New TSA Screening Guidelines Anger Sikh Travelers

Since Sept. 11, Sikhs have increasingly become targets of racial profiling.

By Julianne Hing Nov 16, 2010

Just ahead of the holiday travel rush, federal air security officials are dealing with concerns from air travelers about new airport screening procedures. The AP reported that passengers are being forced to choose between full-body image scans or pat-downs, and that folks are unhappy with both invasive choices.

"It’s all about security," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said, the AP reported. Today the Washington Post reported Napolitano said the new policies were necessary to "match the changing threat environment that we inhabit."

Napolitano said that such searches served a purpose: security officials had to keep dangerous metals, liquids and devices off of airplanes. But travelers are not happy. Airport passenger John Tyner posted a YouTube video of him objecting to a full-body scan and then to a pat-down. "If you touch my junk, I’m gonna have you arrested," he told a TSA employee, and became an Internet sensation.

Tyner’s rant against the many rituals of airport security screenings is justified, but these days many other travelers face an extra layer of screening, and are targeted specifically because of their religious dress. For Sikh travelers, recently released travel security guidelines mean something else almost entirely. In late October Sikh American groups were alerted that the U.S. Transportation Security Administration would begin pulling aside for extra screening every person who wore a turban at an American airport.

Sikh advocacy groups are up in arms over the new regulations which they say amount to mandatory, regulated racial profiling.

The Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund is telling people who wear turbans that they should be prepared for extra pat-downs once they clear metal detectors or the new advanced-imaging technology screening machines. SALDEF has reminded Sikhs that they are allowed to request to pat down their own turban rather than having an airport employee search it.

Since Sept. 11, Sikhs have become caught up in the anti-Muslim backlash. Sloppy racial stereotypes lump together Sikhs, who wear turbans as a religious custom, with Muslims, who follow a separate set of customs regarding their dress and appearance. The Sikh Coalition has tracked a steady increase of anti-Sikh attacks and incidents of racial profiling, which skyrocketed after Sept. 11.

Not that such things make much of a difference to TSA. The news of the new policies was frustrating for Sikh advocacy groups, and not just because having one’s turban touched or prodded by a stranger is considered a considerable personal violation.

"All of us jointly feel there are definitely some elements of racial profiling here," said Jasjit Singh, SALDEF’s associate director told the New York Times.