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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Ramadan Reflection Day 9: Racial Profiling


I'm about to board a flight to Houston at NYC's LaGuardia Airport. My flight is boarding in about 25 minutes. I checked-in at home and got here about 15 minutes ago.

There used be a time when I took domestic flights that I wasn't allowed to check-in from home and had to plan to be at the airport two hours before a domestic flight. When I would get to the airport, my boarding pass would print with "SSSS" on it, signifying that I was some kind of security threat. When it became my turn in line with the TSA agent checking IDs and boarding passes, a call would be made to a supervisor who would then escort me through the security line, place my belongings in a red bin as opposed to the regular grey one, and once I went through the metal detector, would be escorted to a glass encased box, one side of which was a bar that dropped behind me, I guess in case I tried to run away. The glass panels I guess were so everyone who was about to get on the plane with me could watch what was happening. I'm sure they found that comforting and appreciated it.

Another TSA worker would then come up to me while I was in the box. "Mr. Latif, we are going to do an extended pat-down on you at this time. I will be patting down your entire body with my hands including running a finger through your neckline and waistline. When I get to your more sensitive areas, such as your inner groin and backside, I will use the back of my hands instead of the front of them. Are you comfortable with this?" I would let a out a deep sigh, as in my mind I'm thinking, "Yes, I obviously was hoping to get felt up by a strange man this morning."

After that my belongings were searched through and then I would be told, "Thank you. Enjoy your flight."

There also used to be a time when I took international flights, I would be detained coming into the country.

Whether I was traveling for work, in an official capacity on behalf of the State Department, or for leisure, I was consistently stopped. It got to the the point that I couldn't even get off the plane by myself. Our flight would land on the runway and an announcement would be made to have passports ready as TSA was doing random checks as we disembarked. Essentially I was the random check. When the two TSA agents at the door of the plane came to me and my passport in the line, the one who found me would say to the other, "I've found him," and then the two would escort me to the detaining room for a period of two to six hours at time. The room was full of people from very diverse backgrounds, mostly minorities.

I came to learn that it was best to travel without any electronics, as this prolonged the process. As my belongings were searched through, some of the TSA agents themselves became frustrated after finding my NYPD credentials or my State Department letters. I would be asked, "Why are we stopping you?" and my response would be, "If you don't know why you are stopping me, how am I supposed to know?"

After being stopped for three consecutive weekends straight, I asked one of the TSA workers who now knew me by name why he thought I was being stopped. "You're young. You're male. And you're Muslim. Those three things don't go so well together right now."

I didn't really understand the impact it was having on me until my wife and I traveled together for the first time for our honeymoon. We went to St. Lucia and our entry point back in the United States was through Miami. As we got up to leave the plane, I told her to not get off with me, as I didn't want her to somehow get detained as well. Two of our friends, Shala and Faraz, were going to be meeting us at the airport and Priya would hang out with them while I was being held.

She, of course, insisted on walking with me. We got out of the plane and no one was there to take me away. I assumed that it was because we were in Miami, and my usual entry point to the USA was through NYC when returning from an international visit. We then went through the customs check and I told her it might happen here, but then nothing happened. We then walked through the baggage claim, something I had not done without an escort for almost three years, and as we neared the exit I kept looking over my shoulder to see if someone was coming to stop me. We made it to the public area of the airport and Priya joked with me saying that she's my good luck charm and it's because I married her that I was not stopped. I responded by putting my arms around her, my head on her shoulder, and crying for the next few minutes.

Just because I am a Muslim, does not mean I am a threat. Just because I am Muslim, doesn't justify me being treated differently from anyone else. People every day are facing this reality because of their skin color, country of origin, culture, ethnicity, religious affiliation and many other variables. The emotional anxiety that is felt is not really describable. I've seen women who are pregnant in the detaining rooms and grandmothers in the glass box as their grandchildren watch them go through these experiences. To anyone who has gone through something similar, I'm sorry that you have been treated like that. It's not OK for you to be singled out or for anyone to justify a racist profiling of you and people like you. Be strong and true to who you are. The solution is not to hide yourself, but empower yourself, share your story and ensure that you are doing what you can so that those who come after you won't have to go through something similar.

I'm about to board my plane. The desk attendant just asked for us to have our boarding passes and ID cards ready as TSA is going to do a random search. Let's hope I didn't speak too soon :)

Source: The Huffimgton Post

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