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Guilt-by-name discrimination

Bob Moon Jul 6, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: It’s one of those lines you used to hear on TV crime shows all the time. You’re innocent until you’re proven guilty. Unless, perhaps, you’re trying to send a money transfer and your name is Mohammed, or maybe Ahmed. The Associated Press reports today thousands of wire transfers have been delayed or blocked. Companies like Western Union and MoneyGram are checking Muslim-sounding names against a government watch-list. Marketplace’s Bob Moon reports on guilt-by-name-association.

BOB MOON: The Treasury Department calls it the “Specially Designated Nationals List.” It includes the names of convicted terrorists, drug dealers and others considered dangerous. But The AP reports that sloppy checking is victimizing the innocent. A Western Union clerk at one Middle Eastern office told The AP 300 money transfers are blocked or delayed at that franchise alone — every day.

Here in this country, San Francisco attorney Shirin Sinnar says many Americans have been have been hassled — and not just over money transfers. One couple in California had trouble just buying exercise equipment:

SHIRIN SINNAR: The store was told by the bank arranging the financing that because the husband’s first name was Hussein, and because of Saddam Hussein, that they would have to wait 72 hours to clear the couple before being able to let them purchase their treadmill.

Sinnar says people unwittingly caught up in this financial dragnet have little recourse but to go through the same hassle over and over. The Treasury Department’s Molly Millerwise says mistakes can happen, but the list is needed to stop terrorists from doing business:

MOLLY MILLERWISE: We do include quite a bit of identifier information along with the names of the designees — anything from addresses to date of birth, passport numbers or visa numbers, for instance — that help to root out any false positives.

Western Union says it does matches based on both first and last names, and Millerwise says it’s common sense not to screen for just anyone who happens to be named Mohammed. But at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Arsalan Iftikhar says the list has brought on some of the worst discrimination since World War II:

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Japanese Americans, based solely on their name and their ethnicity, you know, unfortunately were presumed guilty until proven innocent. And, unfortunately, what we’re seeing today with American Muslims and Arabs is unfortunately that same sort of thing, which we view as the next chapter in the civil rights history of America.

For now, he says, the only recourse seems to be complaining to the Treasury Department.

In New York, I’m Bob Moon for Marketplace.

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