The Bush administration has overturned a 22-year-old policy and now allows customs agents to seize, read and copy documents from travelers at airports and borders without suspicion of wrongdoing, civil rights lawyers in San Francisco said Tuesday in releasing records obtained in a lawsuit. The records also indicate that the government gives customs agents unlimited authority to question travelers about their religious beliefs and political opinions, said lawyers from the Asian Law Caucus and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They said they had asked the Department of Homeland Security for details of any policy that would guide or limit such questioning and received no reply.
“We’re concerned that people of South Asian or Muslim-looking background are being targeted inappropriately” for questioning and searches, said Asian Law Caucus attorney Shirin Sinnar.
Amy Kudwa, spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, said the new policies reflect “the realities of the post-9/11 environment.”
Kudwa noted that courts have allowed federal agents more leeway in searches at borders and airports than elsewhere. She also said customs agents are entitled to ask questions that “may be relevant to admissibility determinations that relate to an alien’s purpose for entering the United States” under certain types of visas.
The Bay Area legal groups filed a Freedom of Information Act suit against the government in February, seeking documents on the policies that govern searches and questioning of international travelers.
The organizations said they had received more than 20 complaints in the previous year, mostly from South Asians and Muslims. The travelers said customs agents regularly singled them out when they returned from abroad, looked at their papers and laptop computers, and asked them such questions as whom they had seen on their trips, whether they attended mosques and whether they hated the U.S. government.
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