Written by: Deepa Iyer, Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT)
The Shah Rukh Khan incident at Newark International Airport over the weekend has elicited a range of viewpoints and opinions. Shah Rukh Khan, a famous Bollywood actor, was detained for over an hour, and interrogated by U.S. Customs and Borders Protection (CBP) authorities at Newark International Airport where he had landed. Mr. Khan believes that he was detained and interrogated because of his last name and his religious affiliation. The CBP (a part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) claims that officials were following standard protocol.
Mr. Khan’s incident might be gaining international attention because he is a celebrity, but the truth is that ordinary American citizens and immigrants here in the United States grapple with racial and religious profiling routinely at airports. Especially since September 11th, 2001, South Asian, Arab American, Muslim and Sikh travelers have been subjected to arbitrary secondary inspections, detentions, and interrogations while traveling.
Recently, the Asian Law Caucus and the Stanford Law School Immigrant Rights’ Clinic published a report that details incidents of intrusive questioning that many US citizens and legal permanent residents have faced when returning to the United States from trips abroad. The report provides information about the abuse of watchlists and first-hand accounts of profiling, as well as recommendations to safeguard civil rights.
Racial and religious profiling must be eliminated whether it happens on the streets, on our highways, at borders, or at airports. Profiling people based on their last name, skin color, accent, or religious affiliation is an ineffective enforcement technique that violates civil rights protections. In fact, the use of profiling tactics has not been an effective law enforcement strategy in either the War on Drugs or the War on Terror.
The Obama Administration and Congress have an opportunity to review and strengthen current administrative anti-profiling policies, and to pass federal legislation that bans profiling [the End Racial Profiling Act is set to be introduced in Congress again this year]. These are important steps in ensuring that the civil rights of everyone – whether a celebrity or ordinary American – are preserved.
Deepa Iyer is Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a national, non-profit organization that addresses civil and immigrant rights issues. Learn more at www.saalt.org.