ACLU Applauds Legislation to Prohibit Race-Based Profiling by Customs Service

March 16, 2000 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union strongly endorsed legislation introduced today to prohibit any race-based or discriminatory profiling by the U.S. Customs Service.

“Sadly enough, skin color alone continues to make some people a suspect in the eyes of law enforcement agencies across the country,” said Gregory T. Nojeim, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “This bill sets in concrete the new Customs policy prohibiting agents from engaging in racial profiling.”

A Congressional hearing revealed that 43 percent of the passengers subjected to body searches upon entering the U.S. in 1998 were Black or Hispanic. Harvard statistician Alan Zaslavsky analyzed Customs’s own statistics and found that a black female is about 20 times more likely to be intensively searched than a white female.

If enacted, the legislation would mark the first time Congress has explicitly barred a federal law enforcement agency from using race, religion, gender, national origin or sexual orientation in a profile to determine who is going to be detained or searched. The bill, introduced by Rep. John D. Lewis (D-GA) and Rep. Amo Houghton (R-NY), would also require the Customs Service to collect data annually about the race, national origin and gender of individuals searched, and to improve training of Customs inspectors.

The “Civil Rights for International Travelers Act” was spurred by a rash of complaints by minorities about unfair treatment at the hands of Customs Service agents. Just last November, for example, the ACLU filed a complaint with the Customs Service on behalf of Yvette Bradley, an African-American advertising executive who suffered a humiliating search by Customs officers after returning from a vacation in Jamaica.

“Inside that Customs office, I experienced one of the most humiliating and emotionally scarring moments of my life,” Bradley said. “I lived abroad in Germany for nearly three years and not once was I treated with such extreme disrespect and contempt because of my skin color. As an American citizen, this hurts a lot.”

Bradley said that as she and her sister arrived at Newark Airport last April from a vacation in Jamaica, they, and most of the other black women on the flight, were singled out for searches by Customs agents. She was directed to a room where an officer ran her hands and fingers over every area of her body, including her breasts and, through her underwear, the inner and outer labia of her vagina. No contraband was found.

“No one should be forced to ask himself or herself whether taking a well-deserved vacation is worth the likelihood of being targeted for a strip search,” Nojeim said. “We may have done away with Jim Crow laws and the slave-era practice of forcing free blacks to carry travel papers, but how much progress have we really made if minorities who dare to exercise their right to travel are automatically targeted by law enforcement?”

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