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Americans: Much More Than a Profile

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On October 7th Ms. Orellana was quietly eating her lunch when two Frederick County Deputy Sheriffs interrogated and detained her solely based on the color of her skin, according to a lawsuit recently filed in US District Court.

Two hundred and twenty-two years after the U.S. Constitution was signed, the rights and liberties enshrined in this foundational document hold the promise that is America. That promise is not always kept -- over the years U.S. laws and policies have deviated from the aspirational document signed so many years ago. For example, the 5th and 14th Amendments guarantee people in this country due process and equal protection of the law. But the pervasive and contemptible practice of racial and religious profiling violates those principles and tarnishes the ideals so eloquently set forward in the Constitution.

Racial profiling has historically been viewed as an issue that affects African Americans, Native Americans and Latino communities, as exemplified in the widely covered case of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. who was arrested after being suspected of breaking into his own home. Since September 11, 2001, instances of racial profiling have increasingly targeted those perceived to be Arab, Muslim or South Asian.

One such example is that of Zakariya Reed. Mr. Reed was born in Toledo, Ohio, is a firefighter, a member of Toledo's Homeland Security Emergency Response team, a former 20-year service member of the Air National Guard, and a Gulf War veteran. Since 2006, he and members of his immediate family have been detained, frisked and interrogated over fifteen times at border crossings in Detroit, Michigan after returning from trips to visit extended family in Canada. He has been held for hours; denied access to an attorney while border officials searched his cell phone, laptop and vehicle; and aggressively questioned about his religious beliefs, political views, associations and contributions to charity. Singling a person out for such treatment on the basis of his or her perceived religion, race, national origin or ethnicity does not help to "form a more perfect Union" as envisioned by the Constitution.

The rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights were intended to protect the most vulnerable among us from intrusive searches and unlawful deprivation of liberty by the government. However, immigration enforcement programs like the 287(g) program and the Secure Communities initiative that utilize state and local police departments to enforce civil immigration laws have lead to rampant profiling of citizens and non-citizens alike. Those perceived to be immigrants, based on accent or appearance, are disproportionately harassed, interrogated, and detained by law enforcement.

Just a few months ago, in Raleigh, North Carolina, two high school aged sisters found themselves in deportation proceedings after they were arrested for allegedly fighting in school. One of the sisters was an honor student, and neither had ever been in trouble in school before. In most cases, fights like this are dealt with inside the school itself. In 287(g) localities, the nature of the offense itself is irrelevant; once a person is booked by the police, his or her immigration status is checked. This system sweeps up people for minor offenses rather than addressing criminal behavior and often U.S. citizens have been stopped imprisoned and in some cases even illegally deported.

Police officers have a duty to protect and to serve everyone in the community, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, national origin or immigration status. They have a responsibility to follow facts, not bias. By targeting an individual based on race, religion, or ethnicity instead of specific indicators of criminal behavior, law enforcement may increase the number of arrests but they decrease their chance of catching actual criminals and thus threaten everyone's safety.

There have been important initiatives undertaken to fight racial profiling. For example, a coalition of civil rights and civil liberties groups set up a hotline at the northern border with Canada to track and respond to complaints of profiling. Other communities have worked to pass state laws prohibiting racial profiling and created networks to monitor police behavior. Despite the overwhelming evidence that racial profiling is an ineffective law enforcement tool that threatens community safety, both government data and academic research show the practice is alive and well.

On September 23, a national campaign against racial profiling was launched by a coalition of organizations around the country. In order to protect the cornerstones of due process and equal protection that are the foundation of the U.S. justice system, we called upon Congress to reintroduce and pass federal legislation banning profiling based on race, religion, ethnicity and national origin. We also urged the Obama Administration to revise the 2003 Department of Justice Racial Profiling Guidance to prohibit law enforcement agents from profiling based on religion or at the borders.

Today we continue to celebrate the diversity of our country as our strength. We still believe in the promise of a more perfect union, with liberty and justice for all.

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