When Haley Carter, one of Mena Ahmadi’s coaches on the Afghanistan women’s national soccer team, said that she was worried Ahmadi would be detained at the airport on an upcoming trip to the United States, Ahmadi laughed it off. While she was the daughter of Afghan refugees, she had been born in Germany and was a German citizen. She had also traveled to the U.S. twice in the past year to play, with no previous issues.
So when Ahmadi was pulled out of the customs line at Houston George Intercontinental Airport for additional questioning on Monday, she was at a loss.
“I was asking, ‘why?’” Ahmadi told me over the phone today. “Maybe [I was detained] because my parents are from Afghanistan? I didn’t have anything suspicious about the reason why I [was coming] here.”
Carter was waiting for Ahmadi outside of customs. Coincidentally, she was texting with some of members of the national team about the odds of Ahmadi getting detained when she received a message from Ahmadi saying that was exactly what had happened.
Carter told me she thinks the decision to detain Ahmadi has “everything to do with her last name.” (When she heard this explanation, Ahmadi said, “Oh yeah! My last name!”)
Not only had Ahmadi traveled to the U.S. with a German passport, she had a valid ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization), which allows its holders to travel into countries without visas.
The last time Ahmadi came to America was in August of last year, to attend a training camp for the Women’s Premier Soccer League, an amateur women’s league she recently joined. She came through San Francisco and didn’t have any issues entering the country. When she made her recent trip to Houston, she was coming to play for a WPSL team there. Carter is on the team as well.
“Whatever happens, be polite,” Carter recalled telling Ahmadi. “All of your documents line up. And when they question you, you can call me, I’m sure we can get it through.”
But it would take three hours before Ahmadi was finally brought into a room with three Customs and Border Protection agents, who pressed her on her finances.
“They were really weird,” Ahmadi said. The officials asked her who paid for her flight and whether she was getting paid to play in the U.S. Because Ahmadi wants to go to an American college, she needs to keep her unpaid, amateur status.
However, the agents continued to press her on how much money she was traveling with, and how much money she had in her bank accounts.
Outside, Carter pressed a CPB officer on Ahmadi’s status. She said he told her that someone “in immigration” had flagged Ahmadi, even though all of her paperwork was in order.
Ahmadi still doesn’t know why she was pulled aside. When she asked an agent, she told me, “he was not really listening to me. He was just saying, ‘Oh, verifying something.’ I didn’t get the noun exactly. I didn’t really know the word. It was a really brief answer.”
Carter, a former Marine who says she had never experienced one of her Afghan players going through such an experience at an airport, took a harder stance.
“It feels [like] a little bit of profiling was happening,” she said, adding that Ahmadi’s detainment is indicative of how confusing and vague Donald Trump’s immigration policies are.
“If she had been a little lighter in skin color, and had a Western name ... with a German-born, German passport with a valid ESTA, she likely would not have been question about coming to play soccer,” she said.
All told, Ahmadi was detained for close to 5 hours, and no one can definitively say why.
I reached out to the Houston International Airport’s Customs and Border Protection Office for comment. I was hung up on when I asked to speak to someone about Ahmadi’s case. When I called back, no one answered. They have not yet responded to an email asking for comment.