Spokane City Council passed a law to stop what just happened to Mohanad Elshieky. Border Patrol didn't care

Spokane City Council passed a law to stop what just happened to Mohanad Elshieky. Border Patrol didn't care
Young Kwak photo
The controversy surrounding Spokane's Intermodal Center has gone international.

It's been a shitty weekend in the Inland Northwest for Portland-based stand-up comedian Mohanad Elshieky. On Saturday night, he had a particularly lousy set at Washington State University.

"I bombed so hard that the crowd is now marking themselves 'Safe' on Facebook," he wrote on Twitter.

And on Sunday morning, he took the Greyhound bus back to Portland. But first, he had to switch buses in Spokane. Since at least 2013, the Greyhound bus depot has been the site of Border Patrol sweeps.

In a series of tweets Sunday, Elshieky laid out his experience:
His narrative went viral. It was retweeted more than 46,000 times, including by New York Congresswoman and social media superstar Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

He made a few errors in his Twitter thread — it wasn't snowing, and it was Border Patrol, not Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who interrogated him.

"I don't know the difference between their uniforms. I thought Border Patrol was only on the border," Elshieky says. He didn't know that Border Patrol's special powers to conduct searches without warrants can extend up to 100 miles beyond the border.

His experience is not uncommon: Elshieky is one of hundreds of travelers questioned by Border Patrol on Greyhound buses at the Spokane Intermodal Center every year.

But here's the thing: Arguably, Border Patrol is the one breaking the law. Last year, the Spokane City Council passed a law that barred the Border Patrol from entering into the non-public spaces of the city-owned Intermodal Center — like the Greyhound bus depot — without explicit permission from the mayor. From the point of view of the City Council, Border Patrol never should have been there at all.

But both Border Patrol and Mayor David Condon have concluded that the city's law is trumped by the federal authority given to the Border Patrol.

Since the Intermodal Center is less than 100 miles from the border, the argument goes, Border Patrol can enter into a city-owned building to conduct immigration raids on private buses, and the city can't do anything to stop it.

Mohanad Elshieky should have felt at ease. He first came to the United States from Libya in June of 2014 on a J-1 exchange visa. But it quickly became apparent to him that returning to Libya was too dangerous. He already had a bit of reputation in Libya as a political activist. With his English language proficiency and his visit to the United States, he says, rumors began to spread that he "was being recruited by the U.S. government to spy in Libya."

So in December of 2014, he says, he applied for asylum. It took nearly four years — until October of 2018 — for him to finally be granted asylum. Now, he says, he can apply for a green card, after which he only has to wait three more years to be granted his citizenship.  But his current status means he's required to carry specific documents at all times — even inside the United States.

When Border Patrol boarded his bus in Spokane, he says he was singled out. He suspects that it had to do with the shade of his skin. He says that only four people on the bus were asked where they were from and to show their IDs — and they all looked Hispanic.

"It’s not the first time that someone has thought I’m Hispanic," Elshieky says.

If that occurred, says Border Patrol Special Operations Supervisor Bill Kingsford, that would be a violation of policy. To avoid racial profiling, everyone is supposed to be asked where they're from, no matter what they look like.

But Elshieky maintains that Border Patrol walked straight past multiple non-Hispanic-looking people to ask him to show his identification.

By his account, Elshieky says he explained his asylum status, but the Border Patrol agents demanded to see proof. He says he showed them his work permit and his Oregon driver's license, which Elshieky says was proof he was here legally.

"You have to have a Social Security number and another form of ID to get it," Elshieky says. But he says the Border Patrol agents didn't buy it, arguing that those documents could be forged. They wanted to see his asylum approval paperwork.

"Why would I carry that on me? It’s three pages," Elshieky says. "Everything I say, he would be like, "illegals say that all the time.”

On his Twitter thread, he continued to outline his story.
Elshieky says that the Border Patrol eventually let him go after chiding him that he should have his papers on him next time.

Kingsford says that the agency's timestamps show their interaction with Elshieky only lasted 12 minutes — not 20 as Elshieky claimed. He says that if his agents had believed that his documents were faked, Border Patrol would have made sure the documents were genuine before releasing him.

Kingsford also notes that the law does require immigrants like Elshieky to carry his asylum paperwork with him at all times.

For Elshieky, the most frustrating part of the experience was the apathy from all the other passengers and the bus drivers.

"No one seemed to care, or even question what was happening," Elshieky says. "People were staring at me for a minute — they seemed more annoyed at the fact that they were delayed. That really sucked. They could have wrongfully took me away, and they wouldn’t have cared."

Kingsford says that two individuals on the Greyhound bus with Elshieky were detained. Kingsford says they admitted they were there illegally from Mexico when Border Patrol asked them about their immigration status.

City Council President Ben Stuckart was afraid of incidents like these. It wasn't just the possibility of unauthorized immigrants being targeted by Border Patrol. It was all the other passengers who would be made to feel harassed and fearful by Border Patrol sweeps. Last year, Facebook pages aimed at Latinos in Spokane encouraged people to avoid the Greyhound depot entirely.

"This was retweeted nationally," Stuckart says about the social media firestorm around Elshieky's comments.  “I think it makes Spokane look really bad."

That's one reason why, after hours impassioned testimony from activists, pastors, attorneys, medical professionals and immigrants last year, the council passed an ordinance to prevent Border Patrol from conducting searches without warrants in the city-owned Intermodal Center.

In October, however, Mayor Condon claimed that that the law was unenforceable, arguing that it provided a false sense of security for vulnerable individuals rather than a change in the practice of Border Patrol or other federal immigration agents.

He never put up signs declaring it was a private space. He didn't send a letter to Border Patrol explaining that they had to ask for permission before entering the facility. Instead, he wrote a statement (bolds added), citing a federal law that he says prevent him from enforcing the ordinance:
“Federal law (8 CFR 287(a)(3)) says that such federal officials may ‘within a reasonable distance from any external boundary of the United States … board and search for aliens in any vessel within the territorial waters of the United States and any railcar, aircraft, conveyance, or vehicle…’ Reasonable distance is further defined as a 100-mile distance from a U.S. border. Operationally, these agents don’t seek permission or consent from a local elected official or municipal employee to complete their assignments, so neither the Mayor nor City employees have the authority to impede such activity.
But, at least at first blush, the law he cited appears to have little to do with the City Council's ordinance. The ordinance wasn't banning Border Patrol from entering a vehicle. It was barring Border Patrol from entering non-public areas of a city-owned building.

The mayor's office declined to provide a further explanation.

“I think you’re splitting legal hairs,” city spokeswoman Marlene Feist says. “We’re not going to have a legal discussion. We don’t have any specifics about the incident. That’s not our people who are there. [The mayor] stands by his letter.”

Kingsford, meanwhile, says that Border Patrol inquired with their own legal counsel when Spokane's law passed. Their conclusion? The definition of the word "conveyance" in the federal law included not only vehicles but the bus depot that houses it.

"We have the legal authority to enter into the conveyance," Kingsford says. "We’re not lawyers. We’re agents just out there doing their job."

We ran that argument by local immigration attorney Alycia Moss and she was skeptical.

The dictionary definition of "conveyance" is "vehicle," and nothing else in that section of federal law refers to train stations, bus depots or airports. If Congress wanted to include that in federal law, she says, they would have been more specific.

ACLU-WA Immigration Policy Counsel Enoka Herat echoed Moss’s conclusion that the Border Patrol’s interpretation of “conveyance” to include the bus depot itself was absurd.

“That’s like saying ‘car’ means the ‘garage.’ That ‘vehicle’ means ‘wherever it parks,’" Herat says. “The Intermodal Center is city-owned property. The city has the ability, just as private individuals have the ability, to restrict who has the ability to enter the non-public spaces of the property.”

For now, the dispute continues to be a factor in the cold war between the mayor and the city council.

"We emailed both Border Patrol and the [city] legal department," Stuckart says. "We’ve got the silent treatment from both."

Stuckart says the mayor is overstepping his authority by refusing to enforce a city law.

"He’s trying to act like the courts, right? It’s not for him to decide and interpret the law," Stuckart says. "His charge is to enforce the city’s law... The city attorney should have already filed an injunction."

A year from now, however, Condon won't be the mayor anymore. Stuckart is running to replace him. In the meantime, however, the law specifically allows citizens to sue to enforce the law.  That could be the ACLU, Stuckart says. Or it could even be Elshieky.

"I would definitely want to do that," Elshieky says about the possibility of filing a lawsuit. "It’s not about me. I want this to go away, but at the same time I don't want this to happen to other people." 

Hygge Holiday Market @ Bellwether Brewing Co.

Sat., Dec. 2, 2-6 p.m.
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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters was a staff reporter for the Inlander from 2009 to 2023. He reported on a wide swath of topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.His work investigated deep flaws in the Washington...