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Small victory as Sheriff Arpaio penalized, but piecemeal changes to SComm fail to address problems

Ever since its launch, the Secure Communities program (SComm) has whipped up one storm of controversy after another, continually being criticized by advocates, officials and local law enforcement for its lack of transparency and accountability, the threat to public safety, due process and justice that it poses, and its indirect but obvious encouragement of racial profiling. While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have denied these implications, the reality on the ground shows otherwise. Already in effect in several counties across the United States, SComm, combined with the draconian anti-immigrant laws that have been passed in several states, has contributed to the record-breaking deportation of people who were often stopped for minor violations and traffic offenses, and the separation of thousands of families around the country in the past year.

The immigration reform movement, however, recently marked a series of small victories. The infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa Country, Arizona, has been ordered to pay two men, Julián and Julio Mora, $200,000 in a racial profiling case. On February 11, 2009, Arpaio’s deputies had detained the pair for several hours after stopping their pickup truck outside a landscaping company they raided in search of identity-theft and fraud suspects. A federal judge determined that Arpaio’s deputies had no grounds on which to stop the men or detain them for so long.

This isn’t the first time Arpaio has come under legal fire for his racially prejudiced actions. However, he has tried recently, all too hard, to break this reputation. On July 11, Arpaio launched a line of Spanish-language pink underwear which reads “Vamos Jose!” For the last 17 years, Arpaio has been forcing his inmates to wear pink underwear that reads “Go Joe!” as a way to discourage theft of the undergarment. In an all too deliberate effort to prove his naysayers wrongs, he launched the Spanish-language version for public sale, that too in a Mexican restaurant in Phoenix. Sarah Palin and Hugh Hefner have reportedly already purchased their own pairs at $15 apiece. In a press release, Arpaio said-

It will raise more money to help at-risk youth and it is a poke in the eye to the critics who for years have called me racist because of my tough stance on illegal immigration.

However, this move hasn’t gone down well with activist groups. Lydia Guzman, of Somos America and Respect Repeto, labeled this “just another publicity stunt,” asking ”Who is he trying to convince? He is trying to too hard to convince us.”

In another move, the Manhattan Federal Court ruled on July 12 that DHS and ICE must furnish documents detailing why they misled state governments and the American public about the extent of SComm, which has recently come under fire for drastically varied interpretations. Reacting to the judgement, Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), commented-

While the Obama administration boasts of the Secure Communities program to win political points with Republicans, it has kept actual policy details nearly secret from Congress, state partners and the American public. Thankfully, federal courts, not ICE, get the last word…As we’ve seen in states and localities across the country, the more the public learns about Secure Communities, the more they say ‘no thank you’ to its implementation.

As another step that has been hailed by immigration reform activists, Russell Pearce, the president of the Arizone state Senate and the primary sponsor of the racist anti-immigrant SB1070 bill, will face a recall election. This has been the result of a grassroots appeal that collected enough signatures from registered voters to call for the special election. Pearce is the first state official in Arizona to face this kind of election.

Along with these small victories, on June 17 ICE announced a series of reforms to SComm after claiming to heed the criticisms that have come their way. One of the main aspects of the reform package is a training video that explains to local law enforcement officials what SComm entails and what constitutes racial profiling. Watch the ICE training video here:

While the video achieves the goal of explaining SComm to the local enforcement officials, it has also been criticized for being somewhat redundant and repeating racial stereotypes within the visuals of the video. Opponents of SComm have said that the officers should already know racial profiling is against the law. Margaret Huang, executive director of Rights Working Group, argued-

Putting into a video information that law enforcement should not be racially profiling—that is not likely to have a whole lot of impact…Part of the reason it’s become acceptable to use racial profiling in immigration enforcement is because it has been deliberately tied into the national security context.

While the movement against SComm has effectively brought scrutiny on the program and pushed ICE to take note of the criticism that the program has faced from all quarters, the minor tweaks that ICE released have been considered hugely inadequate in their redressal of the program’s flaws. Today at noon, immigrants and advocates in New York City are gathering to rally against the so-called reforms that has made to SComm. The rally, being held at 26 Federal Plaza, New York, NY, will take place one hour prior to a meeting that ICE has set up with advocates in New York City. This meeting is the third in a series of meetings that advocates have dubbed a “desperate marketing tour” through the states that have withdrawn from the program, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York. Today, protesters will rebuke ICE for excluding from its meetings the very people who are most greatly impacted by “Secure Communities” and call for a nationwide termination of the program, which funnels people directly into the deportation system, jeopardizes trust in the police, and encourages racial profiling.

Join us in our commitment to telling stories, inviting conversation, and inspiring action that will help our nation move even further in the right direction. To take action against Secure Communities, contact your Governor to help your state withdraw from the program.

Photo courtesy of azcentral.com

Dept. of Homeland Security ends biased and ineffective immigrant registration & tracking system

On April 27, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) made a long overdue announcement indefinitely suspending the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a framework that has been fraught with controversy and inefficiency since it was launched in the wake of 9/11. Several advocacy organizations have welcomed the move but have also called for the DHS to repair the damage that NSEERS has done over the years.

Over the past six years, the NSEERS required individuals from primarily Arab countries to register with the government on arrival and departure from the United States. These countries included Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt, Eritrea, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Individuals who fell under the critera were required to undergo around 30 minutes of additional inspection at a port of entry if  entering the U.S on nonimmigrant visas. Visitors had to register again when exiting the country. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) justified the existence of the system stating that it was implemented “to keep track of those entering and leaving our country in order to safeguard U.S. citizens and America’s borders.”

The DHS and ICE have been criticized for their overt racial profiling of Arab visitors or those who appear Arab in an effort to preserve national security. The almost exclusive focus on visitors from the Arab countries showed that an institutional typecast was established, a move that received much flak from advocacy groups. The NSEERS impacted a lot of innocent people . In 2003, Abdulameer Yousef Habeeb, a refugee from Iraq was traveling on an Amtrak train from Seattle to Washington, DC to start a new job at an Arabic-language newspaper. While the train had stopped for a 30-minute break in Havre, Montana, Habeeb was singled out by two border patrol agents and then subsequently interrogated, arrested, imprisoned and set up for deportation back to Iraq. This was all because Habeeb hadn’t registered with the NSEERS even though his status didn’t require him to do so. In March 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Habeeb, seeking compensation and damages for his losses and suffering as a result of the erroneous arrest and imprisonment. Finally, in June 2007, the U.S. government apologized to Habeeb for their misconduct and offered compensation. The message from U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Sullivan for the Western District of Washington giving Habeeb a formal statement said-

The United States of America acknowledges that, by not registering under NSEERS, you did nothing wrong. The United States of America regrets the mistake.

In what seems like an extension of their acceptance that Habeeb “did nothing wrong,” the DHS is now saying the same thing with regard to the entire community their NSEERS program had targeted. In their official announcement, the DHS gave the following reason for the cessation of NSEERS-

Over the past six years, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has implemented several new automated systems that capture arrival and exit information on nonimmigrant travelers to the United States, and DHS has determined that recapturing this data manually when a nonimmigrant is seeking admission to the United States is redundant and no longer provides any increase in security. DHS, therefore, has determined that it is no longer necessary to subject nationals from these countries to special registration procedures.

Cases such as Habeeb’s indicate that the NSEERS mistreated several nonimmigrant visitors to the U.S. from Arab countries. Therefore, while the suspension of the NSEERS is a much welcomed move, we must also not forget the damage to people and families that was caused by the program’s implementation over nine years. The mistrust of Arabs in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 branched out into the profiling of other ethnic communities such as Sikhs and other South Asian groups as well as the wider community of Muslims in America. The recent congressional hearings lead by Peter King on the “radicalization of Islam” are another testament to this deep mistrust and societal damage. Several advocacy groups such as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), and South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), along with the Arab American Institute (AAI), the National Immigration Forum (NIF) and the Rights Working Group (RWG), have praised the end of NSEERS, jointly stating-

The NSEERS program was a counter-productive response in the wake of September 11, 2001…One controversial aspect of the NSEERS program was a “domestic call-in” component that solicited registrations from more than 80,000 males who were inside the United States on temporary visas from predominantly Arab, South Asian, or Muslim-majority countries. The specific parameters of NSEERS revealed it to be a system that was a clear example of profiling: discriminatory, arbitrary, and, as DHS itself has stated, an ineffective national security measure…It is critical that DHS view this rule as a starting point for granting relief retroactively for those affected by NSEERS. Ultimately, these groups believe that NSEERS must be repealed in its entirety.

The steady erosion of basic human rights after the tragedy of 9/11 has affected numerous Americans and visitors to this country. In our current state of paranoia, we as a country have singled out and alienated specific groups, and programs such as NSEERS have added to this damage to the social and cultural fabric of our country. The suspension of the program is definitely a positive step by the DHS, which should be furthered by the full elimination of the program and a reform of the DHS policies and functioning to become unbiased and effective. The unfortunate cases of racial profiling, such as that of Habeeb, should not be repeated. As we approach the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, we must strive towards an America that cherishes its diversity and doesn’t needlessly suspect those who are different. The time is right for us to re-embrace one of our greatest strengths as a nation – our diversity.

Photo courtesy of dhs.gov

Breakthrough’s new Facebook game, America 2049, uses multimedia to explore race and migration in the U.S.

Breakthrough is pleased to present our ground-breaking new Facebook game, AMERICA 2049! (Twitter hashtag #america2049) The game has already been featured by TIME.com and Wired.com and this is just the beginning!

We invite you to play by becoming an agent, charged with the responsibility to protect the future of our country.

The game features appearances by Harold Perrineau (LOST), Victor Garber (Alias), Cherry Jones (24), Anthony Rapp (Rent) and Margaret Cho (Notorious C.H.O.), who generously donated their time and talents to help Breakthrough put a human face on complex social issues.

“America 2049″ players are activated as agents for the Council on American Heritage headed by Jefferson Williams II (Garber), and tasked with the capture of alleged terrorist Ken Asaba (Perrineau).

Over 12 weeks, “America 2049″ players will take on missions and face challenges based on human rights themes including immigration, race, sexual orientation, sex trafficking, religion, labor, national security and more.

Commenting on the concept of the game and his involvement, Perrineau said-

“‘America 2049’ entertains and enlightens about the real-world issues of acceptance and tolerance. The project resonated with me because I love the idea of people fighting at all costs for their right to pursue the life they choose without fear of persecution. I hope that through playing ‘America 2049,’ young people in particular will be inspired to help stop institutionalized hatred and intolerance — today.”

In ‘America 2049,’ players actively explore how the choices and challenges Americans now face will shape the future of the country, its democratic values and how America defines itself as a nation. The game challenges players to ask: how close are we already to America 2049– and how can we work together, in real life, to build a better future?

Mallika Dutt, President and CEO of Breakthrough, added-

The game experience allows us to immerse ourselves in a future that could be — but also inspires us to envision, and recommit to, a real America built on pluralism, democracy, dignity, equality and human rights for all.

“America 2049″ is the first Facebook game to integrate the social networking platform with many other resources, online and off: multimedia and interactive features, clues planted across the Internet and real-life events at leading cultural institutions nationwide, including members of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience.

Watch the America 2049 trailer here:

Agent, if you can handle the mission,  join us in game play and “like” the “America 2049″ Facebook page to get the latest updates.

Share with friends and protect the future of this country! Play the game on Facebook here.

As TIME.com says-

[T]he timing may be right to click into the world of 2049 and absorb its messages. You might be moved into acting on or learning about an important cause. And that’s okay, because your farm or vendetta can wait.

Good luck!

How ‘Un-American’ are Peter King’s Congressional hearings?

On Friday, March 4, two elderly Sikh men were gunned down without provocation while they were out for a casual stroll in a suburb of Sacramento. One of them, Surinder Singh (67), died immediately while his friend Gurmej Atwal (78), who was shot twice in the chest, is said to be in critical condition. The police who are investigating the attack have called on any witnessed to come forward and said that while they are still searching for evidence, there is a high probability that the there was a “hate or bias motivation for the crime.” This unfortunate attack took place just days before Rep. Peter King (R-NY) began his controversial House Homeland Security Committee hearings on the “The Extent of Radicalization” among American Muslims. With the upcoming 10th year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the endless spate of hate crimes against minority groups, it is difficult to ignore the implications that this Congressional hearing will have on the future of this country.

In the aftermath of 9/11,  heightened national security measures and increased suspicion of immigrant communities have placed a harsh spotlight on Muslim Americans as well as the wider South Asian and Arab American communities, deeply impacting the ways in which these communities are perceived and damaging their sense of national identity.

The first of the King hearings took place in Washington D.C. yesterday. Rep. Peter King said that he initiated these hearings in response to a string of arrests in 2010 concerning Muslim Americans who were connected to intercepted plots against American targets. In an interview with the Associated Press, King stated-

There is a real threat to the country from the Muslim community and the only way to get to the bottom of it is to investigate what is happening.

The committee yesterday heard from a panel of witnesses that argued for and against the premise of the hearings. Those who argued that the country needs to be more vigilant about the “radicalization” of the Muslim community included Dr. M Zuhdi Jasser, a doctor and Navy veteran who called on his fellow Muslims to be more outspoken against radical Islam, and Abdirizak Bihi, a Somali American activist whose nephew joined a militant group in Somalia and was subsequently killed in 2009. During the hearing, the most pointed questions against the premise came from Representatives who raised concerns over why other extremist groups – affiliated with various religions – were not even being considered by King and his committee. Speaking to the press after the hearing yesterday, King called it a success, emphasizing that the purpose was to “inform, not to inflame.”

The run-up to the hearings saw a very polarized response, with groups like Fox News expressing substantial support for them, while human rights advocates consistently condemned them. The greatest criticism of the hearings was not that extremist acts of terror pose a threat to national security and need to be investigated, but that King’s approach is biased and isolationist. The criticism holds that by scapegoating a community based on their religious affiliation, the King hearings will have widespread repercussions on how American Muslims will be perceived by the wider public. For a community that is already the subject of suspicion and profiling, the Congressional hearings, by calling for greater accountability for American Muslims above any other group, has very real implications for community identity, public perception, integration and collective healing.

One of the most vocal opponents of the hearings is the country’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a group that Peter King has accused of conspiring with radical Islamist groups. In addition to asserting their identity as a peaceful organization, CAIR said that they would have supported the hearings if they were “balanced and fair.” Also opposing King’s approach to the issue is the civil rights organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), that stated in their 2010 annual report on “hate and extremism” that the “radical right in America expanded explosively in 2010,” as the number of hate groups topped 1,000.

A number of critics also held that this kind of focalized criticism of a specific community could result in the loss of trust these groups have towards law enforcement agencies and the government, impeding the work of law enforcement and thus work against ensuring the safety of all communities. At the hearing, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim member of Congress, gave an emotional testimony about Mohammad Salman Hamdani, a NYPD cadet who was under suspicion for being involved with the attacks even as died trying to help victims on September 11, 2001. Breaking into tears, Ellison described -

After the tragedy…some people tried to smear his character … solely because of his Islamic faith. Some people spread false rumors and speculated that he was in league with the attackers because he was a Muslim. But it was only when his remains were identified that these lies were exposed. Mohammad Salman Hamdani was a fellow American who gave his life for other Americans. His life should not be identified as just a member of an ethnic group or just a member of a religion, but as an American who gave everything for his fellow Americans.

This anecdote, from an event still fresh in public memory, highlights the deeply damaging impact that continued demonization of an entire religious group can and does have on people’s lives. Moreover, by coming from an institutionalized source such as the House of Representatives (despite a marked distance by the Obama administration), the hearings put out a very strong message to the American public, and need to be understood for the authority that they wield. Even after Rep. King diluted his more aggressive original agenda, the hearings signal and amplify a deep sense of suspicion towards one group of Americans. Especially when ratified by the political leaders of the country, such trends pose a threat to the fundamental American principles of dignity and respect towards everyone. And that, perhaps, is a bigger threat to national security, especially in these testing times.

For a lighter, yet insightful take on King’s track record and alleged hypocrisy in this issue, watch Jon Stewart’s analysis of the hearings here:

Photo courtesy of www.upi.com

POLL: Do you support the Peter King hearings?

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Start a conversation that says no to racial profiling

In a recent USA Today poll, 71% of people said that they were in favor of racial profiling at airports. It is time to face the truth; racial and ethnic profiling at airports does not work.  In fact it makes us less safe. And moving away from airports, racial profiling occurs all over the country, targeting a number of communities including the Native American, African American, Latino, Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities.

We think it is time to Face the Truth about racial profiling and speak out against it. Participate in a conversation against racial profiling and join the Rights Working Group for the launch of their campaign that seeks to drive home the message that racial profiling does not work. In fact, it makes our communities feel humiliated and degraded, in addition to making us feel less safe rather than more secure.

Racial profiling is an illegal, ineffective and degrading practice that violates constitutional protections and human rights.  While many have struggled with the consequences of being profiled, including being incarcerated and deported, communities rarely have the opportunity to deepen our understanding of the facts, stories and realities of these events.

In order to educate individuals and communities across the country about the faces of racial profiling, why it is ineffective and what can be done to put an end to it, join into the Night of a 1,000 Conversations from February 22nd-28th to spread awareness and inspire action.

Why is the simple act of conversation so important. Here is an example of a testimonial from a previous conversation,

“None of the participants who were not born in the U.S. would commit to doing anything remotely political – write letters, make phone calls, etc.  Their fear of deportation was too great.  They viewed the evening’s activity as a safe space and while they were comfortable enough to share their thoughts on political climate re: immigration/detention/deportation, anything beyond personal conversation was not realistic.”

To get started, host a conversation or find one near you and join in. Visit www.nightof1000conversations.org for a toolkit, conversation resources and more to kick you off!

Photo courtesy of Rights Working Group.

It’s that time again to talk about racial profiling

There can be victories in the fight to stop racial profiling. But we need communities to come together and speak out against it.

For starters, you can have a conversation along with thousands of others on February 22 and Face the Truth about racial profiling.

While traditionally thought of as targeting the African American community, profiling affects a broad range of communities, including Native American, African American, Latino, Arab, Muslim and South Asian communities. More and more, it is being practiced in the name of national security. Not only is racial and religious profiling humiliating and degrading for the people subjected to it, it is unconstitutional, it is an ineffective law enforcement practice, and it continues largely unchecked, violating the human and civil rights of those targeted.

That’s why some of these latest victories are that much more exciting.

In East Haven, Connecticut, stories abound of police abuse against racial minorities, particularly against the Latino community that now comprises 6% of the town’s population. This is only an extension of long history of violence that began with the African American community. So everyone welcomed the decision of of the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the East Haven Police Department after concerned citizens filed complaints about the Department’s profiling and harassment of Latinos.

In a similar victory, a Maryland court ordered the Maryland State Police to turn over records on how they responded to complaints of racial profiling, scoring a victory for the NAACP and ACLU. The ruling has been a long time coming in the battle against the racial profiling practices of the Maryland State Police, often referred to as the “Driving while Black” litigation. Triggered by a phonecall from Robert Wilkins, an African-American attorney who had been stopped, searched and detained by the Maryland police for no specific reason, the NAACP and ACLU filed a complaint which was finally settled in 2003, where they were assured greater training of officers, an easier system to report racial profiling,  and greater transparency. Five years later, with very little improvement on the ground, the groups filed a request to see records of investigations conducted around the complains of racial profiling. The state police refused to make some of the records public, a refusal finally overruled this month by the States second highest court.

Last but not least is a bill introduced in the Georgia Senate prohibiting racial profiling introduced by Senator Gloria Butler. 26 states currently prevent racial profiling of motorists. The bill has come on the heels of extensive advocacy by local organizations like the ACLU of Georgia and their partners who have held town halls and released reports calling attention to the pervasive problem of racial profiling in their state. The story of how Mark Bell, an African American man, was continually harassed by a police car during a simple trip to the grocery store one evening, is but one in a number of cases in which communities of color are harassed and detained by the Cobb County police, resulting in a mistrust of local law enforcement within the community.

So what are you waiting for. These may be success stories but much more needs to be done. Tune in to host a conversation now.

Photo courtesy of NewBlackMan Blog

POLL: Does racial profiling exist in your community?

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Does discrimination have to play a part in keeping America safe?

Update: The Obama administration rescinded its policy of mandatory secondary screening for people traveling to the U.S. from 14 countries considered either “state sponsors of terror” or “countries of interest”, a policy hastily introduced after an attempting bombing on Christmas day last year. It now going to focus on intelligence and behavior in subjecting people to secondary screening, no matter which part of the world they come from. Many critics felt the policy was discriminatory, and so while concerns of profiling will continue, there is relief among advocates that it is no longer the official stated policy.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

In a response to the December 25th bomb attempt on Northwest flight 253 to Detroit, the Transportation Security Administration announced a new screening policy that requires “enhanced screening” of passengers flying into the United States from 14 countries considered either “state sponsors of terror” or “countries of interest”. With the exception of Cuba, the rule targets passengers, including U.S. citizens, that are traveling from Muslim-majority or Middle Eastern countries. The additional screening procedures including full body searches, pat-downs, scans and luggage inspections, in addition to the normal processes undertaken at the airport.

Many groups have reacted strongly to the directive, which carries on the pattern of profiling and alienating members of certain communities since 9/11. But the discriminatory rule is also considered an ineffective security measure.

In a briefing aptly called Targeting Needles, or Adding More Hay?,

Jumana Musa from the Rights Working Group pointed out that in the 1990s, when law enforcement began monitoring suspicious behavior instead of profiling based on race, arrests of targeted suspects actually increased even though fewer searches were conducted.

The ACLU shares similar concerns.

Electronic strip-searching of innocent people, racial profiling and bloated, poorly managed terrorist watch lists do not stop terrorist attacks, but they do infringe upon Americans’ rights and waste valuable resources…We must invest our security resources in investigations based upon reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing so we can more effectively identify and stop attackers before they get to any airport.

These strategies are not only smarter but save valuable resources. And they avoid racial and ethnic profiling, an unreliable means of identifying criminal behavior. Similar examples have yielded no results, like the one cited in this advocacy letter.

These new procedures parallel the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System (NSEERS), put into effect shortly after 9/11. Despite tracking at least 83,000 individuals from Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority countries, the NSEERS program did not result in a single terrorism conviction. Neither NSEERS nor the new TSA standards, make us safer because they divert attention and resources away from legitimate leads and identifying suspicious behavior.

But there are other consequences besides profiling. According to the ADC,

During the past decade, similar racial, ethnic and religious profiling tactics and practices have time and again misdirected precious counterterrorism resources, damaged foreign relations with key allies, fueled the fires of extremists by giving them an excuse, stigmatized communities, and most importantly did not have any discernible impact on security. Based on precedent, these new directives will be no different than these past practices and their adverse consequences; and while such directives may appear to make us feel safer, the reality is that they discriminate against innocent persons and divert attention from real threats.

An editorial by Farhana Khera of Muslim Advocates sums it up best,

President Obama has admitted that we didn’t connect the dots in the Abdulmutallab case. Federal authorities overlooked such clues as the alleged bomber’s improper attire for the Detroit winter, purchase of a one-way ticket, the United Kingdom’s rejection of his visa request and his own father’s efforts to alert authorities about his son’s recent extremist tendencies…We shouldn’t focus on what a terrorist looks like, but on what a terrorist acts like.

Photo courtesy of www.tsa.gov

POLL: Is the new TSA guidance an effective way to screen for potential terrorist threats?

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