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Why a New Jersey mayor was uninvited from a White House celebration

Mohamed Khairullah, the mayor of Prospect Park, N.J.
Courtesy Mohamed Khairullah
Mohamed Khairullah, the mayor of Prospect Park, N.J.

Updated May 3, 2023 at 3:26 PM ET

The White House organized a belated celebration for Eid al-Fitar earlier this week and invited hundreds of prominent American Muslims. Then, it uninvited one of them: Mohamed Khairullah, the mayor of Prospect Park, N.J. He's the longest serving Muslim mayor in this country, and he was given no explanation as to why.

Khairullah told NPR's Leila Fadel on Morning Edition that he contacted the Council on American Islamic Relations shortly after he was disinvited to the event. The council informed him that he was on a "secret list," which was leaked earlier this year.

"I was added to the list in 2019, which put things together in my mind because all my traveling difficulties started in 2019," Khairullah said. "So it's at this point, for some reason, I am on a secret list that the government is denying exists and it's caused me and my family trouble."

At a White House press briefing this week, when asked about Khairullah being uninvited from the event, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre repeatedly deferred to the U.S. Secret Service.

For its part, the Secret Service put out a statement from spokesperson Anthony Guglielmi: "While we regret any inconvenience this may have caused, the mayor was not allowed to enter the White House complex this evening. Unfortunately we are not able to comment further on the specific protective means and methods used to conduct our security operations at the White House."

The White House is also noting its ongoing efforts to counter Islamophobia and other forms of discrimination. On Tuesday administration officials held a listening session with Muslim community leaders, including the government affairs director of CAIR.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On what the "secret list" is

Leila Fadel: Now, this secret list you're referring to is a watch list, and the 2019 leaked list you're talking about was a hack. And on that list, the majority of those names are Arab Muslim sounding names based on what was on those hacked list. Do you think this is a situation of profiling?

Mohamed Khairullah: The fact that the list is mostly Arabs and Muslims, the fact that we have no way to address why we are on the list is definitely profiling and a lack of due process. And that's why a federal judge deemed that list to be unlawful. However, our federal government continues to use that list despite the fact that it was deemed unlawful.

Leila Fadel: There will be people listening to you who say these types of lists and this type of secrecy is necessary for the national security of this country, even if it is uncomfortable for you. What do you say to those people?

Mohamed Khairullah: As an elected official, I've been mayor for 17 years. I've been very close to former presidents, elected officials. This is not a very smart list. It's not an intelligent list. It's a dragnet that's not very effective. It uses racial profiling, ethnic profiling. So if the attempt is to prevent me from meeting people, I've met these people plenty of times when the list was not used.

So I think we need a more intelligent way of protecting the nation rather than somebody writing a report about me that I can't know about, or and I'm assuming that's how I got on. And I can't defend myself. I can't defend my name. I think inconvenience has to be justified, not just throw in a dragnet that's going to inconvenience 1.5 million people.

On the White House's response

They have been silent. When asked at the press conference, they referred the matter back to the Secret Service. However, this is a list that was created back in 2003 by President George W. Bush. So it is something that the executive branch can do something about. And we hope that the Biden administration can finally disband this list and correct the course of how things are going and this racial profiling.

On how being on the watch list has affected him

So the first time I started experiencing difficulties was when we were going on a trip to Istanbul, which we didn't think [much] about. But when we returned from Istanbul, at JFK, the agents were there at the door and they still said, "Oh, you are being randomly selected."

So we went with them and I had to end the conversation, because the agent flat out asked me, "Did you meet any terrorists?" As if the answer was going to be yes or no, to which I said, "Listen, at this point I'm ending this conversation, I need a lawyer." And obviously because of that, he said, "Do you understand? I'm going to take your phone. We're going to strip search you." So, I'm like, do what you got to do, but this conversation is over.

On what it's like to be selected for a search at US airports

It's humiliating, to say the least. I mean, I could tell you when I was coming back from Canada in 2021, I was detained and in a glass room and my toddler daughter would stand at the door asking me why she can't be with me. And I'm being held there for about two or three hours. There's no explanation. And how do you explain to a child that your government is detaining your dad for reasons that he can't explain, that the government won't explain? It's just baffling. It's in a country where we have institutions and we have a great constitution that protects the liberties of people to be targeted because of my name, ethnicity and religion is just unbelievable. And that's basically what my crimes are.

To be 100% randomly selected every single time I go to the airport is just not a coincidence.

Miranda Kennedy and Amra Pasic contributed editing. contributed to this story

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Destinee Adams
Destinee Adams (she/her) is a temporary news assistant for Morning Edition and Up First. In May 2022, a month before joining Morning Edition, she earned a bachelor's degree in Multimedia Journalism at Oklahoma State University. During her undergraduate career, she interned at the Stillwater News Press (Okla.) and participated in NPR's Next Generation Radio. In 2020, she wrote about George Floyd's impact on Black Americans, and in the following years she covered transgender identity and unpopular Black history in the South. Adams was born and raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.