WASHINGTON — Nevada’s McCarran International Airport has the dubious distinction of being on a top 10 list for allegations of violations of civil rights and civil liberties.
McCarran was the site of 108 complaints lodged with the Transportation Security Administration alleging violations of civil rights and civil liberties from October 2015 through February 2018, according to a report recently released by the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency.
The Las Vegas-area airport was No. 7 on the GAO’s list of 10 airports that were home to the most complaints during that time.
“I represent Las Vegas and so It distresses me to see McCarran on this list of top airports where you have complaints,” U.S. Rep. Dina Titus (D-1st) said at a hearing this week. “We welcome visitors from all over the world and we want their experience from the minute they land [to] the minute they leave to always be a good one, so I hate to see us here.”
She noted that McCarran is also one of the most heavily trafficked in the country. “I do think that this chart really only tells us which airports are the busiest. It doesn’t really give us much more information than that,” she said, adding that even one incident “is too many.”
McCarran ranked No. 7 in the Federal Aviation Administration’s list of busiest U.S. airports in 2018.
The data about civil rights complaints were released as part of a GAO report investigating whether TSA’s passenger screening policies were resulting in unlawful racial profiling.
TSA screeners are officially prohibited from selecting passengers for additional screening based on race and ethnicity, but the agency’s own review of more than 2,000 allegations nationally between October 2015 and February 2018 found “indications of potential discrimination” in 52 percent of the complaints.
TSA began using “behavior detection” practices in 2006, with the goal of identifying passengers exhibiting signs of “stress, fear, or deception,” but the practice has since raised numerous allegations of racial profiling.
The U.S. House Homeland Security Committee held a hearing this week to scrutinize TSA’s policies. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of that panel, called for the agency to end the behavior detection program entirely.
“A single incident where a traveler feels traumatized as a result of allegedly discriminatory treatment is certainly not insignificant to that person, and should not be considered insignificant to anyone,” Thompson said. “Under my leadership, this committee will not ignore or downplay the significance of any American making a credible allegation of discrimination by their government.”
Thompson said that TSA’s technologies regularly alarm on certain populations — such as Sikh passengers, African American women, and transgender people — leading to “increased delays and pat downs.”
Transgender people can be delayed by screening equipment that reads body types. According to the TSA’s guidelines for transgender passengers, “When you enter the imaging portal, the TSA officer presses a button designating a gender (male/female) based on how you present yourself. The machine has software that looks at the anatomy of men and women differently.” The buttons are pink for women, blue for men.
Sim Singh, senior manager of policy and advocacy at the Sikh Coalition, described to lawmakers how Sikh travelers frequently feel targeted by TSA’s current practices.
“As a Sikh-American and frequent traveler who maintains my religious articles of faith, I almost always experience an … alarm indicating that my turban is a problem and that I must undergo additional screening, ordinarily by explosive trace detection, a device that we have received many complaints about for false alarms,” Singh told the Homeland Security Committee.
The additional searches are frustrating and discriminatory for him and other Sikhs, he said. “The message at airports across the country to millions of passengers watching: Sikhs are outsiders that somehow pose threats worthy of investigating.”
Titus asked witnesses whether increasing the diversity among security officers might improve the situation. “If you are coming through an airport and you are a Sikh and there’s a Sikh TSO officer, maybe there would be some more understanding,” she said.
Witnesses said that workforce diversity is always beneficial, but urged TSA to change its policies from the top.
Without the appropriate leadership and policies in place, Singh said, security officers are still going to be “implementing problematic procedures and protocols that are not clear” and would “still unfortunately leave people feeling violated against their own people, maybe, at best.”