In the six and a half years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, federal law-enforcement agencies have secretly established profiling techniques to screen immigrants based on their nationalities, protocols that critics charge encourage the unjustified targeting of Muslims.
The profiling, described in a February 2006 Immigration and Customs Enforcement memo obtained by McClatchy Newspapers, shows that the government has relied more heavily on nationality as an indicator of security risks than was previously known.
Federal agencies have created internal lists of countries that are of "special interest" for national security reasons, wrote the memo's author, Ted Stark, supervisory special agent with the Office of Intelligence at ICE.
So many federal agencies have created different lists that U.S. officials contemplated adopting a single one to streamline the process, Stark wrote.
The proposed list, which officials said had yet to be adopted, includes 35 countries, most with significant Muslim or Arab populations. Almost 20 percent of the world's countries — including some of the United States' key allies, such as Jordan, Turkey and Egypt — are on the list.
The effort to come up with a uniform approach is another reflection of how the nation continues to grapple with finding effective ways to detect terrorists, and how those efforts sometimes collide with constitutional and legal rights.
In this case, with little or no oversight or public scrutiny, law enforcement officials have assumed flexible and expansive discretion to make screening decisions based on where an immigrant was born.
The group of agencies — which included ICE, the National Security Agency and U.S. Customs and Border Protection — not only recommended one list but also suggested an interagency definition of a "special interest alien."
Under the proposal, a special interest alien would be an immigrant with terrorist ties or an immigrant who by nationality, "ethnicity or other factors may have ties or sympathies" with the listed countries.
As a result, an immigrant who doesn't have any known terrorist links and who isn't from a country on the list conceivably could be considered a special interest alien, if his or her ethnic background included a listed country.