WASHINGTON – A new airport screening policy for turbans and other headwear has the country's Sikhs concerned they are being unfairly targeted.
The federal policy change went into effect Aug. 4, subjecting travelers to secondary screening at security checkpoints if they are wearing head coverings, such as cowboy hats, berets or turbans. The screenings could include a pat-down search of the head covering if the screener finds it necessary.
The New York-based Sikh Coalition believes the new policy singles out Sikhs and others who wear religious head coverings. More than 25 ethnic and religious organizations, such as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and the Asian American Justice Center, have signed the coalition's petition against the policy change.
In the Sikh religion, the turban is considered private, and removing a turban would be like removing a woman's blouse, Neha Singh, the coalition's advocacy director, said Wednesday. Since 2001, federal policy has required screeners to search turbans only if they do not clear a metal detector.
The Transportation Security Administration denies any use of racial or religious profiling in its security screening practices. The recent policy change applies to all head coverings that could be used to conceal something, said TSA spokeswoman Amy Kudwo. The change was not a result of any specific threat information about hiding explosives or weapons in head coverings, she said. And all travelers have the right to request a private screening.
"Head coverings do not 'require' a search under the new policy," Kudwo said in an e-mail. "Individuals MAY be referred for additional screening if the security officer cannot reasonably determine that the head area is free of a detectable threat item."
The Sikh Coalition has documented 40 incidents when Sikhs were subjected to these searches since Aug. 4. And some of these travelers were not offered a private area for screening, Singh said, adding, "This is going to lead to profiling."
TSA will not disclose the details of new policy for security reasons. It broadly explains the screening procedures on its Web site with a picture of a white cowboy hat and another picture of three young women laughing and wearing winter hats.
The Sikh community was not notified of the screening changes as it has been in the past, the advocacy group said. The organization met with TSA officials on Aug. 22 and has another conference call scheduled next week to discuss the issue, Singh said. TSA told the coalition the airport screeners decide to perform secondary screening on turbans at their own discretion.
If the policy remains broad and unregulated, it could lead to profiling, said David Harris, a racial profiling expert at the University of Toledo College of Law.