Airline Passenger Profiling Could Face Congressional Scrutiny

The repercussions of an airline's decision to remove a group of imams from a commercial flight in Minneapolis could be heard in Congress this year, with civil rights groups pushing Democratic lawmakers to ban racial profiling.

The incident happened in November, made national news and reinvigorated an old proposal that got little attention from the GOP.

Now, a champion of the legislation, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction on the issue. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who sponsored legislation to ban racial profiling in the last Congress, now chairs the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution.

No bill has been introduced so far, but Feingold made it clear the issue will be a priority for him.

"Many law-abiding African Americans, Arab Americans, Latino Americans and others live with the fear of being racially profiled as they go about their everyday lives," Feingold said. Although the vast majority of law enforcement officers don't engage in the practice, he added, some do and it must be addressed.

"I look forward to working with Chairman Conyers in the House as well as others to ensure that no one is judged by how they look or where they worship," he said.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington office, said he was optimistic a bill could get through Congress.

"I'm convinced that once the body of evidence of racial profiling occurring in our nation is presented before the U.S. Congress and the American people, that indeed they'll be compelled to do something about it," he said.

Shelton said he's spoken about the issue with Conyers and is hopeful for action on legislation soon — perhaps as early as next month. Conyers declined to comment for this story.

Feingold's last bill would have banned federal, state and local law enforcement officials from "relying, to any degree, on race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion" during investigations.

An exemption would have been made for specific information that "links a person of a particular race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion to an identified incident or scheme."

Some security-oriented groups are gearing up to fight a new version of the bill.

"It would have the effect of estranging police officers from the community that they serve," said Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police. "It would make them more hesitant to stop people who might well be in violation of the law for fear that they're going to get written up because of some racial protocol."

Peter Gadiel, of Kent, Conn., president of 9/11 Families for a Secure America, criticized the legislation.

"The 9/11 atrocity was committed by 19 young single men from Arab nations. If you want to hand this country over to terrorists, why don't you say it right out front?" said Gadiel, whose son, James, died in the attacks on the World Trade Center. "We don't have to worry about 80-year-old ladies with bleach-blonde hair and southern accents."

Steve Mustapha Elturk, an imam in Troy, Mich., said he would welcome a ban on racial profiling. He said U.S. authorities have detained him four times since Sept. 11, 2001 — twice at the Canadian border and twice while traveling by air — even though he has done nothing wrong.

"It is pathetic for an American citizen who has spent more than half his life in this country to have to fly fearing that I will be stopped and interrogated," said Elturk, 52, who was born in Lebanon. "This is not the country I came to know."

Eric Blum, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman, said that while he couldn't comment on specific cases, the agency does not use racial profiling.

"However, we will scrutinize cargo and individuals coming from high-risk countries — no matter what your nationality," he said, adding that people can also be detained if their name matches one on a watch list.