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7 Sep, 2009

Civil Liberties Group Blasts Racial Profiling In U.S. Travel

A major report published by the American Civil Liberties Union last month has criticised the continued prevalence of alleged racial profiling at U.S. airports and border crossings as well as the treatment of those wearing Sikh turbans and Muslim head coverings.

“Since September 11, 2001, new forms of racial profiling have affected a growing number of people of color in the U.S., including members of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities,” says the report, “The Persistence of Racial and Ethnic Profiling in the United States.”

“The historic fight against discrimination and racial bias in the United States continues and has perhaps become more challenging in the 21st century,” it says.

Written by Chandra Bhatnagar, a staff attorney with the ACLU Human Rights Program, as the principal author, the report was reviewed and edited by program director Jamil Dakwar. It was submitted to the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

It says that the prevalence of racial profiling on the federal, state and local levels documented in the report “represents only the tip of the iceberg.”

In an entire section devoted to profiling at airports and border crossings, the report says, “For Muslim, Arab and South Asian people who enter the United States, entry can come at a high cost for both citizens and non-citizens alike. Muslims, Arabs and South Asians, including those assumed to be Muslim based on their appearance, are frequently pulled aside by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and questioned about their faith, friends, family, and even political opinions.

“Travelers have reported their cell phones, computers, personal papers, business cards and books being taken and, many believe, copied by the CBP agents. Even U.S. citizens have been threatened with referral to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

Often, in order to travel abroad for business, pleasure or to see family, Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians are forced to submit to lengthy and humiliating searches and have their families, business contacts and personal papers subject to governmental scrutiny.

“As a result, business travelers have reduced their trips abroad and individuals have left personal papers, cell phones, and laptops at home to avoid the intensive and unwarranted searches by CBP.”

According to the report, “Many Muslim, Arab, and South Asian travelers have been told that their names are on government lists and cannot be cleared. Far from being mere inconveniences, these stops are intrusive and humiliating and interfere with citizens’ rights to privacy and re-entry.”

It noted that in August 2007, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) released a series of new guidelines intended to serve as standard operating procedures for security screening at airports around the U.S.

“These new screening procedures singled out Sikh turbans and Muslim head coverings to be screened with higher scrutiny, even though no evidence existed that these objects were being used to hide harmful or dangerous items.

“The new procedures led to widespread profiling and abuse of Sikhs at airports where they were required to remove their turbans, have their turbans roughly patted down by Transportation Security Officers (TSO), and face additional screening procedures.

“After continuous negotiations with three Sikh organizations to combat the unclear, inconsistent, and unfair application of TSA operating procedures, a new set of options for screening Sikhs and their turbans was negotiated and issued by the TSA in October 2007.”

However, the report said, this policy “has been implemented with questionable success. Sikhs have reported that wide-scale differences and inconsistencies exist between airports, and that the discretionary nature of screening procedures coupled with a lack of training has led to a failure to curtail abuses and profiling of Sikhs at airports.”

It adds, “Muslim women have faced similar profiling and discrimination. Because the federal government has not adequately publicized the existence of or trained TSA agents in its policy on “religious and cultural sensitivity,” women who wear Muslim religious attire (including the hijab and other head coverings) have experienced profiling, harassment, and inappropriate and invasive searches.

“These incidents underscore that ordinary, law-abiding people who are or appear to be Muslim, Sikh, Arab and South Asian continue to experience discrimination and differential treatment by airlines and government officials when they are engaging in air travel — even if the individuals do nothing to warrant heightened security scrutiny.”

It adds, “Both Democratic and Republican administrations have acknowledged that racial profiling is unconstitutional, socially corrupting and counter-productive, yet this unjustifiable practice remains a stain on American democracy and an affront to the promise of racial equality.

The report reminded President Barack Obama that as an Illinois State Senator, he broadly championed state legislation to end racial profiling, and as a U.S. Senator he co-sponsored the End Racial Profiling Act. He appointed an Attorney General to the Department of Justice who has stated that racial profiling is not good law enforcement and is committed to combating this practice.

The organisations involved expressed “hope that its findings and recommendations will be seriously considered by the Obama administration, by Congress, and by state and local governments in the effort to bolster the fight against racial profiling.”

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