HomeAsian AmericansIndian-Origin NASA Scientist Detained and Forced to Unlock Phone

Indian-Origin NASA Scientist Detained and Forced to Unlock Phone

Sidd Bikkannavar
NASA employee Sidd Bikkannavar is seen on the right in this picture from his Facebook page.

An Indian American who works for NASA says he was detained at the U.S. border during his return trip to the U.S. from South America four days after President Trump issued his now stalled Muslim ban.

Sidd Bikkannavar, 35, described on social media how federal customs officers at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston also forced him to unlock his PIN-protected work phone before they let him through.

Bikkannavar was born in Pasadena and currently works as a NASA engineer, designing technology for space telescopes such as the James Webb telescope, which will be launched in 2018.

He left the U.S. for Patagonia in early January, under the Obama administration, to pursue his hobby of racing solar-powered cars. By the time he returned, Donald Trump had already issued the executive order on travel into the United States.

“I was cautiously telling him I wasn’t allowed to give it (pin) out, because I didn’t want to seem like I was not cooperating,” said Bikkannavar, who explained to Verge  his phone may have contained sensitive NASA information. “I told him I’m not really allowed to give the passcode; I have to protect access. But he insisted they had the authority to search it.”

Nothing about Bikkannavar should have raised red flags for Customs and Border Protection – he is a natural-born US citizen who has never visited any of the countries specified on the immigration ban, and a 10-year employee of a well-known federal agency.

“I don’t know what to think about this,” Bikkannavar wrote on social media. “I was caught a little off guard by the whole thing.”

Aside from the issue of profiling that the incident raised, it also affected Bikkannavar’s work situation as he had been required to protect access to the phone.

“Sometimes I get stopped and searched, but never anything like this. Maybe you could say it was one huge coincidence that this thing happens right at the travel ban.”

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