Posted by on April 19, 2013 in Blog

Yesterday, during a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) budget for 2014, California Congressman Mike Honda grilled Attorney General Eric Holder on two issues of great importance to the Arab American community: An investigation into the NYPD’s spying program targeting Arab Americans and American Muslims, and changing the FBI’s 1-699 Hate Crime Incident Report form to include categories to track hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus and Arab Americans. Rep. Honda’s questioning of Mr. Holder on the NYPD’s spying program was especially pertinent given new efforts by New York Rep. Peter King to use the Boston bombing to make a case for expanding surveillance programs.     

In the wake of the recent bombings in Boston, many lawmakers, elected officials, and members of the media rushed to make sense of what happened; however, even before the identity of the Boston marathon bombing suspects were revealed, commentators and legislators were quick to place the blame on Arab Americans and American Muslims. What Peter King said after the Boston bombings is perhaps one of the most problematic  statements made, especially from the Chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence: “Police have to be in the community, they have to build up as many sources as they can, and they have to realize that the threat is coming from the Muslim community and increase surveillance there,” said Rep. King. “I’ve been talking about radicalization of the Muslim community, and I think this is an example of it.”

We’ve written a number of times in the past about the unconstitutionality of the NYPD surveillance operation that was uncovered by the Associated Press in August 2011. Reaching beyond New York into New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, the operation targeted Arab Americans and American Muslims based on nothing more than their faith and ethnicity. These measures were among a number of NYPD practices that discriminate against racial, religious, and ethnic minorities.

In March 2012, more than 100 advocacy and activist organizations sent a letter asking for an investigation into whether the NYPD violated the constitutional rights these communities with its widespread surveillance program. Ivy League universities, New Jersey public officials, and 34 members of the U.S. House of Representatives also contacted the Department of Justice (DOJ) requesting that they investigate this matter, and Muslim Advocates and the New York Civil Liberties Union have filed lawsuits challenging the NYPD’s surveillance program. While an NYPD official admitted in court that its surveillance did not lead to a single investigation, New York Commissioner Ray Kelly in an interview earlier this month with the Wall Street Journal and in response to a question about what he has changed about the NYPD’s surveillance methods in the wake of the AP stories, Kelly responds with “Nothing.”

While legislators such as Peter King advocate restricting the civil liberties of law abiding citizens with stronger surveillance of the Arab American and American Muslim communities, Reps. Mike Honda (D-CA) and Rush Holt (D-NJ) have taken the lead in the House to press Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the NYPD’s surveillance program. Adam Serwer, a reporter for Mother Jones, recently interviewed Reps. Honda and Holt about the status of a DOJ investigation, and both members expressed their frustration over the DOJ's failure to respond to repeated requests for updates on the review. “I have patiently waited for the Department of Justice to complete its review of the situation, but it has been nearly two years since the story broke and over a year since the Department of Justice committed to doing a review of NYPD’s actions,” Rep. Honda said. Rep. Holt first requested that the DOJ conduct an investigation in September 2011, but has not received any “substantive updates from the Justice Department, despite many follow-up inquiries.” Last year, Rep. Holt introduced an amendment to the Commerce/Justice/Science Appropriations bill, prohibiting federal funds from going to law enforcement agencies that “engage in any form of racial, ethnic, or religious profiling.”

At the hearing yesterday, in addition to demanding answers about an investigation of the NYPD, Rep. Honda asked Holder to provide him with an update on the status of the addition of categories to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program to track hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus and Arab Americans. “In the past, I have been very concerned about the FBI’s hate crimes statistics collection mandate – we’re asking for additional categories to be added,” said Honda. “The Advisory Policy Board will be meeting later this year with recommendations of additional categories to be added. And I know that you’ve already come out in support of these additional categories, but I’d like to ask you if there is more that the Department of Justice could do to ensure the addition of the categories – specifically the addition of anti-Sikh, anti-Hindu, and anti-Arab hate crimes,” said Honda. Holder reassured Honda that he has recommended to the committee responsible for determining the additional designations that he supports the tracking of hate crimes against those communities. “We’ve come out in favor of recommending to the committee that makes the determination that anti-Sikh, anti-Hindu, and a Middle Eastern category to be included for accumulating this data,” said Holder.      
Following is the transcript of the exchange between Honda and Holder regarding an investigation of the NYPD:

Honda: It's been about two years since the story was first revealed and more than a year since the Department of Justice committed to doing an investigation into the NYPD's actions. I have asked for updates on the DOJ’s review of the NYPD's actions, and you told us that you found the spying very "disturbing" and said that "these are things that are under review at the Justice Department." Could you give us an update and a status of the review? 

Holder: Those items, the stop and frisk policy and the surveillance issue, are things that are under review by the Department. There is a civil lawsuit presently underway by a set of plaintiffs, and we're still monitoring and gleaning information from that lawsuit. So these two things, as I've mentioned, are matters that are under review by the Department.  

Honda: It's under review? It sounds like there isn't progress, but is it because of the lawsuit that is pending that you're waiting to see or is there anything else more proactive that your department can do? 

Holder: I think it's a combination of both, there are certainly things the Department can do independently but this lawsuit is particularly important, as there's information, testimony, evidences adduced, we get a sense of policies that have raised concerns in the minds of many people. So we continue to monitor that and that will help inform, help inform, but not necessarily determine the action the department will take.

We thank Rep. Honda for his leadership and for advocating to safeguard the rights of our community members and fellow citizens.


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