“My father stood up for what he believed — why should I back down?” said Muhammad Ali Jr., who is continuing to talk with news outlets from around the world about his detention Feb. 7 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
“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 Thursday 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.
“I was shocked more than anything,” Ali said. “I thought, why are they bothering me? I am an American citizen. Where are they going to deport me — back to Philadelphia, where I was born?
“I wasn’t terrorizing anybody,” he said. “I wasn’t bothering a soul.”
Ali was returning to Ft. Lauderdale, where he lives, with his mother Khalilah Camacho-Ali, the second wife of Muhammad Ali, after they spoke at a Black History Month event in Jamaica.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection has declined to provide details about the incident, citing policies that protect travelers’ privacy. But spokesman Daniel Hetlage said in an email that the agency does not discriminate on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
He 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."
Ali said he and his mother, Khalilah Camacho-Ali, the second wife of Muhammad Ali, were the only passengers on the flight that were questioned.
He said that as many as five officials were in the room where he was held and that he asked them why they were asking about his religion rather than his citizenship.
“I was really appalled,” said Ali, a public speaker. “I felt like an immigrant. I felt my rights were violated. I thought the Constitution guarantees your right to practice your religion.”
Friend and lawyer Chris Mancini has said Ali and his mother were pulled aside because of their Arabic-sounding names and believe that it was “directly linked” to President Donald Trump’s “attempts to ban Muslims from the United States.”
Trump signed an executive order in January calling for a temporary travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Africa. The order, which critics accused of being a thinly veiled attempt to discriminate against Muslims, was later rejected by a federal appeals court and effectively overturned.
Ali said he asked several times if he could go but was told to sit tight.
“I was tired,” he said. “I’d been traveling all day. I just wanted to go home and relax.”
He said he mentioned that his father was the former heavyweight boxing champion who died in June and showed him an Ali hat from the funeral that he was wearing.
“They didn’t believe me,” he said.
Ali has granted a stream of non-stop interviews to reporters, and he and his mother are considering a lawsuit.
“I am speaking out because it was wrong for them to do that,” he said. “Should I have had to say I’m a Christian to get back into the U.S?”
“I didn’t feel comfortable in my own country,” he said.
Reporter Andrew Wolfson can be reached at 502-582-7189 or firstname.lastname@example.org.