A new Homeland Security Department policy singles out Sikh men for rigorous airport security searches at the discretion of screeners, a national civil rights organization says.
The United Sikh Coalition has written to Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff to protest the policy, implemented Aug. 4, which it says amounts to racial profiling. Nearly 2,000 have signed petitions.
Previously, travelers wearing turbans were searched only if they failed to clear metal detectors or other preliminary checks. The new rules, implemented Aug. 4, allow pat-downs of religious headgear at the screener’s discretion.
For the world’s 25 million Sikhs, the turban is an article of faith, only to be removed in the home or in private.
“In the last three weeks, we’ve heard dozens of complaints, people being asked to remove their turbans in public and denied the use of a mirror or space to re-tie them,”said Kavneet Singh, East Bay resident and director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “For a Sikh man, that’s like being strip-searched.”
J.P. Singh, president of the Sikh Center of the San Francisco Bay Area in El Sobrante, teaches Department of Justice and local law enforcement agencies about Sikh practices.
“It’s like asking a woman to take off her blouse in public,” he said. “It’s that bad.”
At San Francisco International Airport on Aug. 12, screeners ordered aside three Sikh men. One of them was Kuldip Singh, managing director of United Sikhs.
“The metal detector did not go off,” he said. “I asked the guy why they were asking me to step aside. He said they have a new no-hat policy, and we have to pat down your turban.”
At Kuldip Singh’s request, the screener agreed to move to an enclosed area.
“What was very strange to us is they are saying it’s totally up to the screener,” he said. “It’s the perception of the screener. And that person could be biased.”
Screeners also may search people wearing cowboy hats or straw hats. Skullcaps, worn by many observant Jews, are not on the list of suspicious head coverings, “so it means a specific community is targeted,” Kuldip Singh said.
Airport screeners work for the Transportation Security Administration and are not employees of the airport.
Security officials say screeners can no longer rely solely on metal detectors and wands to filter out weapons, such as plastic explosives.
“We have to change as the threat has changed,” said Transportation Security Administration spokesman Nico Melendez. “We have to keep a step ahead of the bad guys.”
If screeners do not consider a skullcap reason to search a person, it is because there is no weapon that could possibly fit inside one, Melendez said.
But the government never conducted tests to see whether an explosive device could fit in a wrapped turban, said legal defense fund spokesman Raj Singh Datta.
“In training, we tie an actual turban on a guy,” he said. “It’s 18 to 24 feet long, one yard wide. When you see how much cloth there is in there and how tightly it’s tied … You can’t really hide anything in it.”
Hate crimes against Sikhs spiked after Sept. 11, 2001, as the turbaned men, mistaken for Muslims, were harassed and brutalized.
The 500-year-old religion stresses equality. Rejecting the caste system, Sikh women adopt the surname of Kaur; men, Singh. Adherents in the United States are estimated at 190,000 to 440,000.
The administration is not ruling out changing the rules in response to community protest, Melendez said. For instance, a prohibition on liquids was later modified to permit small amounts in carry-on bags.
Fund members met with federal security officials Friday to talk about the changes. Another meeting is planned in the nation’s capital Sept. 24.
“We are always ready to help the Department of Homeland Security as a community,” said Kuldip Singh. “No Sikh has ever been involved in such cases, and they know that.”
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