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US lawmakers slam govt agency for turban checks

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
September 27, 2007 08:56 IST
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Close on the heels of a blistering missive by Congressman Tom Lantos, founding co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warning the Transportation Security Administration not to indulge in religious profiling of Sikhs even as he attacked it for changing the screening procedures to include searches of turbans, several other lawmakers, both in the House and Senate, have also slammed the agency.

At the urging of the Sikh-American community led on this particular issue by the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Sikh Coalition, the lawmakers signed on to a joint letter to TSA Administrator Kip Hawley and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, saying that "a mandatory turban pat-down is tantamount to racial and religious profiling and unacceptable in our democracy,"and that "we request an explanation of the reasons behind the change and a description of the TSA's process for developing, evaluating, and approving these new procedures."

The lawmakers called on Hawley and Chertoff to explain aspects of this policy and how and why it was implemented that has caused so much embarrassment and humiliation to several Sikhs at airports around the country and to put in place screening procedures that preserve both religious freedom and security.

"It would be intolerable if the new policy has indeed been implemented, whether intended or not, in this matter," they said.

The House missive initiated by Congressman Mike Honda, California Democrat, chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, was also signed by Congressman John Conyers, Michigan Democrat, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, chair of the House Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection, and Congressman Bobby Scott, Virginia Democrat, who chairs the Civil Rights Task Force of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

In their letter, which was equally harsh as the one sent by Lantos, the lawmakers in expressing concerns over the TSA's recent change of its screening policy for headwear, said, "We are concerned that the change was made without community consultation that has been characteristic of past policy changes, and that greater discretion for searching headwear without proper guidance for Transportation Security Officers, has led to racial and religious profiling."

While commending the TSA's extensive engaging with Sikh and other communities after the terror attacks of 9/11 "to ensure that any new screening policy would strike a fair balance between protecting civil rights and liberties of all passengers and the need for greater airport security," the lawmakers said, "We are puzzled by why this screening policy with respect to headwear was changed in early August without consultation with Sikh-Americans and other relevant community groups."

Honda and the other lawmakers also argued that "moreover, this policy may have the unintended effect of misdirecting our valuable law enforcement resources. If this new policy was drafted to address the potential for improvised explosive devices that are non-metallic, a screening policy should not solely target turbans, but all articles of clothing that could hide a potential threat device."

"By directing TSOs to target head coverings, and specifically turbans, we are not only discriminating based on religion, but are also potential overlooking other articles of clothing that could just as easily hide an IED," they said.

"Furthermore, if improper guidance is causing TSOs to focus on all turbaned passengers simply because they are wearing turbans, we are concerned that TSOs will miss the truly dangerous people who seek to do our country harm," they said.

The lawmakers reminded Haley and Chertoff that "our country was built on the proud tradition of religious pluralism," and pointed out that "some of the first immigrants to the United States were themselves fleeing religious persecution," and called on them that even as the TSA continues to refine its screening policies that "you take into account both national security issues and the religious concerns of all Americans."

The letter by the Senators, initiated by Senator Richard Durbin, Illinois Democrat, and co-signed by Senators Barack Obama, also an Illinois Democrat; Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat; Jeff Bingaman, New Mexico Democrat, said, "Sikhs view their turbans as an important connection to God that covers a very private and personal part of their body."

"Consequently," the Senators wrote, "asking a Sikh to remove his turban, or similarly to unwind his religiously required, uncut hair, in the absence of a similar requirement for all other passengers that have successfully passed through metal detectors to remove articles of clothing for inspection, is disparate treated and must be discontinued."

They said that "based on the limited information available and the recent experiences of several Sikh travellers, it appears that they are being singled out for secondary screenings solely on the basis of physical manifestations of their religious beliefs."

The Senators called for a copy of the new screening procedures, "a detailed explanation of how the procedures will be implemented, and the reasoning for this policy change."

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
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