Prabhjot Singh has flow out of San Francisco International Airport nine times since December. Nine times he was pulled aside for secondary screening of the turban required by his Sikh religion.
"I'm generally the only one subjected to secondary screening," said Singh, a marketing executive for a software company who travels for work. "People are staring, like asking, 'What did this guy do?'"
A civil rights group says targeting passengers like Singh continues at the San Francisco airport, which the group said was the worst in dealing with Sikh passengers. The alleged racial profiling went on despite the Sikh Coalition's work with the Transportation Security Administration and a positive change in the federal guidelines — at least on paper, said Neha Singh, the coalition's advocacy director.
"The issue now is implementation, making sure the policy we worked hard on is being implemented on the ground," said Neha Singh, who is not related to Prabhjot Singh.
Of the 113 voluntary reports by Sikh travelers sent to the advocacy organization between Dec. 1, 2007, and March 31, 2008, 80 were regarding additional screening.
Of those, 28 were at the San Francisco airport, the coalition said.
Sikh Coalition representatives believe that TSA screeners at the San Francisco airport were misinterpreting new rules giving them the discretion to check turbans as mandates to check them every time.
The TSA issued guidelines in August subjecting flyers wearing head coverings — such as cowboy hats, berets and turbans — to secondary screenings at airport checkpoints.
Protests from the Sikh community, which felt unfairly targeted, led to a collaboration between the Sikh Coalition and the TSA and a revision of the rule in October. The new federal guidelines give screeners more discretion, allowing flyers to opt for a pat-down of their headgear and options less intrusive than the removal of a turban — something Sikhs only do in private.
TSA spokesman Nico Melendez said his agency has received less than two dozen complaints relating to secondary screening of Sikh passengers at SFO since October, adding that the standards in San Francisco are the same as in other airports. A spokesman at San Francisco International Airport spokesman referred calls to Melendez.
"A private screening is offered to passengers, but it's about providing security," Melendez said. "We see enough items coming through the checkpoint to know what's common and what's uncommon."
The Sikh Coalition also identified airports whose screeners were praised for their cultural sensitivity — in Los Angeles, Portsmouth, N.H., and St. Augustine, Fla. [Link]
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