The US must end discriminatory programmes that do nothing to making Americans safer

There is a need to address past civil rights abuses and promote more humane treatment of immigrants

This week I participated in a panel to address the civil rights challenges facing the US Department of Homeland Security.

In post-9/11 America, the Bush administration and politicians in both, Republican and Democrat parties, were desperate to demonstrate that they could act to protect the country. As a result, they authorised a number of policies and programmes that were supposed to make Americans safer, as well as creating the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a new cabinet-level entity that brought under one roof a number of agencies that had previously been part of the Departments of State, Justice, Treasury, and Commerce.

Such a panicked response during a crisis was, however, ill-advised. Concerns grew that the policies and programmes created during that period would have a long-term negative impact on the civil rights and civil liberties of American citizens and residents. For example, large-scale roundups and deportations of immigrants from predominantly Arab and Muslim-majority countries were initiated, as well as widespread surveillance and profiling of them at airports, at border crossing points, in their communities and places of worship.

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Homeland Security has to keep our nation secure but also clean up the mess they've inherited over the past two decades

Other programmes put in place resulted in targeting the government's relationship with Arabs and Muslims, causing a breakdown of trust between the communities and government, and often leading to a suspicion of Arabs and Muslims in the broader public. In addition to these profoundly negative repercussions, according to the government's own reports, these policies and programmes made no contribution to American security.

A Homeland Security officer instructs a traveller as he is fingerprinted using a biometric scanner at the JFK International Airport in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, March 25, 2008.
Ramin Talaie (Newscom TagID: raminphotos000665)     [Photo via Newscom]

Initiated during the Bush era, most of these policies and programmes continued and even grew during the Obama years, reaching their apex during the Trump administration. Joe Biden put an end to many of these policies. During his presidential campaign, he specifically promised to halt ethnic and religious profiling; systems that viewed the Arab and Muslim communities exclusively through a national security lens, and to promote a just, non-discriminatory immigration policy.

With this background, just nine months into the Biden administration, I was delighted to accept the invitation of DHS leadership to examine the corrective measures they have taken to date and the challenges they still face to make the President's commitment a reality. The panel of civil rights and civil liberties advocates was convened to address the DHS leadership on "The State of Civil Rights on the Twentieth Anniversary of 9/11".

Joining me on the panel were leaders from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Immigrants' Rights, and the Center for Constitutional Rights. Representing DHS were the heads of the Customs Border Patrol, the Transportation Safety Administration, and the directors of immigration and customs enforcement and the immigration service.

In their remarks, the DHS leadership described their efforts to address past rights abuses and the continuing need to promote more humane treatment of immigrants and asylum-seekers. While welcoming these efforts, our panel countered that it was important not only to correct some of the policies that had been put in place by the previous administration, but also to turn their attention to negative policies and practices that were part of the DNA of the "homeland security" mandate.

In my contribution, I identified several programmes and policies that were launched during the Bush and Obama administrations that resulted in considerable damage to my Arab American community and the Muslim community. Specifically, I called for closing the loopholes that still exist in the "ban on profiling". The odious practice – that had allowed law enforcement entities to target people because of their race, religion, or national origin – was originally banned in 2003 but has continued even after the welcomed 2014 Obama-era revisions, because significant loopholes remain. The “ban” does not apply to "national security" investigations or screening of individuals at the borders or most state and local law enforcement. As a result, for example, Arab Americans living in Michigan visiting family in Windsor Canada were routinely harassed, detained, and humiliated by US border officials.

I also called on DHS to terminate efforts like the Spot (Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques) programme that a member of Congress referred to as “fundamentally flawed, cannot be proven effective, and should no longer be funded with taxpayer dollars”. Today, it remains operational, rebranded as the BDA (Behavioural Detection and Analysis) programme, with expenditures far exceeding a billion dollars. I also called for the elimination of the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programme. Both these are based on faulty premises, are costly, and have been proven ineffective in promoting public safety or national security.

Finally, I urged DHS leadership to take corrective measures to counter the damage that has been done to the culture within law enforcement and the broader political culture by these policies that can target Arab communities as "threats". This problem dates back to the Bush era, when the president cautioned Americans not to target Arabs and Muslims, while his attorney general was indiscriminately treating these communities as the enemy. In the minds of law enforcement agencies and the public, at large, the attorney general's policies trumped the president's caution.

The challenges facing the new leadership at DHS are, no doubt, enormous. While continuing to fulfill their mandate to keep our nation secure, they must also clean up the mess they've inherited over the past two decades, including actions often taken in haste in the aftermath of the attacks on 9/11. We welcomed their initiative to invite our criticisms and proposals for change and we promised them and the communities we serve that we'll continue to push back until we see: an end to programmes that discriminate without contributing to making us safer; an end to programmes that unfairly target vulnerable communities; and an effort to change the culture of suspicion and surveillance that drives the violation of our civil rights and civil liberties.

Published: October 18th 2021, 5:00 AM
James Zogby

James Zogby

Dr James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and a columnist for The National