In the six and a half years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, federal law-enforcement agencies have secretly established profiling techniques to screen immigrants based on their nationalities, protocols that critics charge encourage the unjustified targeting of Muslims.
The profiling, described in a February 2006 Immigration and Customs Enforcement memo obtained by McClatchy Newspapers, shows that the government has relied more heavily on nationality as an indicator of security risks than was previously known.
Federal agencies have created internal lists of countries that are of “special interest” for national security reasons, wrote the memo’s author, Ted Stark, supervisory special agent with the Office of Intelligence at ICE.
So many federal agencies have created different lists that U.S. officials contemplated adopting a single one to streamline the process, Stark wrote.
The proposed list, which officials said had yet to be adopted, includes 35 countries, most with significant Muslim or Arab populations. Almost 20 percent of the world’s countries—including some of the United States’ key allies, such as Jordan, Turkey and Egypt—are on the list.
The effort to come up with a uniform approach is another reflection of how the nation continues to grapple with finding effective ways to detect terrorists, and how those efforts sometimes collide with constitutional and legal rights.
In this case, with little or no oversight or public scrutiny, law enforcement officials have assumed flexible and expansive discretion to make screening decisions based on where an immigrant was born.
The group of agencies—which included ICE, the National Security Agency and U.S. Customs and Border Protection—not only recommended one list but also suggested an interagency definition of a “special interest alien.”
Under the proposal, a special interest alien would be an immigrant with terrorist ties or an immigrant who by nationality, “ethnicity or other factors may have ties or sympathies” with the listed countries.
As a result, an immigrant who doesn’t have any known terrorist links and who isn’t from a country on the list conceivably could be considered a special interest alien, if his or her ethnic background included a listed country.
Stark described the proposed term as “generic enough to address all the functional issues” of federal law-enforcement agencies.
Critics charge that the screening technique not only appears to target Muslims but also is too broad to be effective.
Federal authorities wouldn’t discuss the memo or the screening methods in detail but denied singling out Muslims. When asked, some confirmed that such lists existed but wouldn’t disclose the identities of the nations.
According to the memo, once a federal agency designates an immigrant a “special interest alien,” officials run him or her through a “full court press” of interviews, inspections and database checks.
Depending on what agents discover, such foreigners might be cleared after lengthy background checks. Or they could be flagged for detention or deportation, or become the subjects of criminal investigations.
While U.S. officials said their current special-interest country lists were based on intelligence about international terrorist networks, the proposed list doesn’t include Germany and England, where authorities have acknowledged breaking up al-Qaida cells.
After the attacks, Americans expressed ambivalence about whether law enforcement should rely on profiling. While a majority thought that it was wrong to base profiling on race, religion or ethnicity, many also described it as “understandable” if Middle Easterners were singled out.
In practice, agents don’t automatically scrutinize every immigrant from the listed countries, ICE and FBI officials said. Nor do agencies rely on the designation when deciding whether to pursue criminal charges or to grant U.S. citizenship or green cards.