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Happy Anniversary from the Homeland Civil Liberties Union!

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March 4, 2008

It’s a jubilee year for the Department of Homeland Security, where Secretary Michael Chertoff and company are celebrating their fifth year of doing what they do best – securing the homeland. On March 1, the Department marked the five-year anniversary of its Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.

Since we at the ACLU have been privy to much of the Department’s fine work in this area, we decided to put together a little anniversary gift: a hit parade of Homeland Security’s greatest civil rights and civil liberties moments of the last five years. Cue music and the voice of Ralph Edwards: “Michael Chertoff, this is your life!”

  1. Katrina. No single moment exemplifies the Department of Homeland Security’s incompetence like its response to Hurricane Katrina, but FEMA’s mismanagement of the disaster was marked by an undercurrent of racial discrimination and human rights violations. The ACLU’s National Prison Project has detailed the horrific conditions at Orleans Parish Prison during and immediately following the storm. Two years later, reports of police abuse, racial profiling, housing discrimination and other civil liberties violations were still pouring into our Louisiana affiliate. As ACLU of Louisiana Staff Attorney Katie Schwartzmann recently testified before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the chaos left in the wake of Katrina led to widespread racial injustice and police brutality, which the US Government is still trying to downplay (you can read our shadow report to the UN committee here).
  2. Real ID. Despite protests from 17 states, opposition from the right and the left, and 21,000 public comments, the Department is pressing ahead with the national ID system known as Real ID. Perhaps more than any other Homeland Security program, Real ID would remake America into a checkpoint society, in which those who cannot “prove who they are” are relegated to second-class status. It would also create a single, interlinked database of information that would facilitate greater tracking of ordinary Americans, while subjecting us all to a far greater risk of identity theft. The Department has kicked the can down the road on Real ID over and over again, mostly because the law as written cannot be implemented, yet as recently as yesterday, Secretary Chertoff said this invasive, costly boondoggle was one of his top priorities. Auf wiedersehen privacy.
  3. Immigration Enforcement. Incompetent enforcement is arbitrary enforcement, and arbitrary enforcement usually becomes draconian very quickly. Thus has been the Department’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to immigration enforcement via its Immigration and Customs Enforcment (ICE) agency, which has emphasized detention and deportation, both of which have been deployed with a shocking lack of empathy and basic humanity. The ACLU revealed one side of this policy in our suit on behalf of children detained at the Hutto detention facility in Taylor, Texas. Entire families were held in prisonlike conditions, where they were offered far less than the minimum standards for movement, education, and due process. As a result of the ACLU’s litigation, all 26 of our minor clients have been released, and conditions at Hutto have gradually improved. But Hutto is just the tip of the ICE-berg. The ACLU has exposed major deficits in medical treatment through litigation and Congressional testimony. As the warden of one of the largest of these facilities wrote in an affidavit two years ago (as reported by the New York Times), “The Department of Homeland Security has made it difficult, if not impossible, to meet the constitutional requirements of providing adequate health care to inmates that have a serious need for that care.” In that same article, ICE reported that 62 people had died in immigration custody since 2004, but refused to disclose any details about the nature or cause of those deaths. Finally, the ACLU of Southern California recently brought a suit on behalf of a mentally disabled American citizen, who was mistakenly deported to Mexico, a country with which he was completely unfamiliar, and where he was missing for three months before being found by his family in the US.
  4. Air Passenger Screening. From breast pat-downs to naked machines, the Transportation Security Administration’s feeble attempts at airport screening have been a massive exercise in public humiliation and phony security. We’re all familiar with the risks posed by moisturizer and shoelaces, but the Department has also assigned terrorism “risk scores” for everyone entering the country, against an express prohibition from Congress, relied on faulty, bloated watch lists to keep dangerous elements, such as anyone named Robert Johnson, off of airplanes, and abandoned plans to keep track of when people we are monitoring exit the country – so we might know when a terrorist arrives, but we have no idea if he’s left. None of this has resulted in better security. In a classified report leaked to USA Today in October, TSA screeners missed 60 to75 percent of bombs that were carried through security checkpoints as part of internal tests. TSA does have a spiffy new blog though, which makes for good reading – especially with comments like “This program is a complete waste of time and money.”
  5. Border Security. Another top priority that has proved a miserable failure, the Department has scorned environmental regulations, private property, and the students of the University of Texas, Brownsville, whose campus will be bisected, in an attempt to build a massive physical fence along the southern border. In addition, the Department has partnered with Boeing to create a “virtual fence,” made up of networked surveillance technology, much of which will extend far into U.S. territory. The latter is reportedly stalled due to technical glitches and mismanagement, but communities near the border are legitimately concerned about falling under the watchful eye of the Department’s massive SBI surveillance towers. In addition, new passport checks at borders have left states scrambling to supply their residents with “enhanced driver’s licenses,” containing citizenship information encoded on a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip. These chips will allow Americans to be tracked wherever they go, further eroding privacy on both sides of the border.

This has been ‘This is Your Life, Michael Chertoff.’ Tune in next week for ‘Mike McConnell, We Hardly Know Ye.'”

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