WASHINGTON — When Rep. Keith Ellison read about the New York City Police Department’s monitoring of Muslim students at the city’s universities, his first thoughts were for his son.
“I was very proud when my son was elected president of the Muslim Student Association at his college, but I wonder: was my 18-year-old son under surveillance like the kids were at Yale, Columbia and Penn?” he told a Senate Judiciary Committee panel on Tuesday. “I worry to think that he might be in somebody’s files simply because he wanted to be active on campus.”
Ellison, testifying on the issue of racial profiling, called it not only a discriminatory practice, but a waste of law enforcement resources. He called on the Justice Department to cut down on investigations based on race and endorsed a bill that would ban profiling based on race, religion, ethnicity and national origin.
The hearing was the first in the Senate on the issue of racial profiling in more than 10 years. Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, was called on to testify alongside a panel of Democratic lawmakers.
Ellison’s remarks revolved around profiling against religious minorities, most notably Muslim Americans.
“Up to 6 million Americans know what it’s like to be looked upon with suspicion in the post-9/11 America, perhaps even before,” he said. “Many know all too well what it means to be pulled off of an airline, pulled out of line, denied service, called names or even physically attacked.”
He rattled off a list of questions he said law enforcement agents have asked of Muslims: “Where do you go to mosque? Why did you give them $200? Do you fast? Do you pray? How often?”
“No American should be forced to answer questions about how they worship,” he said.
The impetus for Tuesday’s hearing was Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager whose February shooting death and the subsequent investigation has attracted worldwide attention.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin noted that the affidavit filed against George Zimmerman accused him of “profiling” Martin and that he “assumed Martin was a criminal.”
Zimmerman, charged with second-degree murder in the shooting, and his lawyers dispute that race was a factor, but Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson said the incident “will go down in history as a textbook example of racial profiling.”
The hearing opened with Durbin unveiling a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, asking him to close loopholes in Justice Department racial profiling guidelines that allow profiling based on religion and national origin, and when it relates to investigations of national security and border control matters. Ellison and Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum signed the letter to Holder and are co-sponsors of the End Racial Profiling Act, which would ban the practice at all levels of government.
The Justice Department racial profiling rules was issued under Attorney General John Ashcroft, who chaired the first-ever Senate hearing on racial profile in 2001. Lawmakers lauded President Bush for speaking out on the matter in his first speech to Congress in 2001: “It’s wrong, and we will end it in America,” Bush said then. “In so doing, we will not hinder the work of our nation’s brave police officers. They protect us every day — often at great risk. But by stopping the abuses of a few, we will add to the public confidence our police officers earn and deserve.”
Ellison’s testimony is the same vein as those he’s given on other issues facing Muslim Americans, most notably last year before the House Homeland Security Committee, which was investigating radicalized Islam in the United States.
“Given the unique circumstances of my election and given that I’m one of two [Muslims] out of 535 [members of Congress], the issues that come my way have often to do with religious profiling,” he said Tuesday. “I’m very happy to talk about how America can be one America and I think racial profiling can be a barrier to that.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry