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Sikhs warned of additional screening of turbans at US airports

Already peeved by security pat downs, Sikhs in the US have been warned that they could now face 100 per cent screening of their turbans at American airports as the new imaging technology cannot see through their 'pagris'.

world Updated: Jan 14, 2011 16:15 IST

Already peeved by security pat downs, Sikhs in the US have been warned that they could now face 100 per cent screening of their turbans at American airports as the new imaging technology cannot see through their 'pagris'.

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

"Sikhs should now expect to be secondarily screened 100 per cent of the time at American airports, even after passing through 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 can see through "layers of clothing," the TSA has made clear in both word and practice that such machines are not powerful enough to see through Sikh turbans.

"This means that, for Sikhs, the new machines will lead to more -- not less -- screening of turbans," Sikh Coalition said, adding that its assessment is based on feedback from the community and interaction with officials of the TSA and Department of Homeland Security.

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

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

"Please keep in mind that you can always pat-down your own turban. Your turban should also not be ordered removed unless a screener detects something dangerous in your turban either at the pat-down or metal-detecting stage. To avoid false alarms, we recommend that you wash your hands before entering the screening area," it said.

According to the TSA, if a person's turban or hands trigger an alarm during explosive trace detection sampling, the person will be required to undergo private screening and remove the turban to resolve the concern, Sikh Coalition said in its guidelines.

Amid concerns voiced by Sikhs in the US over their enhanced screening at airports because of their turbans, four key lawmakers asked authorities to quickly address the issue to avoid undue inconvenience to the community members. In a letter to TSA head John S Pistole, the four US lawmakers urged him to not only address the concerns of the Sikh community about the additional screening they have been facing because of their 'pagri' or "head gear," but also the "bulky" clothing, which was cited as a reason for the pat down of Indian Ambassador to the US, Meera Shankar, last year.

Hardeep Singh Puri, India's envoy to the US, was also asked by officials to remove his turban during a security check at the Houston airport.

"The Sikh Coalition has reported that TSA officials in airports in Oakland, Seattle, Dallas, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles pull aside Sikh passengers for enhanced screening virtually 100 per cent of the time.

"There is also strong evidence that existing TSA guidelines on bulky clothes have a disparate impact on Sikh and Muslim passengers whose traditional and religious dress is considered 'bulky'," the lawmakers -- Judy Chu, Sheila Jackson Lee, Bobby Scott and Melvin Watt -- said.

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

"Current TSA guidelines allow for individuals to avoid invasive and public searches by completing their own self-pat down or by going to a private area for a search. Community Groups report that many TSA officials are often either unaware of these options or simply neglect to tell the travelers their options.

"How can TSA address these concerns and ensure their employees are properly following TSA guidelines that disproportionally affect Sikh, South Asian, Arab and Muslim passengers?" the lawmakers asked in the letter.

They noted that TSA, a federal agency responsible for the security of all airports in the US, is constantly improving its screening technology to better protect passengers, but added that recent reports have indicated that even with the use of full body scanners, the newest screening technology, Sikhs, South Asians, Arabs and Muslims continue to be pulled for additional physical screenings.

"How do these new technological developments help address the concerns over bulky clothing ... and invasive physical screening 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 policies in place to keep US airports and skies safe. However, they said they remain concerned that some policies that may be neutral on their face may be discriminatory in application.

"Terrorists against the US have been of every racial background; indeed many of the most well-known terrorists do not fit a commonly perceived stereotype. We must ensure that all policies are carried out in an effective, neutral and non-discriminatory manner. This will not only ensure our continued safety but preserve the trust of Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian communities in our government."