Civil Rights Rollback

The spread of racial profiling since 9-11

This administration has not scored big points for its investigative depth. Nevertheless, it "outright rejects" allegations that it engages in broad, stereotype-based profiling, Corallo said. "I understand what they're saying when they feel there's a focus on them," he said of Arab, Muslim, and South Asian immigrants and citizens who complain of biased treatment, "but there's not."

Maybe it depends on how one defines "focus."

Attorney LaShawn Warren, a leader in the fight for a federal law banning racial profiling
photo: Rick Reinhard
Attorney LaShawn Warren, a leader in the fight for a federal law banning racial profiling

Pervasive pattern

Tens of thousands of people from Muslim, Arab, and South Asian backgrounds have been targeted by the government in a slew of sweeps since 9-11. Teenage boys and men from 25 predominantly Muslim countries, none accused of any crime, at one point were ordered to report to immigration offices for questioning and fingerprinting, or risk arrest and deportation. By the end of the "special registration," over 82,000 individuals had complied and over 13,000 were slated for deportation as a result.

The FBI initiated two official rounds of interviews it called "voluntary" with some 8,000 immigrants and citizens of Arab, Muslim, and South Asian backgrounds. Community advocates claim that agents show up unannounced all the time—although Corallo said, "People are not getting knocks on the door and questioned." In everyday encounters with local police, co-workers, and neighbors, thousands more have been reported to authorities and detained, according to these advocacy groups. The Justice Department's own internal watchdog revealed in 2003 that scores of immigrants experienced physical abuse or due process violations while in government custody.

No matter that exactly zero terrorism-related charges have emerged from these initiatives, and that all the high-profile cases have resulted from real investigative work or pure accident. (From Timothy McVeigh to John Walker Lindh, the most infamous national security threats do not fit the Arab terrorist profile at all.) The roundups continue, according to weekly e-mail updates among immigration lawyers and advocates.

Well, these are immigrants, one argument goes. They're not supposed to be here in the first place, and they don't enjoy the same rights as citizens. Corallo claims that border control has "stopped 12 known terrorists from getting into the country. We also caught hundreds of convicted felons." (The Voice could find no mention of these figures, outside of Corallo's comment.) The vast majority jailed as a result of the immigration crackdowns are, in fact, guilty of something—although almost universally of technical infractions like staying past a visa deadline or not taking enough class credits to fulfill the student-visitor requirements. Putting aside the important debate about whether prolonged detention is the right response to a paperwork problem, these folks technically are subject to monitoring by the U.S. government.

Yet this monitoring has hardly been equally applied. "They weren't calling in immigrants from Great Britain," the ACLU's Warren points out. "There's a really unjustifiable distinction being made."

That distinction is where 9-11–related profiling and the more traditional notion of racial profiling meet. That distinction is stereotype. Whether based on race, religion, or national origin, the special burden of a profiled person is being plagued by negative assumptions tagged to his or her "type."

The result of such profiling is not just indignation but rank inequality. Says Leti Volpp, author of a widely cited 2002 law article entitled "The Citizen and the Terrorist," "Being a citizen means enjoying all the rights of a citizen. But 'driving while black' was a sign that African Americans could only enjoy second-class citizen-ship." She explains that people who are perceived to be Arab or Muslim face the same injustice. Instead of the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty, for instance, they "have to prove themselves innocent."

Just last week it emerged that the Census Bureau had given detailed location and national-origin data on Arab Americans—U.S. citizens—to the Department of Homeland Security. DHS claimed it wanted the information in order to post Arabic language signs in the right airports. But as the news shot around civil rights listservs, people recalled how census data was used during World War II to identify Japanese Americans who would be sent to U.S. internment camps.

Though the administration may deny it, former federal appellate judge Timothy Lewis, who was appointed to the Third Circuit by the first President George Bush, insists that there has been a widespread pattern of unjustified profiling by the government since 9-11. He agreed to chair a series of national public hearings on "war on drugs" and "war on terror" profiling last year for Amnesty International USA, only after the organization agreed to invite law enforcement representatives for fairness's sake.

"What struck me more than anything was the pervasiveness of the practice," said Lewis, who was also once a federal prosecutor and is now of counsel at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis in Washington, D.C. "I'm talking about going after people without any criminal predicate. Racial profiling is a national phenomenon. And the hearings barely scratched the surface."

The profiling of blacks and Latinos continues to thrive, even as the once robust opposition to it has deflated "in the frenzied atmosphere after 9-11," as Lewis put it. From Massachusetts to Missouri to Texas, studies as recent as this May showed that minorities were still disproportionately—in one state as much as 40 percent more often—subjected to traffic stops, at rates unjustified by their actual record of possessing drugs. In one egregious situation, police in Charlottesville, Virginia, indiscriminately demanded DNA samples from area black men in their hunt for a serial rapist. The dragnet continued for over two years before public scrutiny this spring finally convinced authorities to stop.

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