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US: Homeland Security addresses concerns about racial profiling

February 16, 2010 21:54 IST

Leaders from South Asian and Arab American communities and from religious groups met recently with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to discuss joint efforts against domestic extremists.

They also brought up concerns over discrimination and racial and religious profiling in the wake of rules imposed after the Christmas Day terrorism attempt by Nigerian suicide bomber Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab.

Napolitano's office said the meeting was "to discuss ways the department can increase engagement, dialogue and coordination, and enhance information sharing" with faith and community-based groups. It described the leaders as "key partners in homeland security."

Napolitano said that in crises, leaders of faith-based communities and other grassroots organisations often play 'a critical role in the broad and timely dissemination of accurate information.' She argued that strengthening such partnerships 'will allow improved information sharing and better coordination in preparing for, assessing and responding to threats.'

The DHS said Napolitano and the leaders examined capabilities like the Secure Community Network, a model for information sharing designed to quickly improve overall security awareness in a crisis -- and ways to expand and enhance current initiatives.

Deepa Iyer, executive director, South Asian Americans Leading Together, one of the groups that met with Napolitano, told Rediff-India Abroad that among the important issues raised was racial and religious profiling. She said after the Underwear Bomber's terrorism attempt to blow up a Delta Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, the US authorities started to target travelers from 13 countries. This, she said, amounted to targeting people based on country of origin or where they passed through.

"We felt that that was not constitutional, and so, we've been talking to them about that," she said.

Last month, led by SAALT, several South Asia organisations had argued the Transport Security Administration's new screening standards made effective January 4 at American airports smacked of racial and religious profiling.

Iyer acknowledged that DHS' priority was domestic and homegrown terrorism in the communities the coalition represented. "They are interested in making sure that domestic extremists within the country are hindered, which is what even the coalition's leaders wanted. But, we wanted to make sure that it has to be done in a very positive and meaningful manner. In addition to looking at that issue, we also had to look at some of the targeting and profiling that's been happening in the community since 9/11 and has now increased since Christmas day," she said, adding that there could be regular conversations to address these concerns.

She said the meeting was positive and "a very good first step." But, she pointed out that "it's one thing for the government to say, 'Work with us, help us', etc. But the government also has to understand that some of their policies can have a negative impact on communities."

Aziz Haniffa Washington, DC