Witnesses tell House panel legislation needed to stop racial profiling

By Larry Margasak, AP
Thursday, June 17, 2010

Witnesses: Law against racial profiling needed

WASHINGTON — Azaad Singh cried when he entered the glass enclosure at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., airport for extra screening.

He was patted down. His bag was searched. And then the security officer went through his prized possessions: his first Elmo book, his second Elmo book, his mini-mail truck.

Azaad, whose name means “freedom,” is an American and a Sikh.

He’s 18 months old.

Azaad’s father, Amardeep Singh, told a House hearing Thursday that he’s not sure how he’ll one day explain to Azaad why he and his Sikh family seems to always need extra screening.

The House Judiciary civil rights subcommittee is exploring potential legislation to stop racial profiling. Witnesses proposed that Congress require studies to document how often particular groups of victims are stopped or arrested and whether they were threats to the United States. Legislation also should provide for legal redress for those who were wronged.

Witnesses told the committee that profiling remains a national problem for African-Americans; Hispanics are increasingly victims, especially in states and communities that have cracked down on illegal immigrants; and, since Sept. 11, 2001, Muslims and Sikhs have been regularly targeted.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington office, said the civil rights group has more than 2,200 membership units in every state, “and I would wager that every NAACP unit has, at some point, received at least one complaint of racial profiling. Many NAACP units report receiving hundreds, if not thousands, of complaints.”

“It’s not fair. It’s not safe. It’s not American,” said Singh, who was returning from a family vacation in Mexico two months ago when the incident occurred in Fort Lauderdale. He’s director of programs of The Sikh Coalition. He testified wearing a traditional Sikh turban.

The police chief of Salt Lake City, Chris Burbank, said profiling will only get worse in communities where police are required to enforce immigration laws.

“By increasing our role in civil immigration action, state and local law enforcement is placed in the untenable position of potentially engaging in unconstitutional racial profiling, while attempting to maintain trust within the communities we protect,” Burbank said.

“Officers are forced to detain and question individuals for looking or speaking differently from the majority, not for their criminal behavior. How is a police officer to determine status without detaining and questioning anyone who speaks, looks or acts as if they might be from another nation?”

A Utah law that takes effect July 1 allows local police officers to enforce federal immigration law.

State Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said that participation in the enforcement provision is optional and that many local police departments are opting out.

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