Pulled off a bus by Border Patrol: Mohanad Elshieky on ICE, comedy and "peak white liberalism"

Elshieky talks to Salon about immigration, the demands of "diversity" in comedy, and his very adult love of America

Published February 19, 2019 5:30PM (EST)

Mohanad Elshieky (Nicolle Clemetson)
Mohanad Elshieky (Nicolle Clemetson)

On Jan. 27, comedian Mohanad Elshieky detailed a terrifying encounter with Border Patrol on Twitter. While returning home from a college gig in Pullman, Washington, Elshieky was asked to step off a Greyhound bus and interrogated about his legal status.

"Two people in uniforms came in on the bus," he told Salon, adding that they did not identify themselves, but they did start asking "random people for IDs."

It seemed less random when Elshieky noticed only four passengers were approached. "The four people who they asked — we were all people of color."

"The bus was full of white people, but they didn’t ask any of them for their IDs," he added.

Once off the bus, Elshieky gave the agents his driver's license, work permit and explained his immigration status. Originally from Libya, Elshieky, who is a legal resident, has lived in Portland for almost five years, since he first came to the U.S. in 2014 on a J1 visa and eventually applied for political asylum after home became too dangerous for him to return. His asylum was granted in October 2018.

But Elshieky said they weren't satisfied with the documentation he provided and asked for proof of his asylum. He doesn't carry that around with him — he had been advised against it in case it got lost, and besides, everything is electronic now. Couldn't they use the information from his driver's license and work permit to look up his status? he asked them.

"Then they were like, 'Nope, people falsify that all the time,'" Elshieky said. "I was like, 'No, there’s no way. Especially this work permit. I know since 2011, it has been fraud-proofed and your office made sure that it cannot be falsified.' They were like, 'Nope, yeah, illegals say that all the time.'"

Elshieky said one of the agents phoned into an office and read off his information and he said he could hear the person on the other line confirm his asylum status and immigration record. But when the agent returned, he told Elshieky, "There’s no record for your asylum. We couldn’t find anything."

Elshieky's mind raced through the possible scenarios that could follow. "What if I get detained? They're probably going to take my phone. I hear they don’t even allow people phone calls. No one’s going to know where I am. Should I get my phone now and shoot someone a text and let them know?" he said. "Am I going to get deported right now, and if I did, can I come back in? It was just a mess."

After some back and forth — Elshieky, not backing down, said he would call his lawyer, while another agent demanded he keep his hands out of his pockets in the January cold —  the agents let him get back on the bus. Elshieky said they handed his documentation back and warned him to have his asylum papers on him next time.

"In the back of my head, I was thinking what does having your papers on you next time even mean? he said. "Because I had my papers and you guys said they were fake. So what's the point?"

Customs and Border Patrol released a statement confirming much of what Elshieky tweeted and told Salon, but claimed that he "was not in possession of the immigration documents required by law."

"Mr. Elshieky stated he was from Libya and presented the agents with an Oregon driver's license and an Employment Authorization Card (EAD)," said the statement. "As with anyone who needs to have their immigration status verified, Mr. Elshieky was asked to exit the bus. After the approximately 20 minutes needed to verify his status, Mr. Elshieky was allowed to board the bus and continue his travels without delay." The statement also noted that Border Patrol has "broad law enforcement authorities."

Elshieky's story captivated Twitter for a day, but Salon wanted to hear more. In our conversation, Mohanad Elshieky discusses the encounter with Border Patrol (and how no one intervened), the unrelenting dehumanization of immigrants, the many pitfalls of white liberalism, and how comedy allows his voice to be heard.

Border Patrol claimed you should have carried around your asylum papers. But what do they look like? Is that even feasible to carry them around?

It is not, really. Asylum approval is like four pages, and then they have a big tarp attached to them. First of all, you can't carry them in a wallet, for sure, so I had to have them in my backpack all the time. And honestly, what if I lose my backpack? What if anything happens? It was just not feasible at all. It was just a mess. Also, as I said earlier, when you look on their website, they have updated it maybe two months ago where it says that you don’t have to carry that paper with you because it’s all electronic. So they were not even aware of their own laws.

I'm fortunate enough to know my rights and speak English well and all of that. But the reason they target Greyhound buses, specifically, is because they're super cheap. Most of the people who use them are people of color and poor people. They're used to people who don’t speak English that well and are very new to the country. So they can just emotionally terrorize them. Once they had to deal with me, it was like a new case with them. Like, "Oh, this guy talks. OK. This is weird."

But then I got on the bus, and for like the first half hour or something, I was just... shocked. I was like, I can’t comprehend what's happening right now. Then also the other part is just like, everyone on the bus, they were not fazed at all. Like nothing had happened.

No one intervened?

Nope. Nothing. They were just watching from the window.

And it was obvious what was happening?

Oh, absolutely. And I came in on the bus and I was walking and I just like loudly explained, I was like, "wow, this is like f**king bullsh*t." I said that out loud and they didn’t react at all. I just sat down. No one said anything positive or negative to me. Then the bus driver was like, "OK everyone, we can get moving right now." And then they were just like naming the stops. I was like, "What?! Was this whole thing just an inconvenient delay for everyone, that's what this was for you?" I was like, I'm sorry I inconvenienced people by having to deal with this bullsh*t.

What about the other three people you said that were taken off?

So, there were two people that were taken off. I believe one of them came back to the bus. I didn’t get a chance to speak with that person. But the other person, the third person, that person was taken away. Which you can see from the tweet that I posted on Twitter, you can see them putting someone in the car, that was the third person they took. I honestly didn’t even know if that person didn’t have legal papers on him or whatever.

I just know for a fact that he didn’t even speak English that well and wasn’t able to form sentences. Because every time he tried to speak, they would just go hard on him, just like verbally harassing him, just like asking him question after question after question. So he didn’t even know what was going on. Which was very unfortunate because the station had at least 100 people just sitting and standing around there seeing what's happening, and I'm like, there's no way that out of all these people, no one spoke Spanish. They could have just helped.

People just didn’t care at all. That was honestly why even — I got so many messages of support — and it’s nice and everything but at the same time, I'm like, yeah, you're saying that on social media that if you were there at the bus station you would have done this or that, but I don’t believe it.

It makes me think about that joke you have in the Epix special where you're like, the essence of white liberalism, especially in Portland, but more broadly, too,  is convenience.

Absolutely. Yes. It has to be convenient or else it just doesn’t matter.

You talked about the “Immigrants Are Welcome Here” signs. I've also seen people talk about the plethora of "Black Lives Matter" signs in Portland and yet how few black people there are.

Absolutely. I have a friend who has a joke about this where he’s like there’s more "Black Lives Matter" signs than there are black people in Portland. Which is, yeah, absolutely. It’s all signs, like those signs mean absolutely nothing.

You talked a little bit about how you got a lot of positive responses. The thread went viral. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez re-tweeted it. Did you have any other takeaways from the incident, whether it was the social media response or just you processing more what happened and what it’s about?

The whole social media part was very weird for me, because I knew, going in, that me posting that thread would get attention, but I didn’t think that it would get this much attention. Because honestly, the reason I posted the whole thing is I had like six hours to go on the bus and, like I said, no one was talking to me on the bus or saying anything. I wanted somewhere to just vent all my frustration.

But then, as we were going on, I was just like, oh my goodness. OK. This is really blowing up. It’s all over the news and stuff and by the time I got to Portland, it was on a few news channels and it was trending.

It helped me personally, getting support from people that I actually know are doing valid work and from people who actually mean what they were saying. But also, the other aspect of it is, just the amount of — Jesus, just hate mail. There was a lot of hateful DMs and stuff like that. I knew people were violent, but this was like a whole other level.

So besides support, you got a ton of kind of hateful, racist type messages, too?

Yeah, they were pretty bad. It got to the point where I had to take even my YouTube videos down, because they were leaving lots of comments and stuff like that. They were just very random. People are like, "you should be deported," or even going to racial slurs and stuff like that. Some of it didn’t even make sense because it was just anti-Semitic stuff. I'm not even Jewish.

I thought it was interesting that despite all that, at the end of your thread, you mentioned that you still loved America and it still feels like home. It reminded me of what John Oliver told me recently, about how he also still loves this country and it’s really a true sign of the depth of affection that immigrants have with the U.S. — to fall in love with the country but also be able to stay in love with it now. He said it’s also why it hurts so much with everything going on. I wonder if you can talk about that, how you reconcile your love for the U.S. with everything happening politically.

Absolutely, yeah. Because to me, a country is its people. Because what is a country without the people? It’s just a piece of land out of nowhere. It’s not a flag and it’s not the national anthem, it’s not all of that crap. That’s not something that I can really connect to, even in my home country, I don’t really give a f**k about that. But it’s just that this place has so many people who are very nice and very supportive and very talented and from all walks of life, that makes being here worth it.

I guess to me, if I said I don’t like it here anymore, it’s me viewing America as a place that is only white people and it’s only racist people and that’s it, and that erases the fact that there are so many talented people of color. It just erases everything that they do, if I just viewed America from only that one lens. So, I mean, I love it. I love being here because of the lens I choose to view this country through. Just like looking at the good things about it, the people who live in it, who fight the same fight. I’m not a citizen yet, but I feel like this is my country as much as other people's, too. I'm not letting those people — because of their bullsh*t — drive me out. It’s not their land.

Basically to me, loving something or criticizing something means that you love it, because you want it to be better. That’s how I feel about being in the U.S. I love being here and I want this to be a better place for me and for other immigrants and other people of color and everyone else. So that’s why I criticize it when I see something wrong. I don’t know whose quote is it or if I read it in a book or something, but it’s just about how a lot of Republicans love the U.S. as a five-year-old loves their mom, where they're like, "Oh, my mom is perfect. She’s great. She does nothing wrong." While most of us, the other people who love America, they love their mom as grown-ups. We’re like, "Yeah, I love my mom, but she needs to get her shit together."

That’s a great point. One thing that I found interesting too in your special is you talked about the two dominant tropes for immigrants in the U.S.: the bad-take-jobs-bring-crime propaganda or simply a victim, and both are dehumanizing. I liked how you said, "I don’t want to be known as brave. I want to be known as funny. I'm a comic."

Exactly. Yes. Because you have one side, which is Republican, or one side that are just like Trump supporters or whatever. They vilify immigrants: they're bad, they're making crime and all of that sh*t. Then, the other side who supports immigrants, it supports them but under specific conditions. Because even the defense they use for immigrants sometimes, it doesn’t sit right with me. It’s just like, "Oh no, you should love immigrants. Those are people who make our food, they make our economy better. They work for our farms. They do this." I'm like, "What? I'm not going to work for your farm for you to respect me."

No. Do you just want me here because of my economical value? Is that what I am for you? What about all the lazy people who sit on couches and do nothing? They're still human beings. So I want to be viewed for what I bring to the table that is not just working for other people, because I don’t have to work for others and make them money for my existence to be valid.

Also, what I like to call it is — which is something also you would be able to see if you go and read some of the articles that have been written about what I have gone through or even the older articles, which is "tragedy porn." Which is really banking on my background and emotions and stuff like that. Like yes, I was a victim of what happened to me, but they just go so far with it to the point where I feel like I'm being used. Which is like, OK, you made me sound very helpless and that I can't live without help and support. Like I'm nothing without the people around me. Which is not empowering at all. I want to feel like — I don’t know — like I can do stuff on my own and I'm not like a poor human being.

Also, what's funny to me is some comedy shows I'm doing, I had to call them out because they were using the incident to advertise the show. I'm like, Why do you think this is OK to do? I do have other credits, like comedy credits and stuff, use those. Instead of being like, "Oh, Mohanad, he's from Benghazi, an immigrant who recently had an interaction with ICE. And he tells jokes, too!" I'm like, what? No, people coming to a comedy show, they don’t need to know that I had something going on with ICE. If I want to talk about it, I’ll just write jokes about it and talk about it on stage.

Right, and you do. I like how in the standup, you noted that it’s been rough for immigrants in America for years and Trump is continuing a legacy of American presidents. Obama had horrific deportation numbers and immigration policies. What is and isn’t different now, in your opinion, in terms of immigration and the treatment of immigrants? 

When Obama was president, there was a lot of deportations, but at least he knew not to go on live TV and brag about that and it was a kept secret — kind of — which wasn’t a good thing, but also at the same time, it wasn’t something that was like, "this is a good thing," and then have his supporters be like, "Yeah, f**king deport all of them." So I think how badly immigrants are treated became something very normalized on both sides. Even when liberals hear about what's happening, they feel bad for us, but they're like at the same time, "Well, that’s it."

One thing I got a lot from people as replies to my thread was like, "Well, welcome to Trump's America." It just felt like, oh, so this is the new norm now that we all have to just live with?

Right, and that Trump invented it.

Exactly. Also, I feel like what's different now is the people who were hiding in the shadow before, now they feel like they have the power to say the stuff they had on their minds for so long. They feel empowered but also, they feel like there’s no consequences for what they do. It’s either what they say verbally or even like the rise in hate crimes. That’s another thing people should be really worried about, people being attacked left and right. Only maybe a year and a half ago in Portland that we had two people killed on the train because they defended two young black Muslim girls who were being harassed. This is outrageous that this happened.

I think the biggest difference between the past and now is that hate now has a more amplified voice and it has very strong support in the White House, which is very scary. Because at least in the past, which was sad, but still it was like, "Oh, if you don’t have your papers, that’s a problem, but just do it the legal way." Now, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you're legal or illegal. Also, even if you're a citizen, if you're a person of color, your citizenship will be questioned.

Right. There was just the story about the black man who was born in Philadelphia who said he was facing deportation to Jamaica. 

Absolutely. Yeah. Or even more recently, this whole thing with 21 Savage, which is so crazy to me that — yeah, I don’t even know how to begin with that because ICE is just like coming for everyone.

Aside from this experience, what has your experience been like in Portland? 

There are two sides to my experience. One side is me being a standup comedian here in Portland, which, that side was very positive. This is a great place for comedy. We have such a great comedy scene here that helped me really grow fast. And the comedy community itself really, really helped me settle in the city with how supportive and nice everyone was. I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for them and their support.

On the other side, this is the whitest city in America, you know? Also, a very liberal city, which can be very silencing to people like me, which is like people of color in general. Because every time you criticize something or speak about how bad Portland is or when I cite something bad that happened, you are given the same answer which is like, "Well, I mean, we’re better than other places. At least you're not in the South." I'm like, that’s not a standard to have. That doesn’t mean I have to feel good about it.

Before I started doing comedy full time, I worked in a tech company and I worked in retail for a while. Most of my coworkers were white. Even dealing with racist experiences with customers and then having no one to vent to or venting and then having your coworkers or even your managers say, "Maybe you should have been nicer," or, "Maybe you should have said it another way." I remember every time I got back home from work — physically, I'm not tired, but emotionally, I'm just drained. Like I can't even leave the house because of how heavy of a toll that it took on my soul just having to deal with these people over and over again.

Then also, Portland liberalism is just like peak white liberalism, which is focusing on really small things instead of the bigger issues. They hate confrontation here. Every time you speak about something bad that happened to you, people are just either trying to justify it or they're just like, "Oh, I'm really sorry. We support you," and then nothing happens about it. It’s such a tiring place to live in.

Yeah, right. All the apologies but no actual attention to the systems of oppression.

Absolutely. Yeah. It got to the point where sometimes I would vent about something on Facebook and then at the end of my post, I was like, for the love of God, please don’t send me any apologies or something. Just please be better.

Because the other thing with apologies, it’s just like they apologize to you and then they're waiting there for you to make them feel better. It’s just so much work now. I'm the one who’s supposed to make you feel better?

Right. It’s just white guilt, which means nothing.

Oh my god, yeah.

What do you love about comedy?

It’s just so many things. One of the main things is — other than the fact that I love making people laugh — even before I started doing comedy, my biggest satisfaction came from saying something or having someone react to it by laughing. It just makes me feel better and just making other people feel happy. But also, it’s a medium where I can actually put my opinions out there and put how I feel about stuff. Which otherwise, I wouldn’t get people to listen to me. Because I feel like that’s where I find this avenue of humor. Because if I go on all day and speak about what bothers me, no one really will listen, but I feel like once you can make people laugh about it and put it in a smart way, it resonates with people and gives them something to think about when they go home.

The industry for a long time has been very white and male. Do you see it changing? Are you excited about comedy right now or the future of it?

Yes, I do see it changing. The change is very slow but it is happening. Because we’re at the point now where people are seeing that what people of color and black people put out there is just like what's popular now. It’s just a fact. If you look at most shows, what's been trending and popular is just like, it was made by non-white people. And people are finally seeing that, because everyone is tired of the same sh*t over and over again.

And there's so many initiatives that are happening. I’m working with something now where it’s a production company where it’s mostly people of color and they're focused on hiring people of color. And if you think about it, the person who started the initiative is also a person of color. So it feels authentic and it feels comfortable working with them because it’s not just a white person who’s being like, "Ah, I just want to make something diverse or whatever."

But also, the other side of it is just like — I mean, yes, the industry is becoming more and more diverse, but there is also backlash to that where every time there’s a person of color — when you get a writing job, people would have no problem telling you to your face that you got that because you're a person of color. They love doing that, even if that’s not true. They're like, "I'm so glad they hired you. We really needed someone like that." It’s just like, I feel like I'm talented enough to not be hired just because of the color of my skin, but OK. Also, just hiring one person of color in a room full of white people, and then being like, "well, we did it everyone. We have one person. Look at that."

"We fixed racism."

Exactly, yeah. "This show is very diverse." Then also as a person of color, if you are in a room full of white people, then you have — every time there’s a hot take on racism or anything that happens in the community, people will look at you, waiting for you to say something. It’s just like, OK, I mean, I am definitely a person of color, but I cannot talk for other people of color. We’re still diverse, too.

I can't speak for the African-American community. I cannot speak for the Latino community. I can talk about my experience. But they want you to just embody all of that at the same time and have takes on it, and it’s just like, this is impossible. I can't do that. Maybe hire other people from those communities, too.

Just to go to your family, you haven’t been able to see them in a while, right?

Yes, that’s correct.

Is there a way for you to see them soon?

Yeah. The plan is in October of this year, that’s when I get my green card. Getting my green card is obviously a relief because the reason why I haven’t been able to leave the country for five years is because my asylum was pending and if I leave, then it means that I abandoned my case and they’ll just close it. So I wasn’t allowed to leave the country. But now with the green card, I can come and go as I may, as long as I don’t visit Libya because I can't do that until I become a citizen.

But my plan is once I get my green card, then I'm going to go and meet with them in a neighboring country, either like Egypt or somewhere else that they can just drive to from Libya where we can meet. I'm really looking forward to that, because back to your question about how immigration is different now from that past, one of the things is the travel ban. Because Libya is on the travel ban list and my family couldn’t come here. Even if they wanted to, they can't come here to see me because it’s just not feasible. They're not allowed in.

So you couldn’t leave the U.S. and they couldn’t travel to the U.S.?

Exactly. Yes. So there's no way of us seeing one another until I get my green card.

That must be so hard.

It is, yes.

Do they like your standup? Do they watch it if it comes on YouTube?

Yeah, they do. It’s funny because both of my parents — my dad doesn’t speak one word of English and my mom doesn’t know how to speak it that well. They never bothered to learn it or anything. But they’ve watched my standup and they have my younger sister, who speaks English fluently, just translate everything I say. I hope that she's doing a good job of that. But yeah, they like it. They do really enjoy it. My mom is very nice. She’s like, "ahh, I can hear people laughing, so I'm sure it’s good."

By Rachel Leah

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