November 5, 2010
19th Katik (Samvat 542 Nanakshahi)
Press Release

COMMUNITY ALERT: Turbans to Always be Searched at Nation’s Airports

Sikh Organizations Coordinating Joint Action

WASHINGTON, DC: Early last month, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials told representatives of UNITED SIKHS, the Sikh Coalition, and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) that Sikhs should now expect turbans to always be searched at American airports.

While procedures which allow Sikhs to pat down their own turbans and have their hands swabbed by a TSA screener shall remain in place, what has changed is that Sikhs must go through an additional hand wand scan of the turban as an extra screening procedure 100% of the time.  This is true for Sikh travelers who voluntarily choose to be screened by going through the new Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines.  The AIT machines (otherwise known as whole body imaging machines) are being placed in airports nationwide over the coming years.

UNITED SIKHS, Sikh Coalition, and SALDEF oppose this policy and question its necessity.  Targeting turbans for additional scrutiny sends a message to other passengers that Sikhs and their articles of faith are to be viewed with suspicion by fellow travelers. The policy is a serious infringement on our civil rights and liberties.

What to Expect at the Airport

Air travel checkpoints in the United States employ different screening technologies.

While most checkpoints only have metal detectors, many airports are now installing AIT machines. The AIT machines are new whole body imaging devices that will be installed in every airport in the United States over the coming years.

According to the TSA, regardless of whether a Sikh clears the metal detector or the new AIT machines, they will still have to go through an additional procedure in which their turban will be checked for non-metallic items.  During this second screening procedure, a Sikh will have a choice of either:

  1. a pat-down of their turban by a TSA screener;
  2. patting down their own turban and having their hand swabbed for traces of chemical explosives; or
  3. requesting a private screening (in a room outside of public view) of their turban.

In addition, after this extra screening of the turban, a third screening procedure (under AIT screening policies) will subject Sikhs to a metal detecting wand that will be scanned over the turban.

Please remember, that under current procedures, a Sikh can always ask that they pat down their own turban rather than have a screener pat it down.

If a Sikh traveler opts out of the AIT screening, they will immediately be subjected to a full body (rigorous) pat-down by a TSA official plus a hand wand screening.  If you are asked to undergo a full-body pat down, you have the right to ask for this screening to occur in a private room or other setting away from the rest of the traveling public.

The TSA’s Rationale

The TSA says that because a turban is “non form-fitting,” it is more capable of concealing dangerous items than other forms of clothing.  The TSA also says that its new AIT machines cannot see through the folds of a turban to determine if it is concealing a dangerous item.

Our organizations vigorously question these rationales.  First, the Department of Homeland Security’s own website states that the AIT machines are capable of screening threat items “concealed under layers of clothing.” Second, on Christmas Day 2009, a person was able to smuggle explosives onto a plane headed to the United States in his undergarments.  If explosives can be concealed in undergarments, all garments should be targeted for extra scrutiny, not just turbans.

Going Forward

Each one of our organizations will continue to oppose this unjust policy.  We will call upon Sikhs in the coming weeks to communicate directly with the TSA and their members of Congress.

Each one of our organizations are also aware that the Sikh American community is as invested in the national security of the United States as any other community.

Nevertheless, the TSA cannot target turbans for extra scrutiny without cause. We will continue to vigorously question the necessity of this policy given the weak rationales presented for it.

Coordination Amongst Sikh Organizations

Our three organizations would like the community and government to know that it is our intention to work together to combat unlawful profiling of Sikhs by the TSA.  We will jointly strategize and communicate with both the government and the Sikh community about our work on this issue.

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