Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Homecoming for Muslim-Americans: Ethnic Profiling

By William Fisher

A Muslim legal advocacy group today painted “a very disturbing picture of a systematic and widespread practice of federal agents targeting Americans – particularly Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim – for deeply intrusive, personal questions and searches about their politics, faith, finances, charitable giving and associations with lawful organizations, all without any evidence or even suspicion of wrongdoing.”

In a new report, Muslim Advocates – a sister not-for-profit of the National Association of Muslim Lawyers (NAML) – charges that law-abiding Muslim, Arab and South Asian Americans returning home after overseas travel are experiencing “widespread, systematic and profound privacy intrusions by federal agents at the nation’s borders and airports.”

The report, entitled “Unreasonable Intrusions: Investigating the Politics, Faith & Finances of Americans Returning Home,” says U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Customs & Border Protection (CBP) agents have questioned individuals about their political beliefs, religious practices, and charities they support. Agents have also sought to review and copy business cards, credit cards, and data on laptops, digital cameras and cell phones.

“These interrogations and searches are taking place without evidence or even suspicion that the travelers have engaged in wrongdoing,” Muslim Advocates says.

“Far from serving legitimate aims, such profiling undermines security,
wasting scarce government resources and generating mountains of false leads, as well as eroding trust between law enforcement authorities and the public,” the report claims.

Other civil libertarians have also expressed concern about this issue. Typical is Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. He told IPS, "The question we need to ask is when will profiling because of race and ethnicity stop? Since 9/11 the harassment of Muslims and Muslim-Americans has been open and notorious."

He added, "Under the FBI guidelines issued in the waning days of the Bush administration, using racial and ethnic criteria as a basis for FBI investigation is permitted. One immediate action Obama must take -- get rid of those guidelines. This administration needs to issue regulations absolutely prohibiting such discrimination and harassment. Enough is enough!"

The Muslim Advocates report contains dozens of case histories of individuals who have been harassed by federal agents when returning home from overseas travel. These experiences have taken place at land crossings and international airports – from San Francisco to New York, Detroit to Houston. The victims are Americans, including the “young, old, male, female, a firefighter, military veterans, students, lawyers, doctors, senior executives with major high tech companies, and academic researchers at Ivy League institutions.”

“This assertion of power not only infringes fundamental constitutional rights and protections but undermines our nation's security,” the report charges.

Muslim Advocates proposes a series of policy revisions to “restore constitutional protections eroded by the status quo border security apparatus and allow ample authority for the government to conduct legitimate activities to protect our nation’s security.” These include suggestions for the executive branch and Congress.

The organization recommends that President Barack Obama should direct the Secretary of Homeland Security to review and reform CBP policies and practices that target Muslim, Arab and South Asian Americans for their First Amendment protected activities, beliefs and associations; and law enforcement and intelligence activities that impose disparate impacts on Muslim, Arab and South Asian American communities.

This agency review and related policies and data should be reported to relevant congressional committees and analyzed by the Inspector General of
the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in reports made publicly available to the extent feasible.

It also recommends that the president support the creation of a new position of Assistant Secretary for Civil Liberties and Civil Rights at DHS. The DHS’s current Officer for Civil Rights & Civil Liberties is a presidentially appointed position without Senate confirmation.

The Secretary of Homeland Security, the report says, should prohibit the use of race, ethnicity, national origin or religion in deciding upon the scope and
substance of investigatory or other law enforcement activity, except when there is trustworthy information, relevant to the locality and timeframe, that links a person of a particular race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion to an identified criminal incident or scheme, and where reasonable suspicion, based on factors unrelated to race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion,
is present.

DHS should also prohibit CBP from using travel patterns as a pretext for profiling according to race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, political beliefs, religious practices, associations with and contributions to lawful charitable organizations in interrogations.

The report’s recommendations to Congress include enacting legislation
to limit arbitrary scrutiny by CBP and ban on the use of race, ethnicity, national origin or religion in deciding upon the scope and substance of investigatory or other law enforcement activity.

At the Department of Justice, (DOJ) the Attorney General should include religion among the bases upon which profiling is prohibited and clarify that race, ethnicity, national origin or religion should not be considered in
deciding upon the scope and substance of investigatory or other law enforcement activity,

In a related development, more Islamic and civil liberties organizations have signed on to a statement by the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections saying it is considering suspending outreach relations with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) over recent incidents in which American mosques and Muslim groups have been targeted. The taskforce (AMT) is a coalition of major national Islamic organizations.

The new signatories include the Coordinating Council of Muslim Organizations, which represents more than 50 Washington, D.C.-area mosques, Islamic schools and Muslim organizations.

The FBI recently acknowledged that it had placed an informant inside a mosque to gather information about possible terror-related activities.

"Constructive relations with any law enforcement agency must be based on mutual respect and trust," said CCMO Chair Asma Hanif. "We hope that the FBI addresses these crucial issues so that trust can be restored and relations maintained."

To date, 34 organizations and many community activists and scholars have
endorsed AMT's statement.

Meanwhile, a powerful Republican lawmaker, Rep. Peter King of New York, responded to a Department of Homeland Security report about domestic right-wing extremism by saying that DHS "has never put out a report talking about look out for mosques. Look out for Islamic terrorists in our country. Look out for the fact that very few Muslims come forward to cooperate with the police."

"The fact is, the Muslim community does not cooperate with law enforcement," said King, the ranking Republican on the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee.