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Report: Newark airport screeners targeted Mexicans and Dominicans

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Report: TSA targets Mexicans, Dominicans
  • Star-Ledger: A federal report says some TSA officers were known as "Mexican hunters"
  • An inquiry focused on behavior detection officers at the Newark airport, the newspaper says
  • The TSA says it does not permit racial profile and its policies were "overstepped"
  • The legal director of New Jersey's ACLU calls the report "alarming and astounding"

(CNN) -- Security screeners at Newark Liberty International Airport singled out Mexican and Dominican passengers for nearly two years, according to a federal report obtained by The Star-Ledger newspaper.

The racial profiling was so prevalent in 2008 and 2009 that some TSA employees at the airport referred to their colleagues as "Mexican hunters," a Star-Ledger story based on the 2010 internal report said.

A TSA spokeswoman described the situation in Newark as "isolated" and said the agency took action to fix it.

"While the actions referenced in the report were based on intelligence reports regarding false documentation, criminal or illegal activity and the possible impact on transportation security, TSA's policies were overstepped," spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said.

According to the Star-Ledger, the report said TSA agents stationed at the Newark airport would stop Mexicans and Dominicans, asking them additional questions, reviewing their passports and visas and searching their luggage. The report did not specify how many agents were involved, but "leaves no doubt that the process was widespread," the newspaper said.

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"The report said Mexican and Dominican passengers were singled out for scrutiny of their travel documents as an easy way to drive up the number of referrals by Newark's (behavior detection officer) unit so that it would appear productive," the newspaper said.

Farbstein said the TSA does not permit racial profiling, and a manager accused of promoting profiling in the report is no longer in management with the agency.

"Eighteen months ago, TSA took immediate remedial action and retrained the entire behavior detection workforce at Newark," she said.

Four managers in the report were cited to be disciplined by the TSA, the Star-Ledger said. One manager who was demoted after the investigation told the Star-Ledger that he denied the accusation and had appealed the demotion decision.

Several officers quoted in the report said they were directed to use racial profiling, but others said they had never witnessed the practice or been told to use it, the newspaper said.

The Transportation Security Administration said the newspaper did not obtain the report through the Freedom of Information Act and declined to provide a copy to CNN. A story published by the Star-Ledger Sunday said the newspaper had obtained the report, but did not disclose how.

Ed Barocas, legal director of the American Civil Liberities Union in New Jersey, called the report "alarming and astounding."

"The possibility that TSA supervisors coached screeners to profile passengers based on race is deeply disturbing. ... We hope the TSA takes the proper steps immediately to ensure there is no racial profiling in our airports or that screeners are even given the perception that they should profile passengers based on race," he said in a statement.

There are about 3,000 behavior detection officers at 161 airports in the United States, and plans to expand the program are in the works.

In April CNN obtained a list of 70 indicators the officers use to identify people who might pose a threat to aviation. None of those indicators referred to or suggested race, ethnicity or religion.

At the time, the TSA told CNN no single behavior on the list would, by itself, ever be enough to draw increased security scrutiny. An officer would only select a passenger for closer examination if they showed several signs of stress, fear or deception, the agency said.

CNN's Ines Ferre, Mike Ahlers and Jeanne Meserve contributed to this report.