09/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Smoke and Mirrors

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano recently highlighted her department's efforts to reach out to build "stronger relationships with Arab and Muslim Americans, as well as South Asian communities across the country," seemingly reflecting an awareness of how the war on terror has stigmatized and cast irrational suspicion on these groups. Despite the best of intentions, however, Napolitano's self-assurance is premature. DHS's engagement of vulnerable communities emphasizes form over substance and, historically, has amounted to mere public relations.

Outreach efforts conducted by the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL), for instance, have long fallen short of repeated requests from vulnerable communities. Just last month, a coalition of over a dozen civil rights organizations issued a letter (PDF) to Secretary Napolitano reiterating a series of substantive and structural concerns, while proposing concrete solutions to fulfill the new administration's promise to pay greater respect to the Constitution and civil liberties.

Under the Bush administration, the FBI and various DHS components grew notorious for their aggressive scrutiny of American Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians: infiltrating mosques around the country with ex-convicts hired to initiate plots, selectively prosecuting immigration or tax violations, and subjecting entire ethnic groups to targeted surveillance. To placate these communities' legitimate concerns about racial and religious profiling, outreach became a substitute for meaningful reform of discriminatory underlying policies. President Obama's historic recent speech in Cairo seemed to reflect a change.

Yet eight months into the new administration's tenure, continuity appears to have triumphed. The FBI continues to infiltrate mosques and maintain the secrecy of its investigative guidelines, while CRCL has yet to address many policy concerns raised by organizations representing vulnerable communities.

CRCL, in particular, is failing its mission under its existing leadership. Examples abound. For years, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) has faced criticism for abusing civil rights, and undermining trade relations with our nation's foreign allies and international exchange programs. Yet NSEERS remains in effect.

A recent report by the Asian Law Caucus confirmed that federal officials routinely violate the civil rights of law-abiding Americans, including U.S. citizens, through invasive interrogations about their constitutionally protected religious beliefs and practices, as well as political views and activities. Responding to systemic racial, ethnic, and religious profiling by DHS personnel, such as Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) airport screening officers and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials, civil rights organizations have requested that DHS revise its inadequate guidelines on racial and ethnic profiling. Specifically, they have urged -- thus far, in vain -- the adoption of new guidelines prohibiting profiling on the basis of religion, and removing loopholes that allow profiling for national security and border integrity purposes.

Finally, the DHS Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP), originally intended to help remedy abuses by providing a process for resolving complaints, has instead become an exercise in futility. Even after submitting complaints about potential violations, individuals receive no notice about the status of their TRIP complaint, the timing of potential resolution, or what shape the resolution (if any) ultimately takes. Not only are administrative redress procedures inadequate, but there is no process for communities' concerns to inform the policymaking process.

Rather than resolve civil rights violations or raise them in the policymaking process, CRCL's activities mostly involve sending entry-level bureaucrats to community meetings to mollify individuals who complain about violations. Several staffers responsible for conducting this outreach are themselves from marginalized communities, recruited under the pretense that the Department would leverage -- rather than merely co-opt--their cultural competency, subject matter expertise, and language skills. Instead, recent developments suggest a potential political purge by holdovers from the Bush administration who continue to run CRCL in the absence of appointed political leadership.

Officials responsible for field outreach should enjoy sufficient authority to, where appropriate, investigate potential abuses. Ideally, they would also enjoy access to senior management and an opportunity to influence the policymaking process to prevent potential abuses before they occur. Because CRCL lacks such institutional authority within the DHS organizational structure, however, it will remain limited even after the administration finally appoints someone to lead its efforts.

President Obama ran on a campaign of hope and change. Hope may spring eternal, but change is proving more elusive. In the meantime, American Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and Latinos continue to wait for federal officials to respect our civil rights.

This article was originally posted at alt.muslim.

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