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Washington – Leaders of the liberal and minority caucuses in Congress are pushing to make sure new federal guidelines ban the practice of racial profiling.
A joint letter from four groups — the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus — requests a meeting with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to address issues that racial, religious and ethnic minority groups have raised about unwarranted attention from law enforcement.
It’s something that 69-year-old Bonita Rhodes Berg said she has experienced firsthand.
The Minneapolis resident joined Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and other legislators at a Capitol Hill news conference in late June to speak out against racial profiling.
According to a federal lawsuit Berg filed in February 2001, drug agents searched her luggage after she arrived at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on a flight from Los Angeles, where she had visited her son. Searching her carry-on, the agents found a Bible, devotional studies material, toiletries, a paperback book, pajamas, makeup and perfume — no drugs.
Ellison, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a member of the Black Caucus, helped lead the letter. Ellison and Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., are backing House legislation that would prohibit racial profiling by law enforcement.
“It is critical that the revised guidance prohibit profiling based on race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation and gender identity,” the lawmakers’ letter to Holder reads.
Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, has trained his legislative efforts on profiling for years, even testifying before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 2012.
“We expect the attorney general to fix this problem,” Ellison said at the Capitol Hill event.
The Justice Department said Holder is continuing to review the racial profiling rules and has not yet made a final decision on new ones.
Speaking from experience
When Berg asked the agents their criteria for the search of her bag, she said, she was told “your carry-on looked heavy.” According to court documents, the agent who stopped Berg indicated she often stopped black travelers because they often were arriving from such “drug source” cities as Los Angeles carrying little or no luggage.
In ordering Berg’s case to go forward, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis said a heavy bag was not sufficient reason to stop someone, nor was the fact that she flew in from a city that is a source of drugs “in the light of the dearth of other credible evidence.”
Berg’s suit asked that the court prohibit the Drug Enforcement Agency from targeting black women and declare that the defendants violated Berg’s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures, due process and equal protection of the laws.
The Drug Enforcement Agency paid Berg $20,000 to resolve the lawsuit, but did not admit to profiling Berg.
“Even after more than a decade, my feelings about the police and law enforcement have never been the same,” said Berg, whose father was a Minneapolis police officer for 20 years.
“I know the reality is that I was defined by my skin color. That is all the DEA agent saw that day, and that is all they used to make a decision about me.”