Human Rights

War Brings Boom in Racial Profiling

People can now be searched, questioned, spied on, even detained without a lawyer on the basis of their race or religion alone.
For decades, African-Americans have joked bitterly about the "DWB" phenomenon for decades--the fact that at any time they are subject to being pulled over for the crime of Driving While Black.

It has only been in the past couple of years that the issue became recognized as a problem by police departments and politicians, resulting in money shelled out in civil rights lawsuits as well as sensitivity training and public relations campaigns by police departments across the country. In January 2003, the Maryland State Police settled a federal class action suit filed by the ACLU that had been going on for 10 years, agreeing to sweeping changes to prevent the profiling of minority motorists.

But just as the government is finally able to admit that it is wrong to arrest people for DWB, it seems a new crime has been invented as part of the War on Terrorism. Call it EWA or just EWI. Existing While Arab, or more generally Existing While Immigrant.

With the war on terrorism giving President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft carte blanche to do almost anything they want, civil liberties and rights have been stripped away from the American public as a whole, and in particular, Arab-Americans and immigrants--even legal residents.

Racial profiling is now considered legal policy and a valid strategy to fight terror. People can be searched, questioned, spied on, even detained without a lawyer on the basis of their race or religion alone. A Gallup poll taken shortly after the 9/11 attacks found that 60 percent of Americans supported racial profiling of Arabs at airports, and the Federal Motor Carrier Administration, which inspects trucks carrying hazardous materials, announced it would start searching Arab-looking drivers based on their race.

Experts on both the right and the left say that not only is racial profiling morally questionable, it is completely inefficient. They point out that the government is no more likely to catch a would-be terrorist by searching every Arab and immigrant than it is to find an armed robber by pulling over every black driver.

"It's not just a bad thing, it's ineffective," said Ed Yohnka, director of communications for the ACLU of Illinois. "It's distracting from the real work that police ought to be doing. And it divides communities -- the divisions created post-9/11 between Muslim and Southeast Asian communities and the police are very disturbing. It creates a kind of fear and anxiety in communities that doesn't serve any of us very well."

Generating Fear

Yohnka is currently working on two cases involving profiling of African-Americans -- one in which three African-American high school students were searched and interrogated about drugs while driving to a game with their white coach, for no reason other than their race. He says the profiling of Arabs is no less onerous.

As with the war on drugs and crime, much of the public has been convinced to accept racial profiling through scare tactics.

"People are more willing to support the notion of profiling Arabs and Muslims than they were pre-9/11," said Yohnka. "They're more willing to support that than the profiling of African-Americans or Latinos. It's demonstrative of a certain kind of fear, a fear that the government often creates."

Proponents of increased surveillance and restricted liberties point out that terrorism is a very real threat to the U.S. at this point in time, and therefore some extraordinary means are necessary.

Robert Levy, a senior fellow in constitutional studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, says that racial profiling in the war on terrorism is a tactic that should be considered, but carefully.

"I try to draw a distinction between criminal profiling by race and terrorist profiling by nationality," he said. "I think you can support terrorist profiling more easily than criminal profiling. The things you need to look at are three-fold: what is the potential benefit if profiling works, what is the imposition on innocent people and what is the potential for abuse?"

He said that in order for racial profiling to be considered logical, it would have to pass a cost-benefit analysis. The costs, meaning harm to innocent people, would have to be outweighed by the benefits, meaning the legitimate chances of apprehending a would-be terrorist. He doesn't think that a case can be made with regard to the war on terrorism -- so far the massive detentions and sweeps ordered by Ashcroft have failed to produce a single terrorism-related arrest.

Levy's colleague at the Cato Institute, Ted Galen Carpenter, notes that civil liberties infringements like racial profiling are even more troubling in the war on terrorism than in other conflicts since this promises to be an extremely long-term or even permanent "war."

"It depends on the conditions, and also the extent of the imposition," said Levy. "If it's to impose on parties who may be potentially innocent but the nature of the imposition is minimal, it's easier to take. I consider airport searches minimal-the damages are not that great when you're talking about having to take your shoe off. But if the extent of the imposition is more serious like detentions and incarcerations, I think it's entirely unjustified."

"Unfair Treatment and Unkind Words"

Nine days after the September 11 attacks, President Bush said, "No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith."

But racial profiling kicked in almost immediately after 9/11, first in the unofficial realm of discrimination, verbal insults and threats and hate crimes, then in official government policy. Average citizens carried out their own form of vigilante racial profiling in the wake of the attacks, with at least six Arab-Americans or Southeast Asians murdered around the country because of their ethnicity and countless hate-related assaults and acts of vandalism committed.

In Chicago alone, for example, 55 hate crimes were reported in which the attacks were mentioned and at least once an angry mob descended on a mosque. Mustapha Zemkour, a Chicago-area taxi driver, was beaten as his assailants yelled, "This is what you get, you mass murderer." The U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights division has opened 403 federal investigations of anti-Arab hate crimes. Employment discrimination has also been common-the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission logged 671 complaints of anti-Arab related discrimination as of October 2002.

In November 2001, Ashcroft steamrolled over public opinion and congressional opposition to institute a dragnet policy wherein 5,000 men of Arab descent were detained and questioned. This despite the fact he was advised against racial profiling by a panel of law enforcement specialists, as revealed in the internal memo "Assessing Behaviors" published in The Boston Globe ("Memo warns against use of profiling as defense," 10/12/2001).

Some of the men ended up being held for months with no evidence of wrongdoing before finally being released; others ended up being deported or detained indefinitely on minor visa violations. Many police departments around the country refused to participate in the dragnet, which did not end up yielding a single terrorism-related suspect and only about 20 visa violation charges. Nonetheless Ashcroft instituted a second dragnet of 3,000 non-immigrant men.

A resolution passed six days after the attacks allows them to be held for 48 hours without charges, or longer in "emergency situations." Amnesty International has released a report detailing abuses and poor conditions these detainees have suffered, including solitary confinement and torture by guards in general population jails.

In June 2002, Ashcroft ordered the registration and fingerprinting of all legal visitors and immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia upon arrival in the U.S.

From December 2002 through February 2003, all men over age 16 from a list of Muslim countries and North Korea were required to register with the government, be fingerprinted and report any change in address, schooling or employment. Those who failed to register can be deported, even if they are legal residents, while many of those who did register were immediately arrested and interrogated for minor visa problems or just general "suspiciousness."

"Essentially the U.S. government has made sweeping and blanket accusations against people from foreign countries who the U.S. has foreign policy issues with," said Hatem Abudayyeh, a Palestinian activist and director of the Arab American Action Network in Chicago. "That's a blatant case of racial profiling."

In southern California, up to 1,000 men who reported for the December 16 registration deadline were detained, the majority of them Iranians, according to the National Immigration Forum. In L.A., up to one-fourth of those who reported for registration were put in deportation proceedings, even if they had been in the process of adjusting their immigration status. Abudayyeh noted that the focus on Iranians was especially illogical because rather than being supporters of the Iranian government, most long-time Iranian immigrants came here because they didn't support the government that took power in Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"These people have nothing to do with terrorism," said pro bono attorney Soheila Jonoubi. "They are all in the country legally. They have been singled out according to gender, ethnicity and religion. I have 16-year-old kids being pulled out of their mothers' arms crying and taken to jail."

The registrations took place with three different deadlines for different groups of countries. The first two groups included men from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and other countries. Saudi Arabia wasn't even included on the original list.

"Operation Tarmac"

Selective enforcement is also evident in the Aviation and Transportation Security Act and Operation Tarmac, which mandated that only citizens can work as security screeners at airports. Thousands of hardworking, low-wage immigrants around the country lost their jobs because of the act; so did citizens with even minor drug or other criminal convictions. But pilots, mechanics and other positions with more sensitive access to planes, while subjected to background checks, are not required to be citizens.

In December 2002, airports around the country arrested workers with non-matching Social Security numbers -- undocumented immigrants who had often been at their jobs for years, mainly in such low security-risk jobs as janitors and delivery drivers. In Chicago, federal agents went to workers' homes to arrest them, in front of terrified spouses and children. Alejandro Alvarado Huerta was one of 44 arrested and placed in deportation proceedings, despite the fact that he has lived in the U.S. for 10 years, has two citizen children and owns a home.

"It's a big political show," Josh Hoyt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition on Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), told a Spanish TV news anchor. "They're trying to show people that during the holidays the government is working for national security."

Profiling and scapegoating of immigrants has also been stepped up in accordance with the draconian 1996 immigration reform laws. Journalist Roger Calero, a native of Nicaragua who has lived in the U.S. for 17 years, got first-hand experience with this while returning from an assignment in Mexico on Dec. 3. Calero was detained by customs at the Houston airport and placed into deportation proceedings because of a minor 1988 drug conviction when he was in high school. Calero has been a legal permanent resident since 1990 and specifically detailed his conviction in both his initial residency application and his 2000 renewal. While he was granted residency both times despite the charge, now the government deems it grounds to deport him.

"This demonizing is part of the war campaign, to justify intervention in Iraq and future wars to come," said Calero, 32. "The U.S. has a long history of this. Immigration policies have a long history of being racist -- you look at how they treat Haitian and African immigrants [versus European immigrants]. Whole sections of people are portrayed as criminals, terrorists."

An Attack on Communities of Color

People have also regularly been prohibited from flying because of their race. In June 2002, the Northern California ACLU and the law firm Relman & Associates filed a lawsuit against four airlines on behalf of the Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and five men who were not allowed to fly because passengers or airline staff didn't like their appearance.

Racial profiling by citizens and the government in the war on terror has already had countless troubling outcomes, such as the arrest of three medical students on their way to school in Florida after a waitress reported they were planning a terrorist attack. A huge search effort yielded not a shred of evidence of any plan, and the government eventually apologized to the men, but they still were expelled from medical school for their supposed joking about September 11.

Incidents like this will only increase with the institution of things like the Terrorist Information and Prevention System (TIPS) program, which aimed to enlist employees like postal workers, deliverymen and meter readers in reporting on the personal lives and activities of their customers. The program was derailed thanks to outrage from the postal service, Congress and other agencies, but the general push to involve civilians in intelligence gathering continues.

A report from ICIRR notes that shortly after September 11, the FBI visited the home of Arab American Family Services co-director Itedal Shalabi on an anonymous tip that her son could be involved in terrorist activities. Her son is only 9 years old.

"What would have happened if he was 16 or 17?" she asked. "That's the scary part."

Immigrants are also encouraged to report on each other with rewards of visas. Ashcroft ordered that 250 visas be allotted as rewards for immigrants providing information on terrorist activity, offering a tempting incentive for false and trumped-up tips. Ashcroft has also pushed for police to take on more investigative and immigration-related powers. Many police departments, especially in urban areas, have refused to be part of immigration proceedings.

"In order for state and local law enforcement to be effective partners with their communities, it is imperative that they not be placed in the role of detaining and arresting individuals based solely on a change in their immigration status," said a letter from the California Police Chief's leadership to Ashcroft.

But other departments, especially in rural areas and small towns with high immigrant worker populations, have been all too eager to expand their reach.

"That's affecting a lot of Latinos as well as Arab Americans," said Rhoda Rae Gutierrez, spokesperson for the ICIRR. "Cops are carrying out INS duties even without being deputized to do that. It's happening in rural areas consistently, like they've gotten a free pass since 9/11 to racial profile in the name of national security."

Gutierrez noted that in places like the small resort town of Galena, Illinois, racial profiling traffic stops could have a devastating effect on whole communities. There, police have started regularly stopping undocumented immigrants on their way to work at the local resorts and asking to see their papers. Because undocumented immigrants can't legally get drivers' licenses, they risk having their cars impounded. Since all the workers live outside of the resort area, that means that if they do avoid deportation proceedings, they still won't be able to get to work.

"If there is a routine traffic stop, people don't know if they will check their papers," said Abudayyeh. "That affects Mexicans and other Latinos as well [as Arabs]. And African-Americans have historically been targets of racial profiling and will continue to be. This is an attack on all communities of color."

Kari Lydersen is a journalist based in Chicago and an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program.
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