Commentary

On Apr. 18 around 8 p.m. in the San Francisco International Airport, — a week before the Supreme Court hearing on the travel ban — U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detained and interrogated a Muslim Filipino peace advocate named Jerome Aba. Aba says he faced harassment and cruelty during his 28-hour detention at San Francisco International Airport. 

A Moro-Muslim from the island of Mindanao — which is  under Martial Law —  Aba is a human rights advocate who has documented human rights violations in the Philippines. Most recently, Aba led fact-finding and relief missions in Marawi, a predominantly Muslim city that was recently destroyed by fighting between the Armed Forces of the Philippines, supported by U.S. intelligence, and foreign fighters claiming allegiance to the Islamic State. While hunting ISIS-affiliated terrorists in Marawi, the Philippine government displaced 400,000 people and flattened the city with aerial bombing. Aba provided relief and advocacy for the displaced while the crisis ensued. 

In recognition of Aba’s leadership and his understanding of the human rights situation in Mindanao, a joint partnership between the General Board of Global Ministries (United Methodist Church), the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines invited Aba to speak at the Ecumenical Advocacy Days and a Stop the Killings Speaking Tour in the United States.

The U.S. Embassy granted Aba a 10-year multiple-entry visa. But when Aba landed in the U.S., he was immediately handcuffed.

In a press conference with Karapatan, a prominent human rights alliance in the Philippines, Aba shared that after deplaning, border protection agents handcuffed him, made him undress, and interrogated him.

“I asserted that this is illegal, this is cruel, this is inhumane, this is a violation of human rights,” Aba said.

“Over and over they repeated, ‘You are not entitled.’ I took off my clothes. It was cold, and they made it colder. They brought in a very big electric fan, they turned it on. It was so cold. I was naked. They left me there with the fan.” 

According to Aba, he was extensively interrogated about his affiliations, his political beliefs, and his cultural effects. He says border protection agents asked him about his participation in rallies, views on U.S.-Philippine relations, martial law in Mindanao, and Duterte’s drug war that has taken more than 20,000 lives, and that he was repeatedly accused of being a “terrorist” and a “communist.” Aba says that when he was finally offered food, agents only offered him pork — meat he cannot eat, due to his religious practice.

On two separate occasions, Aba said he was left in a room with a gun, and later a grenade, as if in attempt to entrap him into using the items.

For a country that so often claims to purport liberty and democracy, the displacement of 400,000 people in Marawi and the 20,000 killings under Duterte’s drug war should concern the United States. But in the treatment of Jerome Aba, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents enacted an ideology of scarcity, Islamophobia, and “America First.” It is an ideology that carries international U.S. military intervention and control as the key to safety. And as a Muslim and peace advocate, Aba was a threat to that and treated as an “enemy combatant.”

During Aba's detainment, Bay Area faith and community leaders formed a vigil, remaining in a 16 hour protest outside the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office until the final notice that Aba had boarded a plane back to the Philippines. Organizations across the U.S. called the CBP to demand Aba be allowed entry into the U.S., and since his testimony alleged torture tactics used against him, member organizations and friends have launched rallies of indignation in the Philippines and across the United States.

Like the many activists and leaders who have kept vigil in the days after the inhuman detainment of Jerome Aba, it is our choice to heed the call of Christ — to do what the disciples could not do in Gethsemane, to do what Peter couldn’t do when he denied Christ. We can stay awake. We can do what Jerome Aba did, when he upheld his rights, held true to the values and practices of his religion, and told the truth of his story despite the consequences.

There is the road to Emmaus, where we find out who Jesus truly is, and who we are in relation to God. Faith and persistence through struggle are on that road to peace and justice. Let us take this road, beyond militarism, to beloved community, to stay with the suffering through all that comes. For Jerome Aba, and for humanity. 

Drew Elizarde-Miller is an erstwhile pastor and an organizer with the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines-U.S. Chapter. Drew is based in Portland, Ore., where he lives with his partner Trisha and dog Pancit.

Don't Miss a Story!

Get Sojourners delivered straight to your inbox.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"This Human Rights Activist Was Detained, Interrogated, Denied Entry. Why?"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines and acknowledge that my comment may be published in the Letters to the Editor section of Sojourners magazine.

Must Reads

Subscribe