Sikhs warned of additional screening of turbans at US airports

Lalit K Jha

Washington, Jan 14 (PTI) Already peeved by securitypat downs, Sikhs in the US have been warned that they couldnow face 100 per cent screening of their turbans at Americanairports as the new imaging technology cannot see throughtheir ''pagris''.

In a mass email alert to the community members, SikhCoalition, an advocacy group, told them that they should beready for additional screening at all the airports.

"Sikhs should now expect to be secondarily screened 100per cent of the time at American airports, even after passingthrough so-called Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines,"it said.

Although the Transport and Security Administration (TSA)publicly asserts on its website that its newest machines cansee through "layers of clothing," the TSA has made clear inboth word and practice that such machines are not powerfulenough to see through Sikh turbans.

"This means that, for Sikhs, the new machines will leadto more -- not less -- screening of turbans," Sikh Coalitionsaid, adding that its assessment is based on feedback from thecommunity and interaction with officials of the TSA andDepartment of Homeland Security.

The Sikh Coalition rejects the TSA''s policy as "unfairand unsafe," and is working with key lawmakers to change it,the group said. "Even still, in the meantime, we believe thatSikh travellers should at least know what to expect atAmerican airports," it said in its the alert.

"Because the machine cannot see through your turban,your turban must first go through a pat-down (eitherself-administered or administered by a TSA screener) to scanfor non-metallic threat items. After this procedure isfinished, your turban will now also be subjected to ahand-held metal detector wand search to scan for metallicthreat items," says the revised travel guideline issued bySikh Coalition.

"Please keep in mind that you can always pat-down yourown turban. Your turban should also not be ordered removedunless a screener detects something dangerous in your turbaneither at the pat-down or metal-detecting stage. To avoidfalse alarms, we recommend that you wash your hands beforeentering the screening area," it said.

According to the TSA, if a person''s turban or handstrigger an alarm during explosive trace detection sampling,the person will be required to undergo private screening andremove the turban to resolve the concern, Sikh Coalition saidin its guidelines.

Amid concerns voiced by Sikhs in the US over theirenhanced screening at airports because of their turbans, fourkey lawmakers asked authorities to quickly address the issueto avoid undue inconvenience to the community members. (More)PTI LKJ KIM AKD

In a letter to TSA head John S Pistole, the four US lawmakers urged him to not only address the concerns of theSikh community about the additional screening they have beenfacing because of their ''pagri'' or "head gear," but also the"bulky" clothing, which was cited as a reason for the pat downof Indian Ambassador to the US, Meera Shankar, last year.

Hardeep Singh Puri, India''s envoy to the US, was alsoasked by officials to remove his turban during a securitycheck at the Houston airport.

"The Sikh Coalition has reported that TSA officials inairports in Oakland, Seattle, Dallas, Chicago, Houston and LosAngeles pull aside Sikh passengers for enhanced screeningvirtually 100 per cent of the time.

"There is also strong evidence that existing TSAguidelines on bulky clothes have a disparate impact on Sikhand Muslim passengers whose traditional and religious dress isconsidered ''bulky''," the lawmakers -- Judy Chu, Sheila JacksonLee, Bobby Scott and Melvin Watt -- said.

These guidelines are used by TSA officials to searchreligious wear like saris, scarves and turbans, sometimes"invasively," they said in the letter dated January 7, whichwas released to the press by the Sikh Coalition today.

"Current TSA guidelines allow for individuals to avoidinvasive and public searches by completing their own self-patdown or by going to a private area for a search. CommunityGroups report that many TSA officials are often either unawareof these options or simply neglect to tell the travelers theiroptions.

"How can TSA address these concerns and ensure theiremployees are properly following TSA guidelines thatdisproportionally affect Sikh, South Asian, Arab and Muslimpassengers?" the lawmakers asked in the letter.

They noted that TSA, a federal agency responsible for thesecurity of all airports in the US, is constantly improvingits screening technology to better protect passengers, butadded that recent reports have indicated that even with theuse of full body scanners, the newest screening technology,Sikhs, South Asians, Arabs and Muslims continue to be pulledfor additional physical screenings.

"How do these new technological developments help addressthe concerns over bulky clothing ... and invasive physicalscreening raised by these communities?" the lawmakers said.

Noting that protecting the US is of paramount concern,they said they recognise the TSA must have screening policiesin place to keep US airports and skies safe. However, theysaid they remain concerned that some policies that may beneutral on their face may be discriminatory in application.

"Terrorists against the US have been of every racialbackground; indeed many of the most well-known terrorists donot fit a commonly perceived stereotype. We must ensure thatall policies are carried out in an effective, neutral andnon-discriminatory manner. This will not only ensure ourcontinued safety but preserve the trust of Muslim, Arab, Sikhand South Asian communities in our government." PTI LKJ

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