The episode also raised larger questions about what documents legal immigrants are expected to carry with them to prove their status.
Elshieky said he came to the United States on a visa for exchange students in 2014. Later that year, as civil war gripped his hometown of Benghazi, Libya — and threatened him personally — he applied for asylum, he said.
In October 2018, his application was accepted, according to documents viewed NBC News.
He was returning home to Portland from a performance in Pullman, Washington, on Sunday, and had transferred to a Greyhound in Spokane when two officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection boarded the bus and asked if he was an American citizen, he said.
“I said, ‘I’m a citizen of Libya,’” he recalled. “They said, ‘OK, come with us.’”
After removing him from the bus, the officers asked for his identification, Elshieky recalled. He said he told them he had a driver’s license from Oregon and a valid work authorization card — a document issued by U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services that refugees and other immigrants can show to employers.
Elshieky believed the work authorization card was more than sufficient to show his legal status. But the officers told him it wasn’t enough.
“Illegals get those all the time,” he recalled one of the officers saying.
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He said an officer asked if he had a copy of his asylum approval document, a three-page letter with a large card from Customs and Border Protection attached to it. Elshieky had the document at his home.
The officers made a phone call and provided details from the authorization card, Elshieky said. Afterwards, one of them said there was no record of his asylum claim.
“I said, ‘What about the work permit — is it valid or not?’” Elshieky recalled asking the officer. “He wouldn’t answer.”
Elshieky wasn’t sure what to do. So he threatened to call his lawyer — and one of the officers told him to remove his hands from his pockets.
“None of it made sense,” Elshieky said.
Eventually, the officers returned his ID and work authorization, he added, and told him to have his “papers” with him next time.
“Which means nothing because I did, and they said they were fake,” Elshieky wrote on Twitter.
Through a spokesman, Customs and Border Protection described the incident as a misunderstanding: All immigrants over 18 must carry documents showing they’re in the United States legally, the agency said, and neither a driver’s license nor a work authorization permit satisfy this requirement.
Elshieky’s asylum documents “would have worked to resolve this inquiry quickly,” the agency said.
The agency did not respond to Elshieky’s descriptions of the officers’ alleged conduct.
Bill Holsten, a lawyer and executive director of North Texas Human Rights Initiative, said the episode highlights a larger problem with how asylum documentation is handled.
Often, he said, the government doesn’t provide a solid record of a person's asylum status — but law enforcement officers are still required to figure it out on the fly.
They’re “not adequately trained to do it,” Holsten said, adding: “These things are complicated. These are things judges should do.”
Even in a case like Elshieky’s, where he had asylum approval documents at home, Holsten said Elshieky shouldn’t be expected to “carry around his entire legal file.”
“What happens if his suitcase gets stolen?” Holsten said. “The government loses people’s original documents all the time.”
Still, Holsten added, his organization advises asylum-seekers to always carry the “best piece of evidence that they have” showing their status to avoid situations like Elshieky’s.
“Either way there’s a risk,” he said. “We tell people to carry them though, because the risk of being detained is worse.”
Anne Chandler, executive director of the Tahirih Justice Center in Houston, said she has clients who became naturalized citizens but remain terrified of not having the appropriate documents with them at all times in case they’re stopped by immigration authorities.
“I know so many naturalized citizens that are carrying old immigration paperwork and passports in their glove boxes,” she said. Once people finish their immigration cases, shouldn’t they “have a right to travel and feel free in this country?”
Tim Stelloh is a reporter for NBC News, based in California.