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23 Mar, 2012

New York City an “Epicenter of Systemic Racial Profiling” – South Asian Groups Report

Priya Murthy, Policy Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT)

New York, March 22, 2012 – The last ten years have been needlessly difficult for South Asians living in New York.

South Asians, and in particular, Sikhs and Muslims, have faced ten years of profiling, ten years of negative encounters with law enforcement and immigration officers.  These encounters have left deep scars. Here is how one 18-year-old Bangladeshi student in Queens relates his experience of being arrested over a baseless charge. “I felt like I was being threatened more than just being questioned,” he said. “I was just always scared.”

And he was worried that he’d now have an arrest record, which would adversely affect his chances of getting a job. He was also upset that his parents were ashamed by the arrest.

This week, a coalition of South Asian organizations is releasing a report, In Our Own Words: Narratives of South Asian New Yorkers Affected by Racial and Religious Profiling. Here you will find other stories of fellow New Yorkers who, like this Bangladeshi student, have suffered from prejudice over the last decade.

The encounters South Asians have with law enforcement have made them question how they lead their lives. Should I join my college’s Muslim Students Association? Should I wear my turban or hijab on this flight? Should I call the police about a crime I witnessed? These daily decisions are ones that many might take for granted, but for South Asian, Muslim, Sikh and Arab community members, a particular choice could mean being humiliated in public at the airport, being interrogated by the FBI or immigration authorities, or being worried about going to school.

The psychological impact of ten years of ongoing scrutiny and targeting on our community members cannot be understated.  Our collective psyche has been shaped by the experiences of living in post-9/11 America, and future generations of South Asians, Muslims, Sikhs and Arab Americans will be forced to wrangle with questions of identity, history, shame, and our place in America.

At the same time, our report also suggests that change can occur, both by government agencies and law enforcement, as well as within our schools and families.  We have a responsibility and the opportunity to create a different future for the next generation of America’s children, regardless of their ethnicity, color, or religious affiliation. We must work to change both policy and public sentiment in our classrooms, workplaces, and community spaces to ensure that children feel safe and wanted, acknowledged and valued.

In today’s post-9/11 world, we cannot aim for any less.

Priya Murthy is Policy Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), which is part of a collaborative of seven organizations that recently released a report on profiling in New York City. Download the full report here.

A selection of quotes from the report

  • In the eyes of the world, New York City serves as the quintessential emblem of the vibrant diversity within the United States and the gateway to the American Dream. Amid the city’s mosaic of residents – including African Americans, Asians, Europeans, Latinos, Middle Easterners and those from the Caribbean – South Asians have long established an indelible presence in the city. Yet, after the devastating attacks of September 11th, 2001 on the World Trade Center, Muslims and anyone perceived to be Muslim became the public enemy literally overnight. New York City soon shifted to become one of the epicenters of systemic racial and religious profiling against these communities. This occurred through arrests, questioning, surveillance, and detention. Such sanctioned discrimination carried out by law enforcement has fostered stereotypes that cast community members as terrorists based on religion, national origin, and ethnicity. Even ten years after September 11th, backlash continues to thrive in the form of hate crimes in neighborhoods, bias-based bullying of students in classrooms, and discrimination at the workplace.
  • South Asians encounter profiling so routinely that many have altered their behavior in an attempt to avoid additional scrutiny. For example, among the subset of questionnaire respondents who indicated the frequency at which they are subjected to secondary security screening by TSA agents, 25% stated being selected more than half the time they traveled. As a result, many respondents reported changing their activities, such as flying less frequently or removing religious attire prior to travel.
  • Profiling is a law enforcement tactic that connects individuals to crimes based on characteristics unrelated to criminal conduct, such as race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, and perceived immigration status. Federal, state, and local law enforcement officials often use these factors as predictors of criminal activity. historical and contemporary examples include the use of racial profiling when stopping African-American motorists, interrogating Latino travelers, and, more recently, the questioning, searching, and detention of South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, and Arab individuals. It is clear from all of these experiences that profiling is flawed because it diverts limited law enforcement resources; undermines trust between targeted communities and the government; and perpetuates public misconceptions and stereotypes of affected communities.
  • Perhaps the most iconic landmark of the United States is the Statue of Liberty – a welcoming beacon to our shores for many across the world. Yet, after September 11th, immigrants of all backgrounds were turned away and ferreted out by the government as never be- fore. In 2002, the government signaled its approach of equating im- migration enforcement with counterterrorism by charging the newly created agency, the Department of homeland Security (DhS), with authority over both arenas of policy. In the ensuing decade, these federal policies have wreaked havoc for local communities in New York City.
  • South Asians frequently encounter additional searches and questioning by CBP officials at U.S. ports of entry upon returning from trips abroad. Under current policies, CBP uses a two-track system for screening persons entering the country – one for American citizens and another for non-citizens. On either of these tracks, CBP agents may select a traveler for a secondary enhanced screening that can include an intrusive body and baggage searches, extensive questioning, and detention. South Asian travelers returning to or entering the U.S. for the first time have been targeted for detailed interrogation about political views, family, friends, financial transactions and religious beliefs. Their cell phones, computers, personal papers, business cards and books are searched and copied with virtually no evidence that an individual poses a threat; and they are often subjected to prolonged detention and referral to immigration authorities. Part of the reason why this occurs is the result of a 2008 guidance issued by CBP which states that “in the course of a border search, and absent individualized suspicion, officers can review and analyze the information transported by any individual attempting to enter, reenter, depart, pass through, or reside in the U.S.” In addition, the year prior to the issuance of this guidance, CBP lowered the threshold for invading passengers’ privacy from a “probable cause” to a “reasonable suspicion” standard.