This Week in Racism, Sikh American designer and actor Waris Ahluwalia was stopped from boarding his Aeromexico flight from Mexico City to New York because he wears a turban.
The media is spinning the story like Aeromexico doesn’t allow turbans on their planes. In fact, he was asked at the gate to remove his turban for inspection, and he refused. It turns out for US-bound flights, foreign airlines are obliged to uphold TSA protocols for screening passengers, which, as we all know, are racist as hell. And protocol says if a passenger refuses to submit to any part of a search, they can be prevented from flying.
But were Aeromexico to let Ahluwalia slide through without complying to security requests, however racist and bungled, the consequences could be dire. Read on for how the TSA enforces its ineffectual and racist policies abroad, and does a really bad job of it.
Around 9:30am EST February 8th, Sikh-American designer and actor Waris Ahluwalia posted to a photo to his Instagram holding a plane ticket with a caption saying he was barred from boarding his Aeromexico flight from Mexico City to New York because of his turban:
The actor, Waris Ahluwalia, who follows the Sikh religion and wears a turban, said he checked in at the Aeroméxico counter at Mexico City’s international airport about 5:30 a.m. and was given his first-class boarding pass with a code that he said meant he needed secondary security screening.
When he showed up at the gate…his feet and bag were searched and swabbed, he was told to remove a sweatshirt and he was patted down. Then, he said, he was asked to take off his turban.
“I responded matter-of-factly that I won’t be taking off my turban,” he said in an interview Monday afternoon from the airport in Mexico City. “…They said, ‘O.K., then you are not getting on the flight.’ ”
He said he was told by another airline security official that he would not be boarding any other Aeroméxico flight until he met their security demands.
As of this writing, he is still voluntarily in Mexico City.
It’s critical to understand that he wasn’t told he could not enter a plane simply because he had a turban on. He was told he could not enter the plane unless took his turban off for security to search it.
With almost 22,000 followers, it didn’t take long for his story to go viral.
Traveling while Brown
Male Sikhs sport beards, turbans, and often dark complexions (most are Indian). There are no more than half a million of them in the US and they don’t even register as a demographic in Catholic Mexico. Low relative numbers and stereotypical markers of Muslim terrorists mean they are often perceived as, well, Muslim terrorists. This leads to misled profiling in airports and borders—never mind that profiling is misled in the first place.
In a survey of about 600 Sikhs conducted by a South Asian advocacy organization, 25% of respondents said they were subjected to secondary security screening by TSA agents more than half the time they traveled.
The internet is understandably outraged at Aeromexico for their racial profiling. Many are showing their solidarity with the traveler and condemnation of the airline on social media with the #StandWithWaris hashtag:
Some Mexicans are even apologizing on behalf of Mexico:
What Ahluwalia, who remains in Mexico, and his supporters are asking for is an apology from Aeromexico (issued February 9th) and “a plan for further employee training (either through the Sikh Coalition or independently) on sensitivity to religious passengers.”
But remember: he wasn’t told he could not enter a plane with a turban on. He was told he could not enter the plane unless took his turban off for security to search it. And they said this according to the demands of United States Transportation Authority. (Where his apology now lives used to be a statement indicating such, but here is a cached copy.)
If anyone is to blame here for the mishandling of a profiled passenger, it’s the TSA.
The TSA Abroad
It behooves the TSA to screen incoming traffic as well as domestic. According to US federal law, the TSA must make attempts to impose its screening protocols and procedures, including the authority to bar a traveler from entering any secure part of the airport or plane, on any foreign airport/airline that serves the US.
Here are some of the protocols that may have affected Ahluwalia’s passage:
- Screeners may pat down passengers or mark travelers as selectees for secondary screening based on “visual observations” since at least 2004 (TSA press release)
- Gate screenings happen “under extraordinary circumstances (for example, a selectee’s boarding pass was not annotated with a distinctive marking)” (TSA Screening Management Standard Operating Procedures) (Ahluwalia’s boarding pass was marked with SSSS for “Secondary Security Screening Selection“)
- Gate selectees may be asked to undergo a “bulk item pat down” which may require selectee to remove bulky items (TSO agent)
- The TSA is allowed to screen hair and religious head wear. (TSA FAQ)
Aeromexico was compelled to bar the traveler for non-compliance under threat of serious consequences for not doing to. Here’s how the TSA is able to coerce foreign airports and airlines to do its bidding, according to the Governmental Accountability Office:
The TSA assesses the effectiveness of security measures at foreign
airports using select aviation security standards and recommended
practices adopted by ICAO [International Civilian Aviation Organization], a United Nations organization representing 190 countries. . . . ICAO member states have agreed to comply with these standards.
. . . The TSA inspection team also conducts air carrier inspections . . . to ensure that air carriers are in compliance with TSA security requirements. Both U.S. air carriers and foreign air carriers with service to the United States are subject to inspection.
The TSA ranks inspected airports from tier 1 (low risk) to tier 3 (high risk).
If [TSA] inspectors report that an airport’s security measures do not
meet minimum ICAO standards . . . such as those related to passenger and checked baggage screening . . . TSA headquarters officials are to inform the Secretary of Homeland Security. If the Secretary . . . determines that a foreign airport does not maintain and carry out effective security measures, he or she must, after advising the Secretary of State, take secretarial action.
The “secretarial action” that can be taken is defined under USC Title 409 Subsection 449007. So you don’t have to slog through it, here’s a summary how the the Secretary of Homeland Security can go up the chain of government to really screw over the offending airport:
- Notifying the public that it “does not maintain and carry out effective security measures”
- Printing on passenger tickets that the airport isn’t taking their security seriously
- Revoking the authority of planes fly into the US out of it
- Suspend all transportation between it and the US
In 2008 Venezuela felt the wrath of the TSA for not allowing agents to inspect its airports over issues of sovereignty. The Department of Homeland Security posted public notices at US airports discouraging travel there. That might not seem like such a big deal, but in fact there was a time when Mexico’s airports were determined to be tier 2: the effects of which meant “Mexican airlines could not do codeshare flights, acquire more planes, or create new routes to the United States.” It took 162 days and over $50 million pesos (about $4 million USD at the time) for Mexico to return to tier 1, not to mention losses stemming from its punishment.
Failure to Train
Brown travelers get enough hassle in the US as it is. Now imagine the Kafka-esque nightmare that they have to go through in non-US airports with undertrained staffed whose only association of turbans is with terrorists yet are pressured by the biggest superpower in the world to catch them all.
The TSA does not have its own agents at non-US airports and must provide training to foreign staff. The TSA has an Office of Global Strategies (OGS) that “is responsible for collaboratively working with international partners to secure the global transportation network.” In other words, it determines how personnel at non-US airports perform security procedures, including screenings, for flights bound for the US. The OGS has one, ONE, internally funded program providing security training and technical assistance to foreign aviation security officials, staffed by a whole 38 people as of May 2014. Even the Office of the Inspector General of Homeland Security said that “it is very difficult to quantify the effectiveness of the training that OGS provides” (though it denies ineffectiveness in the same breath).
What are the odds that Mexico’s staff is aware of the following policies?
- Since 2007 turbans can only be removed after they are first patted down but do not pass inspection. It’s likely that the turban was visually categorized as a “bulky item” that needed to be removed.
- There are conflicting reports on whether or not Ahluwalia asked for a private room (requests for confirmation have not been answered) but it’s clear he was not offered one. Travelers have a right to request a private screening area and agents are obliged to comply. Again, it’s up to the TSA to make its policies clear to foreign agents.
So long as they are expected to upload the same racist, annoying, ineffectual policies, travelers should at least be able to rest assured that they will be treated like the same level of garbage around the world.
So who’s to blame here? I believe the the bulk of it should go on the TSA and Homeland Security for expecting foreign airlines to be up to date on their procedures with no training staff and huge pressure to perform. Aeromexico may certainly have been aware of every policy as well and simply refused to accommodate Ahluwalia. But to me, it makes more sense that the pressure TSA puts on other nations to secure US borders is worth more than some agents not letting someone get on a plane that was leaving their country. But until the TSA either relaxes its grip on the world’s airports or provides adequate training, they can certainly take the blame for a step for which they say they are held responsible worldwide.
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