Civil Rights Issues Facing Arab Americans in Michigan

Chapter 4

Civil Right Issue: Profiling

In 1997 the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security was established to examine the state of aviation safety, security, air traffic management, and planning for the future of aviation in the next century. The commission released its final report in February 1997, and among the 53 recommendations to improve safety and security, a proposal to “complement technology with automated passenger profiling” was included.[1]

For many years the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has required airlines to perform a variety of security checks to ensure the safety of the flying public. Several of these procedures are quite familiar to airline passengers, such as the request for photo identification and baggage control questions. Four types of security measures are required by the FAA.[2]

  1. Photo identification. Airlines are required to request a valid government-issued photo ID from all adult passengers who check baggage. If a passenger does not have such ID, or two other forms of acceptable identification, the airline may still allow the passenger to fly by applying alternative FAA-approved procedures.

  2. Passenger questioning. Airlines are required to ask all passengers a series of questions relating to their baggage and items they have been asked to carry on the flight.

  3. Passenger screening. Airlines are required to conduct a security screening of all passengers, using routine information passengers already supply to their airline in order to purchase a ticket and fly. The purpose of the screening is to identify baggage that merits additional attention. The FAA maintains the screening criteria are based on travel-related and other nondiscriminatory factors associated with past security-related incidents and that the screening criteria must remain confidential to protect their usefulness.

  4. Physical search of baggage. Baggage searches are conducted both randomly and selectively and may be conducted at the ticket counter, security checkpoint, or gate.

By 1998 the implementation of an automated profiling system, Computer Assisted Passenger Screening (CAPS), was operational industrywide. Such profiling involves the collection of data on passengers prior to their boarding a plane. The information is entered into a computer database that determines whether the passenger poses a potential security risk and should be subjected to heightened security procedures. According to the commission report, “passengers could be separated into a very large majority about whom we know enough to conclude that they present little or no risk, and a small minority about whom we do not know enough and who merit additional attention.”[3]

Different profiles are to be employed depending upon whether the travel is domestic or international, and the criteria for selection are secret. The Federal Aviation Administration denies that its profiling procedures are discriminatory and insists that the CAPS system does not target any group based on race, national origin, or religion.

At the request of the commission, the Department of Justice conducted a civil rights review of the automated passenger screening system. The Department’s principal finding was that the FAA’s proposed Computer Assisted Passenger Screening system would not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, religion, or gender. The report also stated that the “CAPS system does not include as a screening factor any passenger traits that may be directly associated with race, color, national or ethnic origin, religion, or gender, such as passengers’ names or mode of dress.”[4]

In addition to FAA security checks at most airports and border crossings, U.S. Customs officials can detain passengers for lengthy periods—sometimes days—without court approval in their attempts to interdict drugs and other contraband. When Customs believes there is reasonable suspicion of contraband with the traveler, Customs may detain a person and ask for the traveler’s consent to medically supervised body searches. If consent is not given, Customs may proceed with X-rays and physical exams.

The procedure has been upheld by the Supreme Court. Under revised procedures, Customs officials now work with U.S. Attorneys who are used to provide an outside opinion on whether Customs officials acted on a reasonable suspicion when detaining a traveler.

Comments from Arab Americans on Profiling

Radwan Khoury, Executive Director, Arab American and Chaldean Council

Twice I have been profiled, both times at the Washington, D.C., National Airport. On the first occasion, the agent said that I had a special ticket and was told that I met their profile.

I said, “What profile are you talking about? Is it because I have the Middle Eastern look?” The attendant said, “No, I cannot really tell you anything. It is just you meet our profile.” I was told that my suitcase would be the last one to go on the plane and a yellow ribbon will be placed on it.

This treatment is really bothering people. There are a lot of people that complain to the agency about this profiling issue.

The second time I was profiled the lady treated me a little bit softer than the first one in terms of the way that she handled herself. Again, she was very apologetic and refused to tell me how I met the profile. I said, “If I meet the profile once or twice, how is it that I do not meet it 12 times a year, if this is the profile that you’re talking about?”

The same situation happens by U.S. Customs at Windsor. They tell you that you meet the computer pick. I would understand if every fifth car was stopped. But it is not a fifth car they stop, it is myself and my friends they always stop.[5]

Abed Hammoud, Arab American Political Action Committee

Profiling is not a new concept that is new, nor is it illegal. It has always been recognized as a crime-fighting tool. Actually, the FBI has people called profilers. Some of them come and train prosecutors when we have training at the prosecutor’s office. So profiling can work if it’s done right. In the case of Arab Americans, it is done wrong.

Moreover, it is hurting Arab Americans and all citizens of this country. I believe it’s hurting the country and it’s endangering us when we fly on the planes. In any country in the world one can buy a U.S. passport for $50 and can put any country of origin on it. This profile does not work. People can change their looks. So the narrow view of security, the narrow view of focusing on some passport of some nationalities misses the point. It is dangerous, besides hurting Arab Americans and offending us.

Profiling comes with a preconceived mentality, and the mentality is with law enforcement agencies and goes from the movies in Hollywood always portraying Arabs as criminals, the Muslims as the terrorists.

Also, profiling of Arab Americans has extended beyond the borders of this country mandated by the FAA. Recently, upon my way back from Leon, France, to Amsterdam, the agent looked at my passport and asked, “When was the last time you were in Lebanon?” as Lebanon is shown on my passport as my place of birth. What does that have to do with anything? He called his supervisors. It was unbelievable treatment. I could not believe it happened to me, and the agent said, “It’s an FAA mandate. We’re sorry about this.” This is airport profiling and it is not effective.[6]

Imad Hamad, Regional Director, Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee

Airline profiling continues despite all the good efforts that have taken place to eliminate it. I know that Congressman David Bonior held a hearing at the airport with the FAA officials, U.S. Customs, and the INS. I know that Congressman Dingell did the same. I know that Congressman John Conyers did the same as well as the senators. Everybody expressed concerns. The Wayne County Executive, the Department of Civil Rights, name it. However, the problem continues. Nothing changes.

If you look at the profiling, it mainly targets Arab Americans, and Muslims specifically. And airline profiling does not exclude other minorities. There are cases that included African Americans, some simply for wearing the traditional African custom or some African Americans who happen to be Muslims and they have similar names like Arabs.

The bottom line is that congressional guidelines have been put forward, and that is where the problem lies. The Arab American community has been talking about airline profiling since 1997. None of the involved agencies have proved a case that this profiling was effective enough to catch one bad person. On the contrary, most of the people who’ve been profiled were professionals, doctors, attorneys, even law enforcement agents who happen to be of Arab American descent.[7]

Maya Berry, Government Relations Director, Arab American Institute

Arab Americans have achieved a great deal in this country. We have been here for three, four, or five generations. Many things have happened that we have had a great deal to be very pleased about.

Having said that, one of our greatest concerns is the fact that the government is requesting that passenger profiling methods be employed for foreign air carriers. This is a significant concern because the civil rights in place here in the United States do not necessarily apply to other countries and as we advance this need to do profiling.

Moreover, we do not know what is contained in the actual profile. Those things are secret. We do not know if it is race or ethnicity or the country of destination. Well, if I happen to travel to Lebanon or Syria or Egypt or Jordan or Palestine, and those countries are flagged, then I will be disproportionately affected. However, one will notice on a plane traveling to Syria with some 200 passengers, the five or six that are Americans on that flight were the ones profiled. So even in those cases, you find discrepancies.[8]

Ismael Ahmed, Executive Director, Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services

Regarding profiling, it is the Arab Americans in particular who are stopped at airports. I, myself, have been stopped both domestically and internationally. I spoke recently with Senator Spencer Abraham, who said when he does not wear a suit he gets stopped as well. So Arab Americans of all types are affected.

A good example of this is a visit that I took to Israel. I visited Israel and then later the West Bank. I got what was the normal stop at the Israeli airport, which was being detained in a room for over three hours and questioned and strip searched. But historically Israel is a war zone and there is some expectation of that behavior. But when I arrived in the United States, I was stopped again and asked the same kinds of questions. Obviously, there was a connection between the Israeli government and the American airport authorities on this question, designating an individual, based on their own views, and then following up that kind of enforcement. This is not unusual. We have here a situation in which foreign policy affects the view of who and what Arab Americans are.[9]

Mohammad Elahi, Islamic House of Islam

Locally, a few months ago there was a briefing session at the airport by the officials concerning the traveling process and how everybody will be treated with respect and courtesy and professionally at the airport. The Muslim community has no problem about rules and regulations for the safety of everyone.

I have traveled a lot. In some cases, I was stopped and in many cases I was not. So I could not say for sure, but something was clear that we are not over with the feeling of being discriminated against. We need better legislation and better training for people in charge of enforcing that legislation on the public.[10]

Comments from Federal Officials on Profiling[11]

Dennis L. Reading, Federal Security Manager, Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, Civil Aviation Security Field Unit

The system that is used by the FAA is a Computer Assisted Passenger Screening [CAPS] system. It is based on criteria generated during the passenger reservation system with the air carrier process. What the CAPS system is designed to do is to assign risk factors which are sensitive in nature based upon itinerary from whatever any individual would put into the computer reservation system with the air carriers.

Now the computer system itself actually makes the criteria or decision based upon the criteria in the passenger reservation system as to whether or not the individual ends up being identified as a selectee.

Before 1996, the FAA did not have a Computer Assisted Passenger Screening system in place. It was a manual system that the FAA put out to the carriers that had specific criteria. At that time, it potentially could lend itself to where an individual could possibly twist or bend the system a little bit.

Obviously, under those circumstances, profiling was based upon somebody looking at the way a passenger was dressed or because of their ethnicity or mannerisms, which has nothing to do with the current computer assisted process.

There are a number of different factors that go into the CAPS process. It is sensitive in nature and not openly publicized. Technically, it is not classified in the true sense of the word from the governmental standpoint. It is simply sensitive security information which, if divulged to the full public, could possibly give someone who is intent upon trying to circumvent the system or introduce an explosives device into the system assistance as far as that process is concerned. So that is why the information is not openly publicized.

So before 1996, the human element to quite a degree was involved in the screening processes. Since the inception of the Computer Assisted Passenger Screening system, the FAA has had numerous meetings with members of Congress to learn of specific instances of discrimination being applied against Arab Americans and this connotation of a profile process at Detroit Metro Airport. Both Admiral Flynn as well as FAA Administrator Jane Garvey have come to Detroit to listen to the specific complaints or allegations of discrimination against Arab Americans here at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport.

The FAA has established a customer service committee specifically consisting of most of the Arab carriers at the airport, including Northwest Airlines. We have representatives from the airport authority, itself, both with airport—the administrative staff offices and the director’s office as well as airport operations that are members on our committee. As a matter of fact, two of the individuals that are members on our committee that work for the airport, in fact, are also Arab Americans.

From Wayne County’s standpoint, the FAA has had numerous meetings with Mr. McNamara, and he has mandated that the FAA take specific steps to ensure that there were no forms of racial or ethnic discrimination, not just against Arab Americans but any ethnic group or background in our customer service relationships with the American public.

In that effort, since we did have specific complaints that were lodged by the Arab American community, two main issues are of concern. First, are there any specific instances with reference to the complaints of discrimination by the Arab American population that could be investigated by the agency? Second, the agency wants to establish a model of customer service that assures, where there is a human element with reference to the public whether that is curbside ticket counters, screening checking points, or boarding gate locations, that attendants are fair, consistent, and sensitive to ethnic issues.

Currently, the Computer Assisted Passenger Screening system is 100 percent operational. A periodic review was facilitated by the FAA, but the review itself was done by the FBI, CIA, and DOT representatives to make sure that it is fair and across the board and does not target any specific groups. There was also a recommendation for a post-implementation review of CAPS, but that still has yet to be scheduled.[12]

Carol A. Jenifer, District Director, Immigration and Naturalization Service

In the Detroit district of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, there are 265 employees in six different locations. There are about 100 employees at the district office in Detroit, and a contingent of inspectors and smaller support staffs at the Detroit-Canada Tunnel, the Ambassador International Bridge, the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Port Huron, and Sioux St. Marie. There are two people at the city airport and then some inspectors at Marine City and Algonac.

The mission of the INS is to enforce immigration laws. It includes inspecting arriving immigrants or individuals coming into the country; identifying, apprehending, and removing people who violate immigration laws or the terms under which they are allowed to come into the country; and granting benefits, which can be things like allowing for one to become an immigrant or a green card holder, a legal permanent resident, or granting citizenship.

The INS also does work involving refugees, which covers a myriad of things. The INS does the interviews for refugees, conducts stateside inspections, and does removals.

Last year, about 32 million people came back and forth into this country in this district because this area is on the Canadian border. There are just over 100 people—nor the time nor the inclination to just point out people and say, “You come in, you come in, you come in. We’re going to take this nationality, this nationality.” There are far too many people.

Two processes get the most attention and cause the most problems. The first one is the inspection process. INS shares that process with Customs. If a person is in the tunnel or on the bridge or one of the land borders, essentially what one may encounter is a person either in a white shirt or a light blue or navy blue shirt, which would be customs, who would ask you certain questions. Those questions are intended to determine just on a quick, if one is eligible or should be coming into the United States. It is also used to determine if that person has anything declarable.

If the person satisfies the inspector at that point, he or she is allowed to go. If there are people who do not satisfy at that point, they are sent inside to a secondary inspection. If the question is about whether or not the person came legally into the United States because of his or her immigration status or citizenship, he/she goes to INS. If the question is about something that is carried into the country, then he or she goes to customs.

It is instructive to know that there are two different ways in which this is done. Normally, when a person comes inside, he or she is asked additional questions to which the person has to satisfy the inspector. In the majority of the cases, people are then sent on their way. Because of problems at the INS in terms of staffing, some people have had to wait one or two hours; other than that, most people will get to move forward.

It seems that 80 to 90 percent of the INS complaints are regarding the inspection process. There are several reasons for this. First, there is a failure to understand the process. The inspection process can be intimidating, particularly if one is not sure what it is, particularly when one is confronted and asked questions about place of birth, how long he or she has been out of the country, documents the person has, etc. Second, people often do not understand the decision. Normally they will complain because the decision was not in their favor but also because they just do not understand it.

There are some solutions that the INS has been trying over the past six years. First, the INS has done mandatory customer service training for every single employee, and noting if by doing better training in that particular area was there a decline in the number of complaints. In addition, the INS holds outreach meetings with the community so as to better disseminate information.[13]

[1] See Arab American Institute, The Department of Justice and the Civil Rights of Arab Americans, March 1998.

[2] U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Information on Airline Security in the U.S., 1997.

[3] See Arab American Institute, The Department of Justice and the Civil Rights of Arab Americans, March 1998.

[4] U.S. Department of Justice, Report by the Department of Justice to the Department of Transportation on the Department’s Civil Rights Review of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Proposed Automated Passenger Screening System, Oct. 1, 1997. The entire report is attached as an appendix to this report.

[5] Statement of Radwan Khoury to the Michigan Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, community forum on “Civil Rights Issues Facing Arab Americans in Michigan,” Dearborn, MI, Sept. 27, 1999, transcript (hereafter cited as Transcript).

[6] Statement of Abed Hammoud, Transcript.

[7] Statement of Imad Hamad, Transcript.

[8] Statement of Maya Berry, Transcript.

[9] Statement of Ismael Ahmed, Transcript.

[10] Statement of Mohammad Elahi, Transcript.

[11] Representatives from the U.S. Customs Service declined an invitation to speak to the Advisory Committee.

[12] Statement of Dennis L. Reading, Transcript.

[13] Statement of Carol A. Jenifer, Transcript.