By William Fisher  The Public Record 7/07/09

U.S. authorities detain thousands of people each year solely on the basis of religion, race or nationality, the American Civil Liberties Union charges in a new report to the United Nations.

The report says racial profiling is often applied to immigrants from South Asia and to North Africans suspected of being Islamic militants following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Submitted to the U.N. Committee to End Racial Discrimination, the report said profiling could involve harassment, detention, arrest or investigation.

Many Latin American immigrants are also targeted for immigration violations while others, including African Americans, are profiled as suspected drug offenders, the report said.

Chandra Bhatnagar, staff attorney with the ACLU’s human rights program, told us, “Racial profiling was widespread and pervasive during the George W. Bush Administration and it continues to be the reality today. The Obama Administration must finally put an end to this undemocratic and counterproductive practice by supporting the legislation currently making its way through Congress.”

He was referring to the End Racial Profiling Bill first introduced in 1997, but which has not yet been passed into law.

Civil libertarians place much of the responsibility for continued use of racial profiling to the practices of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and particularly to a DHS unit known as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). ICE, a law enforcement organization and the largest investigative arm of the DHS, is responsible for enforcing the nation’s immigration and customs laws.

Months ago, DHS’s new leader, Secretary Janet Napolitano, promised a thorough review of the agency’s policies and practices. But the ACLU’s Bhatnagar agrees with other civil liberties advocates that no results of that review have been made public.

These advocates are particularly critical of a number of DHS programs designed to increase the participation of state and local police in enforcing federal laws.

“Police officers who are often not adequately trained, and in some cases not trained at all, in federal immigration enforcement, will improperly rely on race or ethnicity as a proxy for undocumented status,” the ACLU report said.

The involvement of local police in this was having a “devastating impact” on some communities, Bhatnagar told us.

The ACLU says it has received complaints from across the country of U.S. citizens of Latin appearance being illegally stopped, detained, arrested and even deported by local law enforcement functioning as immigration agents.

Another contentious issue is ICE’s detention policies and practices, which have resulted in significant increases in immigrants being held in jails run by ICE, city and county jails, and private prison facilities.

The Los Angeles detention center has been a particular target of criticism. Civil rights groups are suing ICE in federal district court for detaining immigrants in egregious and unsanitary conditions in that facility.

The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU of Southern California, the National Immigration Law Center, and a private law firm, also charges that the unsanitary conditions have led ICE to deprive immigrants of due-process rights such as access to mail or attorneys while in detention.

The Los Angeles facility, known as “B-18,” is allowed to temporarily house detainees for no more than 12 hours. But in what the ACLU calls “a perverse distortion of its original purpose,” it says immigration officials have kept detainees for weeks by shuttling them to local jails in the evenings and on weekends, and returning them to the facility on the next business day, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also alleged that immigration officials often fail to notify detainees that they have the right to obtain release on bail while their cases remain pending.

The lawsuit said B-18 has not provided basic medication besides the lack of sanitary equipment. Some of the facilities to which detainees are shuttled have similar gross deficiencies. Detainees are not permitted to have shower in jail. Up to 50 detainees routinely share one open commode, one urinal (or two open commodes) and one sink. At some local jails, overcrowding and vents that blow extremely cold air on the bunks force detainees to sleep on mattresses on the floor. At B-18 and other jails, guards force detainees to remain inside through the entire day, and only permit them to go outside when shuttling them between detention centers. They are not permitted to have any physical recreation.

These conditions violate the statutory and constitutional rights of the detainees. “It’s shameful that immigration officers are treating detainees like animals, apparently because the immigration bureaucracy cannot seem to send detainees to the right place,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, ACLU Director of Immigrant Rights and National Security.

ICE has also faired poorly in court cases. In April, a federal judge issued a ruling calling into question the U.S. immigration agents’ treatment of a Syrian-born German citizen who was jailed by U.S. officials, subjected to strip and visual cavity searches, and asked to spy for the U.S. government. The federal court rejected the government’s request to have the case against the U.S. government and immigration agents dismissed in its entirety.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Majed Chehade by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and a private law firm against the United States, federal agents, the City of North Las Vegas, and the North Las Vegas Police Department.

Chehade is a 64-year old German citizen whose wife, three children, and grandson are U.S. citizens. Chehade owns a home in Massachusetts and is the export director of a German manufacturing company. On his way to visit his daughter in December 2006, he was detained at Las Vegas Airport and taken to a local jail, where he was subjected to strip and visual cavity searches, denied access to medical care and his prescription medications, and told that if he wanted to return to the U.S., he would have to spy on behalf of the government.

In its ruling, the court held that strip searches of immigrants arriving in the country are constitutional only if supported by reasonable suspicion. The court further held that the immigration agents’ actions could be considered “extreme and outrageous conduct” and allowed an inquiry into the legality of the government’s attempt to conscript a foreign national to spy to move forward.

The ACLU and many other similar organizations are also critical of a DHS program known as Fusion Centers. These state, local and regional institutions were originally created to improve the sharing of anti-terrorism intelligence among different state, local and federal law enforcement agencies. These centers have grown to include not just law enforcement, but other government entities, the military and the private sector.

The ACLU says the centers, over 40 of which have been established around the country, “raise very serious privacy issues at a time when new technology, government powers and zeal in the ‘war on terrorism’ are combining to threaten Americans’ privacy at an unprecedented level.”

It adds that “federal, state and local governments are increasing their investment in fusion centers without properly assessing whether they serve a necessary purpose.”