U.S. Border Screening Under Fire

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a policy review.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ordered a policy review. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Bloomberg News)
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By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 20, 2009

Civil liberties groups are renewing calls for the Obama administration to change screening at border posts by limiting questions about Americans' political beliefs and religious practices and establishing a process for U.S. citizens and residents who are mistakenly included on terrorist watch lists to clear their names.

In a report to be released today, the Asian Law Caucus of San Francisco cited more than 40 complaints from U.S. citizens and immigrants that it has received since 2007 as evidence of "a much wider pattern of profiling and discrimination at U.S. borders."

"Many people in America's Muslim, South Asian and Middle Eastern communities have come to expect harassment and discriminatory treatment at our nation's doorstep" when returning home, the report said.

Separately, Muslim Advocates, the advocacy arm of the National Association of Muslim Lawyers, issued a report saying that citizens should not be threatened with detention for not answering questions that go beyond establishing their legal status to enter the United States or whether they are carrying contraband.

The actions come as civil liberties groups press for a swifter response by the new Democratic president and Congress to long-standing complaints that security measures adopted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have subjected innocent travelers to unwarranted delays and scrutiny.

Over the years, watch-list mismatches have entangled countless individuals whose names are similar to those on the government's master database of terrorism suspects, which includes more than 1 million names and aliases used by 400,000 people.

"People think watch lists have been fixed and the problem has gone away. They haven't gone away, they've been institutionalized, and it's going to take affirmative action by the Obama administration to fix this stuff," said Christopher Calabrese, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program.

A Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman, Amy Kudwa, declined to comment, saying that the department had not seen the reports. Kudwa added that Secretary Janet Napolitano had ordered "a wide-ranging review of all of our border security immigration policies and procedures," which is ongoing.

The Asian Law Caucus said the agency responsible for border inspections, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, should inform travelers who have concerns that they can submit complaints immediately on-site to a redress program. It also said the government should publicize an appeals process and establish a neutral board to review cases of people who think they are improperly listed.

Both reports urged the DHS to prohibit profiling based on race, ethnicity, religion and national origin in border inspections.

The DHS has received more than 54,500 requests for redress since February 2007 and closed 31,000 of them, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Critics say the program does not inform travelers whether their names are listed, whether any change has been made or how to get off the watch list and avoid being relisted.

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