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Travel to the U.S. leads to humiliations for visible minorities

Passport removals, zealous questioning, delays and hassles for those 'profiled'

Paula Simons
The Edmonton Journal

Saturday, November 02, 2002

This is a story of three Edmontonians, three hardworking Canadian citizens, on their way to the United States.

Jason Lucien in a business consultant. He is, for the record, ethnically Chinese and a Roman Catholic. But he was born in Malaysia, a moderate Muslim country where it's believed al-Qaeda has a strong operating base. Last month, Lucien accompanied his mother, a retired architect, and his father, a retired obstetrician, to a family wedding in Westchester, N.Y.

"We were 'profiled' all the way," says Lucien. "I was repeatedly questioned about my 'connections' in Malaysia, even though I left there in 1968, and I've been back a grand total of three times."

After the family was searched, and searched again, they were finally allowed to proceed to their plane. At the gate, they were asked to show their passports again. When the security guard saw that Lucien's mother was born in Malaysia, he re-searched her carry-on bag, then demanded she take off her shoes, so they could be searched, too.

"She said 'No.' She said she was 68 and had arthritis and it was too hard to take off her shoes. Finally, they just let her on the plane."

Ahlam Balazs is an Edmonton lawyer. She was born in Baghdad, but left in the 1960s because, as a Christian and a feminist, she thought her future in Iraq would be limited. She has lived here since 1968. In September, she and her Hungarian-Canadian husband took the ferry from Victoria to Seattle. Balazs says the U.S. immigration officer took her passport away and entered her name in a computer. It didn't bother her at first. But it did later, especially when the U.S. government announced -- then quickly renounced -- plans to fingerprint and photograph all Iraqi-born Canadians, and those from Syria, Libya, Sudan and Iran who wanted to enter the U.S.

"At first I said, 'Let them check. I don't have any worries. Let them search me.' But as a civil libertarian, I don't think this is right. Sept. 11 taught us there are bad people out there. But why victimize the majority? Don't punish everybody. As immigrants, we have all gone through Canadian security. This is a show of disrespect to our Canadian law and our Canadian authorities."

Muzaffar Iqbal's experience was the most unnerving.

He was born in Pakistan, came to Canada in 1979, and has been a citizen since 1986. A PhD in chemistry, as well as a poet, translator, and Islamic scholar, Iqbal travelled to Aspen, Colo. last month, to attend a symposium on science, spirituality and the arts. The trip down was fine. But as he was about to board his return flight to Edmonton, he was stopped by a United Airlines passenger agent, who told him his name was on a "no-fly" list.

"I said, 'I just flew here two days ago. If I were on the no-fly list, how did I get in?' But no logic would work. Within seconds, I was surrounded by security. Then an FBI agent came and took my passport."

Under new U.S. legislation, Iqbal knew he could have been held as a suspected terrorist, without access to a lawyer.

Happily, after a few phone calls, the FBI confirmed that this Muzaffar Iqbal was not the one they were looking for. In few hours, he was home in Sherwood Park.

"But I'm supposed to go to Washington, D.C., in December. And I'm rethinking that."

The need for tighter U.S. security, post 9/11, is obvious. But there are three problems with "geographic profiling," if we can call it that.

It's racist on its face, in its assumption that all Muslims or Arabs are suspects. It's a ridiculously blunt instrument, which ignores the fact that many people from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Malaysia, Lebanon, Pakistan, etc., are not Muslim, but Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Bahai, Hindu, Buddhist, you name it. On those grounds, every citizen of Soviet Canuckistan -- thanks, Pat Buchanan -- should be offended.

But does any of this work?

Jose Padilla, the man alleged to have worked with al-Qaeda on a plot to explode a "dirty" radioactive bomb in Washington, D.C., is a Brooklyn-born Hispanic, who converted to Islam.

Richard Reid, who tried to blow up a plane with explosives in his shoe, was born in Britain, to an Anglo-Saxon mom and a Jamaican dad.

Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 12th terrorist, was born in France, and converted to Islam while a university student.

"I sympathize with the Americans," says Lucien.

"I was in New York, in the World Trade Center, two weeks before the towers were hit. I remember the faces of the people I met in those towers. Had I been there two weeks later, I'd have been dead."

"But if they try to build their defences out of rules, they're going to be blindsided. The 'bad guys' know that the people at the border are going to be spending their time, energy and resources, things that are limited, hassling people with ties to Muslim countries. They'll send someone who doesn't fit the profile."

"Real terrorists are going to have false passports," adds Balazs. "They're not going be carrying passports saying they were born in Baghdad."

Balazs' first name, Ahlam, means "dream" in Arabic.

She says she dreams of a day when borders won't matter, when free people will travel freely. For now, she's looking forward to her next trip to the States, next month -- with her fingers crossed.

©Copyright 2002, Edmonton Journal

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