WASHINGTON - Getting into the United States - even for citizens, let alone immigrants and other visitors - is a notoriously difficult process. But a new report says that the questioning, detention, and oft-extended searches are going too far, especially when they are trampling on the basic rights of citizens returning home.
"While the [U.S.] president [Barack Obama] is making headway" mending damaged relationships overseas, said Veena Dubal, a fellow with the Asian Law Caucus (ALC), "domestic policies at our border are sending a very different message about how we welcome people and how we treat people."
Moreover, those sorts of extended problems at the border disproportionately affect communities from the U.S.'s Muslim, South Asian and Middle Eastern community, said the report, "Returning Home: How U.S. Government Policies Undermine Civil Rights at Our Nation's Doorstep," which was released this week by the ALC, a group dedicated to the "legal and civil rights of the Asian and Pacific Islander communities."
It is the second report this week to lodge such complaints. On Tuesday, the group Muslim Advocates charged that federal agents were singling out Muslim Americans at the nation's airports and borders for "deeply intrusive, personal questions and searches about their politics, faith, finances, charitable giving and associations with lawful organisations, all without any evidence or even suspicion of wrongdoing."
"[F]or some Americans, overbroad and invasive U.S. government practices have transformed that homecoming into an encounter of anxiety, fear, and insecurity," said the ALC report. "In recent years, many U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and others who call America home have faced lengthy detentions, intrusive questioning, and invasive searches when they return to the United States."
"Even at the border, no one should have to surrender his or her basic rights as a condition for returning home," it said.
The ALC has received over 40 complaints about extended interrogations, searches, detentions, and even the copying of personal material, though the group said that number "represent[ed] only a small piece of a much wider national patter of intrusive border practices" which other groups have documented.
Ironically, some of those subject to these practices have included those who "dedicated their lives to building bridges between the U.S. and the Muslim world: individuals introducing artists and performers from the Middle East and South Asia to American audiences, distinguished professors recruited by the U.S. government to present a positive image of the United States to audiences in the Middle East, and respected religious leaders promoting tolerance and civic engagement to Muslim American communities here at home."
There is no debate that a robust border security is important to the U.S. or any other nation. As such, no one denies the need for a well-resourced and competent Customs and Border Protection agency, an agency which was put under control of the unwieldy bureaucracy of the newly formed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003.
But the ALC says that "bad policies at the border waste law enforcement resources and do not make us safer as a country or community."
"On the contrary," said the report, "[M]isguided CBP practices make us less secure by diverting border officers' attention from actual threats, diminishing respect for the rule of law, alienating communities, and straining our relations with foreign nations."
Furthermore, these practices are "inconsistent with our core values," the report said, citing equality, due process, and freedom of religion and expression.
Dubal told IPS that the searches are often a result of profiling or the use of the government's watch list. Both methods of singling out people for closer inspection are troubling and plagued with inconsistencies and problems, she said.
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"CBP says that they don't profile, but they overtly profile on national origin," said Dubal. "It's been our experience that the nation of origin profiling is a proxy for religious profiling."
The Department of Justice has exempted CBP from federal guidelines that prohibit profiling.
The report called for DHS to issue strict rules prohibiting profiling of any kind. "I think that would have a huge impact," Dubal told IPS.
Profiling on the basis of national origin is particularly troublesome because if all citizens of a nation are to be held in equal stature, naturalised and non-naturalised citizens must be treated equally.
"There should be no difference between naturalised and other U.S. citizens, and the law makes no distinction. But they have been doing it," Dubal said. "Theoretically, you should have the right as a U.S. citizen to enter U.S. soil," she said, but people feel like if they don't satisfy border agents, they will be denied admission.
As for the terrorism watch list, the issues are more complicated. Whereas profiling remains controversial, the watch list is not - it would be difficult to justify opposition to a list of people whom a country deems as security threats and wants to keep off its shores.
"From our perspective the terrorism watch list has been institutionalised," said Dubal. "This problem is not going to go away. So we suggest that there be a more substantial redress process put in place."
The process already exists, and is known as the Traveler Redress Inquiry Programme (TRIP).
Dubal pointed to several problems with TRIP: the process is secretive, and people may only contest their being on the list - the evidence against them is kept secret; the ALC reported that a response has taken up to year; and there is no readily available information on the process for people who are on the watch list.
"[Involved agencies should] set up some sort of procedure where people can contest the information that put them on the watch list," said Dubal.
She said fixing the watch list would contribute to security by stemming the drain on resources caused by people who are on the list, but shouldn't be. The watch list now, said Dubal, is a burden on the government.
The ALC cited complaints by people that they were quizzed extensively on their religious and political beliefs. The report recommends that DHS issue rules that limit the circumstances under which CBP may ask a traveler about their religious background to their admissibility or the investigation of a "specific threat to national security" or an issue with a law "the agency is authorised to enforce."