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TSA Develops New Procedure for Screening Turbans at US Airports

Community Groups are Cautiously Optimistic and Insist that the TSA Implement Safeguards Against Profiling


Next week, our organizations will publish a "Know Your Rights" for Sikh air travelers. This document will provide clear guidance on what to expect when the new procedures come into effect on October 27, 2007.

October 17, 2007 (Washington, D.C.) - The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) yesterday announced a new security screening procedure that will apply to all religious head coverings at U.S. airports. The new procedures will go into effect on October 27, 2007. The new procedures, designed to detect non-metallic objects, do not allow a TSA screener to touch a Sikh's turban without cause unless the Sikh traveler gives the screener permission to do so. The change is a direct response to the concerns raised by Sikhs and Sikh organizations, including the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), the Sikh Coalition, and UNITED SIKHS over the last two months.

The New Procedure for Detecting Non-Metallic Threat Items

The TSA has instituted new additional screening procedures for non-metallic threat items, like plastics or chemicals. These procedures come into effect after a traveler clears a metal detector. If a screener believes the passenger's clothing is "bulky" and may be able to hide a non-metallic threat item more easily than form-fitting clothes, the screener can do an additional screening procedure. "Bulky clothing" can include items like jackets, shoes, flowing clothing, or non-form fitting headwear.

Under these procedures, a Sikh's turban will not be touched during additional screening, unless the Sikh traveler permits it.

Instead, if the Transportation Security Officer (TSO) believes a Sikh's turban needs to be screened, the passenger now has three options:

  1. The passenger can have his/her head covering patted down in public or in private by TSA personnel;
  2. The passenger can pat down his/her own head covering in public or private, and then have his/her hands swabbed with a cotton cloth to check for chemical residue; or
  3. The passenger can opt to go through a "puffer machine," if one is available at that airport.

A TSO should always offer a traveler a private area for the secondary screening of his/her religious head covering.

The option of a self-pat down by a passenger will not be pro-actively offered by the TSA screener. Sikh travelers must tell the TSO that they would like to pat-down their own turbans, or must first refuse to allow a TSA screener to do the pat-down, before being told that they have the right to pat their turban themselves.

A Sikh turban or other religious head covering may only be asked to be removed if the traveler wearing it does not successfully clear the additional screening after undergoing one of the three screening options.

Please remember that, along with the new procedure, all travelers must still clear metal detectors. That means that if a Sikh's turban sets off an alarm while going through the metal detector and/or a metal-detecting wand, the TSO may ask to pat the turban down. If this happens, please request a private screening area for the pat-down.

How Is This New Policy Any Better Than the Post-August 4th Policy?

The new procedure is encouraging and addresses the Sikh community's concerns in the following ways: 

  1. Turbans will not be listed in any TSA guidance as an item that should be subject to additional screening. 
  2. The TSA recognized that security screeners should not be allowed to touch a Sikh's turban indiscriminately, and should seek explicit consent before doing so, if no alarm has been set off.
  3. By accommodating religious head coverings, the TSA has acknowledged the distinction between secular and religious garb, including the Sikh turban.
  4. Before the Thanksgiving 2007 travel season, all 43,000 TSA screeners will undergo the following mandatory training about Sikhs:
            (a) View On Common Ground: Sikh American Cultural Awareness Training for Law                 Enforcement. [To watch On Common Ground click here]; and
               (b) Receive copies of the "Common Sikh American Head Coverings" poster. To view a             copy of the poster click here.

SALDEF, the Sikh Coalition, and UNITED SIKHS, are encouraged by the steps the TSA is taking to fix the faulty procedure. We thank both the TSA and Department of Homeland Security for their collaborative efforts in finding a solution that guards national security and protects the civil liberties of all people of faith.

Continuing Concerns

Nevertheless, there are some pressing concerns about the implementation of the new procedures.

To ensure national security, screeners have been given discretion on when to perform the additional screening. Some screeners could use this discretion in an inappropriate manner and single out or harass travelers of a certain national origin or religion.  Sikh civil rights groups remain concerned that the new procedure could lead to religious profiling of our community. We will continue to press the TSA to collect data that demonstrates that the new procedure does not disproportionately affect any specific national origin or religious groups.

In addition, even if Sikhs are not subject to disproportionate scrutiny, we are concerned about the negative perception created when a Sikh is pulled aside for additional screening. With the three options, a passenger can request the most comfortable screening method for himself/herself. We will continue to work with the TSA to minimize the humiliation that some Sikh travelers could feel when their turbans are screened.

We are also concerned that, because the screening options are not being mentioned early in the additional screening process, many Sikhs may feel pressure to submit to a screener pat down even though they have a right to refuse it and pat down their turban themselves. We strongly believe that screeners should offer the option of a self-pat down at the beginning of the additional screening process.

Finally, while our organizations also welcome the options for secondary screening, we recognize that the ideal solution is for the TSA to install 'puffer' machines or other detection technology at all airports. This would help avoid the need for additional screening that involves the handling of religious head coverings like the Sikh turban. We will continue to press the TSA to install "puffer" machines and other detection technology in all airports.

SALDEF, the Sikh Coalition, and UNITED SIKHS will continue to monitor implementation of the new procedure in the coming months. We will take all necessary action to ensure that Sikhs are not singled out for extra screening due to their religious practices.

The Sikh Coalition is a community-based organization that works for the realization of civil and human rights for all people. The Coalition serves as a resource on Sikhs and Sikh concerns for government, organizations and individuals.

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