Racial or ethnic profiling is nothing new. In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Arabs and Muslims in America are often the targets of ethnic profiling, despite the argument that racial and ethnic profiling runs contrary to American values. Counterterrorism strategists argue that targeting particular ethnicities or races during investigation is a more efficient way to catch perpetrators. They may also argue that while not all Arabs and Muslims are terrorists, all the terrorists who attacked us on Sept. 11 were Arabs or Muslims.
Yet the greatest damage done by this practice is not violation of civil liberties but this: Profiling doesn’t work.
A recent study on a secret Department of Homeland Security operation code-named “Frontline” and spearheaded by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, revealed damning evidence against the use of ethnic or racial profiling in counterterror operations.
Operation Frontline was designed to “detect, deter and disrupt terror operations” among immigrants during the months leading up to the presidential election.
An analysis of data obtained from the Department of Homeland Security through a lawsuit showed that an astounding 79 percent of the targets investigated were immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.
This policy was exposed by the numbers, despite numerous reassurances from DHS that racial, ethnic and religious criteria were not the basis of its investigations.
The number of arrests made under national-security related charges? Zero.
To put this in context, immigrants from Muslim countries were 1,280 times more likely to be targeted for investigations than immigrants from other countries. Despite that, not one national security-related charge was levied, even though the investigation targeted hundreds of immigrants who “fit a terrorist profile.”
One would think that such a massively inefficient policy would serve as a lesson for other law enforcement agencies. Yet the FBI is about to begin operating Dec. 1 under new attorney general guidelines that allow ethnic background, race and religion to be part of the criteria for launching investigations. This is a policy that flies in the face of everything we’ve come to know about the efficiency of racial profiling.
Racial and ethnic profiling is a genuine and important national security concern. Criticizing racial profiling can no longer be characterized by the right as the policy of dovish, immigrant-loving liberals. We know now that every dollar spent targeting innocent Arabs or Muslims could have been spent developing or following legitimate leads.
The Obama administration and the new Congress should make a legislative priority to ban racial profiling, without the loopholes that exist today, from all levels of law enforcement. The federal government should institute a system of data collection to ensure racial profiling is not being conducted illegally.
The End Racial Profiling Act would do just that, and is long overdue. As Operation Frontline and other operations have made clear, racial profiling is not aiding counterterrorism efforts but instead, unfortunately, impeding them.
Yousef Munayyer is a policy analyst for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C. For more information, go to www.adc.org. This article first appeared on page G – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, November 23, 2008.