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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

New TSA policy still allows racial profiling of Sikhs

It is humiliating and demeaning. It is like being strip-searched.

That is how some Sikhs describe airport security patting down their turbans or telling them to remove the sacred headgear.

The Transportation Security Administration and the Sikh Coalition worked together to create a new TSA policy that went into effect last October in response to 32 civil rights violation complaints filed by the coalition last summer. Despite the new policy giving Sikhs more options in searches, the coalition has received 78 complaints of civil rights violations since then, raising questions about the effectiveness of the new policy’s implementation.

“There is still a lot of racial profiling going on,” said Neha Singh, advocacy director and staff attorney for the Sikh Coalition in New York. “We are concerned with how the new policy is being implemented in different airports.”

Under the new policy, Sikhs do not necessarily have to remove their turbans, and they have the option to conduct the pat-down themselves.

Though the new policy is better for Sikhs, Neha Singh said, its implementation is far from perfect. A few of the 78 complaints filed since October were egregious examples of discrimination, she said, but most of them were claims of mandatory turban checks.

“There seems to be confusion among the TSA workers,” Singh said. “It seems the waters have been muddied because the policy has changed several times.”

Most of the new complaints will be bundled into a quarterly report and given to the TSA, Singh said. The goal is for more civil rights advocacy and better implementation of the policy.

The TSA Office of Civil Rights was unavailable for comment.

Some Sikhs, such as Prabhjit Singh, just want the random search to be random.
Prabhjit Singh, 27, of Germantown, Md., travels extensively for his work as a motivational speaker for real estate agencies. He is also one of the original 32 complainants from last summer.

On a trip from Baltimore to Alabama in August, he passed through the metal detector without problem but was told that he was subject to a mandatory pat-down of his turban, according to the official complaint. When he informed the TSA workers that his rights were being violated, they became hostile and told him that he would not be traveling that day.

Prabhjit Singh eventually submitted to the pat-down and was allowed to travel but not before being yelled at more by the TSA workers, he said.

“I just remember looking around on the plane,” he said, “and thinking how unfair. No one else had to go through what I just went through.”

When he traveled under the new policy, in December, Prabhjit Singh again passed through the metal detector without problem but was asked to step to the side. He was allowed to pat down his own turban but believes he still was a victim of ethnic profiling.

“Every time I travel,” Prabhjit Singh said. “I know that I’m going to be searched, which would be fine if it was really random.”[Link]

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