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Travelers Are Weary Of U.S. Airports Even With Travel Ban On Hold

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've been following some strange news stories recently. People keep saying that President Trump's travel ban on refugees and visitors from seven mostly Muslim countries has affected their effort to come to the United States, has caused them trouble at airports. Well, the travel ban is supposed to be on hold, yet some international travelers say they've not felt welcome. Visa holders and some U.S. citizens complain they've endured long detentions and questions about their religion. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Khalilah Camacho-Ali traveled all over the world with her ex-husband, the boxer Muhammad Ali, but she can't remember any reception like the one she received from immigration officials in Florida.

KHALILAH CAMACHO-ALI: He said, well, what's your religion? I said, are you kidding me? I said, what's that got to do with anything? Is my my papers in order? And he says, I just want to know what's your religion. I have to ask you these questions. I said, fine, I'm Muslim.

ROSE: Camacho-Ali was traveling back from Jamaica with her son Muhammad Ali Jr. They're both U.S. citizens with valid passports. Ali says he was held for questioning for almost two hours.

MUHAMMAD ALI JR.: Why would you even ask me what my religion is? That's crazy.

CHRIS MANCINI: It's a religion test.

ROSE: Chris Mancini is Ali's lawyer.

MANCINI: If you fail the test, you're subject to detention - may be a long time, may be a short time - at the whim of the government. That is unconstitutional.

ROSE: And did they ever get any kind of apology, either from those agents or from anybody else later on?

MANCINI: Nope.

ROSE: Immigration attorneys across the country say they've seen lengthy detentions and more aggressive questioning at airports and even some travelers with valid visas turned away. The Australian children's book author Mem Fox says she's flown to the U.S. more than 100 times, but last month, she was held for two hours with other passengers when she landed in Los Angeles on her way to a literary conference. Here's Fox being interviewed on Australian TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MEM FOX: The treatment of people in that room while I was there, which I observed, made me ashamed to be a human being.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do you think that the atmosphere has changed since Trump's travel ban?

FOX: Oh, good God, it's changed. Oh, my God, it's changed. I tell you, these people have been given turbocharged power.

ROSE: Fox says she did get an apology from the U.S. embassy in Australia. A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, declined to comment on individual cases. Trump's travel ban has been on hold since a federal judge in Seattle blocked it early last month. The administration says that executive order and others are aimed at protecting national security. Here's White House spokesman Sean Spicer last month describing the message to federal immigration agents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEAN SPICER: The president wanted to take the shackles off individuals in these agencies and say, you have a mission. There are laws that need to be followed. You should do your mission and follow the law.

ROSE: Immigration lawyers are worried about how that message has been received by rank-and-file agents. But former CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske says complaints about overzealous questioning at airports are nothing new.

GIL KERLIKOWSKE: Those Customs and Border Protection officers have a tough job. I mean, people get off those planes, they're exhausted, they're frustrated.

ROSE: In a statement, a spokesperson for CBP says it's committed to fair, impartial and respectful treatment of travelers. CBP also says it detained more people for extended periods in February of 2016 than it did last month and that agents have the discretion to deny entry to visa holders and question U.S. citizens. But Kerlikowske thinks there's still lingering confusion from what he calls the inept rollout of the travel ban executive order back in January. At the same time...

KERLIKOWSKE: The pressure on these Customs and Border Protection officers is there, and I would think that translates to what occurs to some of the people that arrive in the United States.

ROSE: The White House plans to release a revised version of its travel ban executive order soon and fight in court to make sure it stays in place. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.