A coalition of civil liberties and immigrant-rights advocates led by Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland wants to strengthen a provision in the Senate's sweeping immigration bill that would prohibit law enforcement agencies from racial profiling.
The 867-page, bipartisan immigration bill, which is expected to dominate the agenda in Congress this summer, would impose a first-ever federal prohibition on profiling. But advocates are concerned that broad exemptions contained in the proposal — including one for "national security" — would undermine its impact.
Racial profiling is one of dozens of issues expected to trigger debate as lawmakers begin digging into the specifics of the legislation, which would be the first overhaul of U.S. immigration law in nearly 30 years.
The effort to change the proposal, Cardin and advocates acknowledge, will be tough.
"It's not as strong as it needs to be," the Democrat said. "We are looking at whether we can strengthen it."
A post-9/11 emphasis on airport and border security has broadened the potential for profiling beyond traditional concerns about "driving while black," rights advocates say. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union now are just as focused on Muslims who endure added scrutiny before boarding planes or Hispanics held at the border for questioning even when they hold U.S. passports.
"It's an enormous problem," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU's legislative office in Washington. "I'm glad Congress is going to do something to address this issue but we want them to do more."
The issue has a deep history in Maryland. The ACLU and the NAACP have waged a decades-old battle with state police over access to racial-profiling complaints. The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled in January that the agency must make public the internal affairs files on those complaints after redacting identifying information.
More recently, groups have criticized Frederick County for a high percentage of arrests of illegal immigrants for low-level crimes.
A 2011 Migration Policy Institute study of state and local immigration enforcement practices found that 60 percent of arrests of immigrants began as traffic stops.
Kim Propeack, political director of the immigrant-rights group CASA de Maryland, said staff members have heard complaints from Frederick, Prince George's and Baltimore counties, among others.
"In a phrase," she said, "it's a problem."
The immigration bill, crafted by a group of eight senators, would allow many of the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants to apply for legal status. The measure calls for spending an added $6.5 billion on border security and would require companies to verify the immigration status of new employees.
Eighty-two senators voted to bring the bill to the floor this week. The legislation is a priority for the Obama administration, but is also politically important for Republicans, who lost much of the Hispanic vote in last year's presidential election.
The profiling provision mimics 2003 guidance from then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, who barred federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and the U.S. Border Patrol from making spontaneous decisions based on race or ethnicity.
But the guidance — and the bill — make broad exemptions for national security, catastrophic events and border protection.
"These loopholes really swallow the rule," said Sameera Hafiz, policy director with the Rights Working Group, a coalition of civil liberties organizations. "A lot of profiling has been systematized against Muslims, Asians and others under the guise of protecting national security."
Cardin intends to file at least one amendment and possibly more in the coming days to tweak the language of the national security exemption so that it would apply more narrowly.
First, he will have to persuade Democratic leaders in the Senate to allow the amendment to come to the floor for a vote. If he succeeds, he would then have to persuade colleagues that strengthening the language would not erode the bipartisan support the broader bill now enjoys.
Cardin said he also intends to submit an amendment that would apply a controversial law that bans Russian human rights abusers from entering the United States to other countries. Cardin has long sought to expand the so-called Magnitsky Law, which he shepherded through Congress late last year.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who support the immigration bill, including Cardin, have been hesitant to propose substantive changes without broad bipartisan support. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the chamber's No. 3 Democrat, has said he'd like to see as many as 70 senators vote in favor of the bill.
Such a high vote threshold could nudge an otherwise skittish Republican-led House of Representatives to support some version of an immigration bill.
As it stands now, the racial-profiling provision has sparked little opposition — or attention. The National Association of Police Organizations declined to comment on the proposal.
Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, said the union is concerned about several items in the bill but the section on profiling isn't one of them.
"Our agents aren't trained to look at ethnicity," said Moran, whose union represents 17,000 border agents. "Our job is to look at the total picture."
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