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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sikh American Groups Meet with TSA about Turban Screening Policy

TSA Commits to First Steps; Erroneous New Policy Remains in Effect

On Monday, representatives from the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), the Sikh Coalition, and UNITED SIKHS, met with officials from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) regarding the Sikh American community’s concerns about the TSA’s recently revised headwear screening procedure. While our organizations are encouraged by remedial steps proposed by the TSA, we remain concerned that the new policy that singles out head-coverings, specifically the turban and equates it to other forms of non-religious head-coverings, remains in effect.

SALDEF, the Sikh Coalition, and UNITED SIKHS appreciate the steps that the TSA is taking to remedy the situation. Our organizations are committed to working with the TSA to find a solution to the Sikh American community’s concerns, while keeping all Americans safe. However, we remain concerned that:

* The new TSA-issued screener guidance specifically cites the turban as an item that should be subject to secondary screening;
* The new procedures grant screeners too much latitude to subject a Sikh to additional screening, a turban pat-down, or to remove the turban; and
* The new policy endangers all Americans by focusing critical security resources on headwear when threat items that can be found anywhere on the body.

In preparation for the meeting, the three Sikh American organizations submitted a joint memorandum to the TSA late last week. The memorandum discussed the impact of the new screening procedure, introduced on August 4, 2007, on the Sikh turban. The memorandum proposed measures to revise the procedures with the objective of eliminating its disproportionate impact on the Sikh turban. At the meeting, a high level TSA official stated: “I want to apologize for not getting information out about the [policy] change on head coverings specifically out to [the Sikh American] community before the roll out. We will get better, I promise you.”

During the meeting, the TSA promised to take the following steps, in response to our concerns:

* The TSA will require all officers to offer private screening to anyone undergoing secondary screening of a head covering.
* The TSA will distribute a fact sheet for airline travelers to explain the new airport head-covering screening procedure.
* The TSA will conduct cultural sensitivity training for all airport screeners, including in person and online training about Sikh Americans featuring the On Common Ground training video. The TSA will also redistribute the “Common Sikh American Head Coverings” posters to all airports.
* The TSA will revise its public-facing website to make it easier for air travelers to file discrimination claims.
* The TSA will continue to review the guidance to the Standard Operating Procedure to determine whether its current procedures are necessary to ensure the public’s safety.

TSA also explained that persons who clear the “puffer machine” are not ordinarily subjected to secondary screening. Unfortunately, this technology is currently only available at select terminals at one-tenth of the nation’s airports.

SALDEF, the Sikh Coalition, and UNITED SIKHS recommend that the Sikh American community take the following steps when traveling:

* If requested to undergo a pat down, accept the TSA officer’s offer of a private screening area.
* If available, request to go through a “puffer machine” rather than a pat down.

Also in attendance at the meeting were representatives of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, Sikh Dharma, and the World Sikh Council. [SALDEF Press Release]

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