NEW YORK -- Bush administration policies have "facilitated" racial profiling despite the president's vow to eliminate the practice, says the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in a report that was finished but not publicly discussed until after this month's presidential election.
Following the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, "Arab Americans and Muslims increasingly became targets of law enforcement scrutiny," says the report.
"Law enforcement officials' underlying prejudices and presumptions of guilt tainted routine security procedures. Profiling criteria came to include ethnicity, national origin and religion à heightened scrutiny and harassment at airports (and) selective enforcement of visa regulations," it adds.
"Arab Americans and Muslims complained that airline personnel and airport security denied them access to aircraft and subjected them to unwarranted searches and harassment. In some instances, airport security removed individuals from planes because members of the crew or passengers did not 'feel safe'," says the report, posted on the commission's website in September.
"On a larger scale, profiling resulted in detentions, forced registration, and extensive monitoring of persons of Middle Eastern descent," adds the document, which is critical of a number of federal agencies, principally the Department of Justice (DOJ), which includes the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
The DHS includes the Transportation Security Administration, which is responsible for safety at airports and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalisation Service. The DOJ is headed by the attorney general.
The civil rights commission is an independent agency of the federal government. Four of its eight commissioners are appointed by the president and four by Congress, and no more than four members can belong to the same political party. Currently, the commission consists of three opposition Democrats, three members from Bush's Republican Party and two independents.
Its principal mission is to collect information relating to discrimination or a denial of equal protection of the laws in the U.S. Constitution because of race, colour, religion, sex, age, disability, national origin, or discrimination in the administration of justice.
Defining racial profiling as "the act of assuming that individuals of one race or ethnicity are more likely than others to engage in misconduct," the commission declares, "The concept belies the fundamental tenets of equality in the constitution, as the fifth amendment and the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment prohibit selective enforcement of the law based on race."
After 9/11, "securing the nation's borders became the administration's most urgent job," says the report.
"Among responses, President Bush authorised federal officials to round up hundreds of Arabs, Muslims and Arab Americans as material witnesses in its investigation of the attacks, and detain them on minor immigration violations."
"Arab and Muslim immigrants and visitors were identified as a 'dangerous class'," according to the report, "signalling the government's intention to deny them entry into the country whenever possible. America's borders thus became more tightly controlled, and certain immigrants bore the burden of the administration's policies."
The commission found that by November 2001, "the DOJ had detained more than 1,100 men of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent. DOJ did not reveal who it had detained, the reasons for detention nor where detainees were held, not even to their families."
"Many detainees alleged mistreatment by prison guards, including being hosed down with cold water, strip-searched, forced to sleep upright in freezing conditions, denied food or legal representation, and kept in their cells for long periods.
Since 9/11, the FBI and the USCIS have arrested and detained some 5,000 people on 'terror-related' charges. There have been no convictions. However, many detainees have been deported, most of them for minor visa violations.
The DOJ's own inspector general (IG) issued a report in April 2003 highly critical of the treatment of detainees. "While our review recognised the enormous challenges and difficult circumstances confronting the department in responding to the terrorist attacks," the IG's report said, "we found significant problems in the way the detainees were handled."
It claimed that from December 2001 to June 2002, 34 complaints of civil rights violations were filed, including accusations that employees at federal detention centres had beaten Muslim and Arab immigrants. In all, DOJ received 1,073 complaints during the six-month period following the implementation of the Patriot Act.
Much of the responsibility for racial profiling and other civil rights abuses belongs to just-retired Attorney General John Ashcroft, says Anthony D Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a Washington-based civil rights advocacy group.
"Ashcroft's legacy has been an open hostility to protecting civil liberties and an outright disdain for those who dare to question his policies. (He) has insisted that the U.S. government could unilaterally detain American citizens without charge and access to counsel," said Romero in a statement issued Nov 9.
Bush has nominated White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to replace Ashcroft, who resigned last week. Gonzales is the author of a controversial memorandum suggesting ways Washington could legally deprive detainees designated as "enemy combatants" in its "war on terrorism" the protections of the Geneva Conventions.
Gonzales, former general counsel and then secretary of state for Bush when he was governor of Texas, also described international conventions governing prisoners of war, including the Geneva Conventions, as ''obsolete.''
The commission's report claims while, "detentions were reserved for those believed to be a national security threat, other Arab and Muslim immigrants were also viewed with suspicion."
In November 2001, Ashcroft ordered the "voluntary" interviews of approximately 5,000 men, ages 18 to 33, "who had entered the United States with non-immigrant visas from countries suspected of giving refuge to terrorists. These men were not suspects in the attacks, but interviewers were told to ask about their religious practices, feelings towards the U.S. government and immigration status."
Moreover, the report adds, "Interviewees were disturbed by the government's unabashed willingness to use ancestry as a proxy for terrorism. Despite their feelings, many acquiesced to the request believing the government would monitor them if they did not."
he detention and subsequent deportation of many Arab and Muslim visitors has created a firestorm in the civil rights community. Nonetheless, provisions for "expedited deportation" of suspects in the "war on terror" to countries known to use torture remain in the House of Representatives' version of a bill to reform the nation's intelligence capabilities.
The House and Senate are currently attempting to reconcile their different versions of this proposed law.
The commission's report concludes that the administration's policy changes "have left immigrants unprotected and unfairly treated. New immigration policies have created a dual system of rights and protections based largely on national origin, race, and ethnicity."
It urges: "The circumstances the United States now faces must not close the once open doors of a nation founded by immigrants."
© 2004 IPS