from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s account: “On way home on DOMESTIC FLIGHT Muhammad Ali Jr. detained AGAIN by @DHSgov. Religiously profiling son of ‘The Greatest’ will not make us safe.” The tweet included a photo of Wasserman Schultz and Ali Jr. on a plane.
The TSA said it did not detain Ali Jr., but only stopped him to verify his identity. In an email to the Courier-Journal, a TSA spokesman wrote, “The TSA does not have the authority to detain passengers, and that did not happen.”
According to the TSA, Ali Jr. arrived at the check-in counter at Reagan National, at which time “a call was made to confirm Mr. Ali’s identity with TSA officials.” After 11 minutes, he was eventually cleared and sent to the security checkpoint. At the checkpoint, Ali Jr.’s “large jewelry” set off the scanner and he was patted down by agents. After a seven-minute screening he was cleared to catch his flight.
In a phone interview Friday, Ali Jr.’s lawyer, Chris Mancini, told the Courier-Journal the phone call at the ticket counter lasted 20 minutes and called the TSA statement a “pack full of lies.” Mancini said Ali Jr. was trying to get his boarding pass when the computer “flagged” him. The ticket agent rejected his Illinois state-issued ID and put Ali Jr. on the phone with the Department of Homeland Security. Ali Jr. was asked over the phone to verify his date of birth and where he was born. He was not asked about his religion.
Mancini said Homeland Security officials kept Ali Jr. on the phone for about 20 minutes while a line formed behind them at the check-in counter. Eventually, Ali Jr. voluntarily gave his passport to the ticket agent, who read the passport number over the phone. Only then was Ali Jr. cleared. No explanation was given for the delay.
“It was either sloppy, suspect or designed to keep him from boarding,” Mancini said.
Mancini confirmed Ali Jr. was patted down while going through the security checkpoint but called that incident “irrelevant” and said Ali Jr.’s main complaint stemmed from the incident at the ticket counter.
In an email exchange with the Courier-Journal, a TSA spokesman bristled at the suggestion Ali Jr. was detained, writing, “In the security world detain means to take into custody. … We don’t do that. Law enforcement does.” The spokesman would not say why TSA questioned Ali Jr. but said he was free to walk out of the airport had he decided not to fly.
A spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority told the Courier-Journal that Ali Jr. was not arrested and that airport police were not contacted.
Reached by phone Friday, Department of Homeland Security spokesman David Lapan told the Courier-Journal that Ali Jr. arrived around noon to check in for his 1 p.m. JetBlue flight to Fort Lauderdale. Ali Jr. was one of the first travelers to board the plane.
Lapan said he could not comment on why TSA felt the need to call and confirm Ali Jr.’s identity.
Ali Jr. and his mother, Khalilah Camacho-Ali, the second wife of Muhammad Ali, were in Washington to testify before Congress. Ali Jr. told members of Congress on Thursday the government needs to help end racial and religious profiling.
Mancini said Ali Jr. was not stopped or questioned when he used his state-issued ID to travel to Washington on Wednesday, and implied Friday’s incident was in response to Ali Jr.’s political visit.
“My only thought for what happened between now and Wednesday was going before Congress,” he said. “We criticized DHS and Trump.”
Camacho-Ali and Muhammad Ali Jr. were at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Feb. 7 when Ali Jr.was detained for close to two hours. He said he repeatedly was asked his name, where his name came from and what his religion was.
Ali Jr. told the Courier-Journal he and his mother were the only two passengers on the flight who were questioned.
“I got off the plane and was almost at baggage claim when they stopped me and asked, ‘What is your name, who named you and what is your religion,’” he said in a phone interview.
“I said my name is Muhammad Ali Jr., my parents named me, and that my religion is Muslim,” he said.
He said he was then whisked into a small room, held for one hour and 45 minutes, and asked the same questions again.
A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol spokesman 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.”
Following the February incident, the Alis were invited to Washington to participate in a forum titled “Ali v. Trump: The Fight for American Values” hosted by Democratic members on the House Judiciary Committee. They are also launching a “Step into the Ring” campaign to call for religious freedom.