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Congressional Briefing Flying While Arab: What You Need to Know

posted on: Jul 6, 2016

BY: Kristina Perry/Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON, DC: On Tuesday, the Arab American Institute held a congressional briefing discussing the blatant discriminatory policies of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and its plan to seek redress or government oversight. The panelists cited recent spikes in incidents of ethnic, religious, and racial profiling that resulted in minorities, or persons perceived to be minorities, being ejected from flights following reports of suspicious behavior by passengers.

The panel was led by Nadia Aziz, Government Relations Manager of the Arab American Institute, with Arjun Singh of the Sikh Coalition, Brenda Abdelall of Muslim Advocates, and Edward Ayoob, partner in the Federal Relations Group in Barnes & Thornburg LLP.

Arjun Singh began the briefing by discussing the Department of Justice Guidelines on Profiling, encouraging everyone in attendance to read the document. Singh called it “the most important document relating to policing,” and went on to define three large loopholes that enable the guidelines to be side stepped. These guidelines do not apply to state level organizations, TSA, or Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).

Singh informed the audience that CBP’s jurisdiction extends 100 miles beyond the border, comprising the majority of the American population. The TSA, including its VIPR squads, and CBP’s exemptions from the DOJ’s racial profiling guidance have been detrimental to minority communities.

VIPR, or VIPER squads, are a special security team or task force branching from the TSA, with currently over $100 million in funding at their disposal. Their mission, guidelines, and even jurisdiction, are so loosely defined that they have made more headlines for creating problems than solving them, and violating constitutional rights rather than protecting them.

Singh went on to discuss the distinctive problems that hijab-wearing Muslim women and turban-wearingSikh men face when going through preliminary security – full body scanners and subsequent pat downs at airports. Since the advent of use of these scanners, there have been many stories of women in hijab and men in turbans being discriminately pulled aside and made to remove their religious clothing in public areas. This kind of humiliation is both nonsensical and unconstitutional, and enforces an image of Arab/Muslim/Sikh citizens as “other,” or second-class citizens.

Singh commented, “If these machines can’t see through five thin layers of cloth, then really, what can they do?” He additionally asked at a recent meeting with the Department of Transportation whether they had any cases of a person attempting to smuggle items or banned substances on their head. The answer was no. It is common to hear from minority and Muslim communities that a better job needs to be done with establishing a relationship between the government and these communities in order to end unjust national security practices, but Singh disagrees. “There is no building a relationship. They must rehabilitate the existing relationship,” Singh added.

Brenda Abdelall spoke next, focusing on the issue of Arab and Muslim passengers being ejected from airplanes for being perceived as a threat, even though the TSA already determined they are not. Abdelall has 10 years of legal experience in compliance and regulatory law, as well as executive branch advocacy. She discussed the recent spike in the number of incidents of discriminatory ejections from aircraft, noting the cases of the Italian mathematician working an equation being reported as suspicious, as well as a Muslim woman being ejected for “staring back” at a crew member. Not staring at, but staring back.

Abdelall stated that these ejections are based on racism and implicit bias against Arabs and Muslims, or groups that closely resemble ethnic or religious minorities. Ejections from the flight after being cleared by TSA depend on reports of passengers or crew members that find a passenger to be suspicious. Crew members or the pilot then make a “rational and reasonable” decision to kick a person off the flight for “security” reasons. After being searched once more by the TSA, most passengers are still denied entry, this time by the airline.

Complaints of these incidents are not currently tracked by airlines, which raises many concerns from the civil rights community. Interestingly, airlines don’t track instances of discrimination, but they list all complaints about pet travel. While airlines document and publish the number of complaints in the Air Travel Consumer Report, there is no breakdown of the type of complaints, such as racism, sexism, discrimination, etc. Abdelall and the panel called for an implementation of regulations and training to airline personnel targeting the existence of implicit bias, and to organize the ATCR to provide a breakdown of the subject of complaints and offer means of redress.

The panelists also recommend a full investigation into these incidents. Airlines that have been found acting in a discriminatory manner should undergo sensitivity and implicit bias trainings so that flight crew members can decipher a real threat from racism. Passengers that have twice passed security, but are still denied their constitutional right to travel, are denied because of irrational fear, racism, and bigotry only.

Lastly, Edward Ayoob addressed how the audience could seek redress through legislative vehicles. He stated the importance of “raising a profile on the Hill,” and recognizing that the Department of Transportation is required to investigate and seek reparation in cases of discrimination.

Ayoob criticized the lack of action on the part of Congress, saying that they had largely abandoned their most important role of oversight and regulation, especially in regards of insuring equal protection under the law to their constituents. The collection of data on instances of discrimination is key, and a centralmeans of creating significant change and swaying opinions on the Hill. With the publicized spike in profiling cases, Ayoob described the situation as “maddening, but underscoring [the need for legislative address].”

Twice during the briefing, panel members emphasized the need for a congressional hearing to better address this issue. It is up to concerned citizens to look for solutions, while also working more closely with members of Congress.

Closing questions opened discussion as to potential solutions through increasing the diversity of TSA agents and administration, and the potential for educational campaigns challenging the stereotypes surrounding minority populations. However, the panel was firm in that the government must take initiative on equally protecting its citizens, and taking responsibility for the discriminatory policies it has put forth thus far.

This briefing and the potential for a congressional hearing in the near future should encourage Muslim and Arab communities to speak up about their right to travel unfettered by discrimination and bigotry by national security forces. Minority communities and their allies have risen to the challenge of divisive and hateful rhetoric, and significant progress is being made. Representatives are feeling the pressure to be more inclusive, and to fight hateful and ignorant legislature in order to truly protect their constituents, minority and majority alike.