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Remarks by Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Margo Schlanger at the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago's Annual Community Dinner

Release Date: 
November 22, 2010

Rosemont, Ill.
Donald Stevens Convention Center

I am truly pleased and privileged to join the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago during this very impressive and valuable annual community dinner. Organizations like yours and events like this really do live up to tonight's title, "Leadership in Action."

Secretary Napolitano sends her regrets for not being able to join us this evening due to schedule conflicts beyond her control. However, it is an honor for me to be speaking on behalf of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and I thank you for this opportunity.

I'm only four months into this job at DHS, but in that time, I have gotten to know Dr. Sahloul and several others here a little bit. First, from the many interactions my office has had with the Council and others, as part of our regular community engagement roundtables in Chicago - which have been going on for quite a few years at this point. In fact, the very first one of our roundtables in which I was able to participate was here in Chicago, a couple of months ago, and I was able to meet a couple dozen of the many hundreds of people here tonight. I have also had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Sahloul twice, at high-level information sessions my office has put together - one in January and the other just two days ago - in Washington, D.C., with Secretary Napolitano, other DHS senior leadership, and leaders of American Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian communities.

More generally, since being appointed by President Obama as the DHS Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in January, I have learned about and been impressed by this Council's effective work in representing the interests of the ethnically diverse 400,000 Muslims in the Greater Chicago area. I know your work in promoting interfaith dialogue, civic engagement and community service among area Muslims has served as an example for others to follow not only in Chicago but nationally. The Council has also taken significant steps in working with youth to facilitate their full inclusion. Your projects in promoting an civic agenda for Illinois Muslims, effectively condemning violent extremism, combating obesity, promoting an environmentally friendly lifestyle during the "Green Ramadan" campaign, proactively addressing domestic violence, and your response to President Obama's call by partnering with the "United We Serve" campaign are all examples of the very impressive diversity of issues in which this Council exerts leadership. I thank you for your wonderful work in all these area and for your partnership in DHS's Chicago roundtable for the past six years.

The first rule of before-dinner speeches is that they should be short, so I have only a few minutes to speak to you. I thought I'd use those few minutes to talk about my office and the role we play at DHS, and about a few broader ideas about what it means to be a government civil rights office.

The Department of Homeland Security's foundational statute and a recent important report by the Department to Congress, the Quadrennial Homeland Security Report, set out DHS's varied missions. We are trying to achieve a safe, secure and resilient homeland in which the American way of life can thrive, by securing our homeland from a variety of natural and manmade treats, administering a fair and effective immigration system, and promoting commercial and human interchange. Right there in that foundational statute (as a law professor, I'm bound to say that it's in 6 U.S.C. § 111) Congress instructed DHS that it should carry out these homeland security missions without diminishing civil rights and civil liberties.

As a result, my office, the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties - we call it CRCL - is involved in all the Department's missions. We perform four key functions to integrate civil rights and civil liberties into Department activities from preventing terrorism to administering the immigration system, preparing and responding to disasters, and cybersecurity. Specifically:

  • We are part of the Department's leadership, and play a key role in advising personnel about civil rights and civil liberties issues, ensuring respect for civil rights and civil liberties in policy decisions and implementation of those decisions. This covers not only DHS headquarters, but the component agencies, which include Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
  • In work I'll talk more about in a minute or two, my office also communicates with individuals and communities whose civil rights and civil liberties may be affected by Department activities, informing them about policies and avenues of redress, and promoting appropriate attention within the Department to their experiences and concerns.
  • Another key role of CRCL is investigating and resolving civil rights and civil liberties complaints filed by the public.
  • Finally, I also lead the Department's equal employment opportunity programs and promote personnel diversity and merit system principles.

So after hearing that list, it's useful to ask, what is civil rights and civil liberties? There are, it seems to me, three basic civil rights and civil liberties values: liberty, fairness, and equality under the law. Sometimes people talk about "balancing" security against liberty. But my perspective is different. In my view, liberty, fairness, and equality under the law are the very features of American life that we are trying to secure and allow to flourish. Security doesn't compete with these foundational values; security should serve them. To quote Chicago's favorite son; our President; "we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans, because great and proud nations don't hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust."

If that's right - if the goal is to keep our society open, and protect liberty, fairness, and equality under the law, how can a government civil rights office do that? We need to do two things. First, offices like mine must ensure that attention is paid to civil rights constraints on government activity. The government cannot, for example, implement policies driven by racial, ethnic, or religious animus or fear. It cannot constrain or punish speech. It must afford all persons accused of wrongdoing a fair process to contest those charges before infringing their liberty as a result. My office works hard on this agenda, bringing civil rights expertise and a civil rights perspective into policy development processes, and using our complaint investigations to figure out where things may be going wrong, or could go better. This is a vitally important agenda, but in a way, it's a negative agenda - it's making sure that civil rights are not negatively affected by DHS activities.

But a civil rights office can and must do more - it must implement the foundational insight of our democracy, to quote another President from Illinois, that the American system is government of the people, for the people, by the people. Here the people rule; you are the sovereigns. So it is part of being a civil rights office that we must always seek out community views, insights, responses, and partnerships. That is, we have an affirmative obligation to engage communities.

This isn't only a civil rights agenda. The entire administration is committed to open and responsive government, and Secretary Napolitano has established those goals as a top priority for DHS. This is a part of basic good governance more broadly. But I think that as a civil rights office, CRCL must be a leader in this effort. We are trying to do that. We are revamping our website, our complaints process, our congressional reporting, and so on - all with the twin goals of improving effectiveness and reasonable transparency. (In fact, in the coming weeks, our community stakeholders will be hearing from my staff as we seek your ideas on the complaint process in particular).

But the largest way in which we meet what I've just called our affirmative obligation to engage is work we do around the country in meetings and other programs involving community partners, where we bring together not just staff from my office but other DHS officials - from TSA, ICE, CBP, USCIS - and other government officials from DOJ, FBI, and other agencies. The idea is to explain governmental policies, solicit views, and seek to address any individual or more collective complaints or grievances.

The work we do with American Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian communities, including our work with the Council and its constituent organizations here in Chicago, is part and parcel of this broad effort to ensure that all communities in this country are, and feel, active participants in the homeland security effort. Our engagement efforts build crucial channels of communication, both educating us about the concerns of communities affected by Department activities and giving those communities reliable information about policies and procedures. They build trust by facilitating resolution of legitimate grievances; they reinforce a sense of shared American identity and community; and they demonstrate the collective ownership of the homeland security project.

We structure these engagement efforts with several types of regular events or programs: community leader roundtables; youth roundtables; a rapid response communication network; and promotion of a prestigious internship for Arabic-speaking college students and graduates in partnership with the George Washington University.

Over the past four years, CRCL has established regular roundtable meetings for community and government leaders in eight regions across the country: Boston, Chicago, Columbus (Ohio), Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C. These locations have diverse Muslim, Arab, Sikh, and South Asian communities, and we have nurtured broad community participation and partnership.

The roundtables cover a range of homeland security, civil rights, and other areas. With the assistance of our federal and local government partners, sessions have canvassed (in no particular order): rules governing remittances to foreign relatives; immigration and naturalization policies; access to information about basic government services in different languages; roles and responsibilities of law enforcement; detention of national security suspects; how government can work with communities to promote civic engagement; services for newly-arrived refugees; crime prevention; how communities can work with government to counter violent extremism; protection of civil rights in employment, voting, housing, and other areas; prosecution of hate crimes; and border searches. So the meetings provide opportunities for community leaders to learn about significant government policies - at the Chicago meeting I chaired this past February, we included presentations on the privacy protections as part of TSA's use of new Advanced Imaging Technology scanners and on CBP's "Trusted Traveler" program, which facilitates expedited international travel for preapproved, low risk travelers through dedicated lanes and kiosks. The meetings also let their participants raise specific issues of concern in a format that emphasizes accountability for answers - the government participants will be back again the following quarter.

So these engagement meetings and events provide an excellent opportunity for government officials and their agencies to learn about the concerns of diverse communities. But one important point that I have emphasized since taking office is that for our engagement efforts to be sustainable and effective, grievances and challenges should not only be heard - they should be addressed, where possible.

A recent success story is the change that DHS recently made to transportation security screening procedures. As many of you know, immediately following the December 25, 2009, attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight #253 over Detroit, DHS took the emergency step of instituting screening policies that focused on what country travelers were from to impose additional screening measures. That kind of broad-brush approach burdens too many people with extra screening for insufficient reason; it's simply not smart enough. So last month - just three months after the initial response, which for the government is the blink of an eye - DHS adjusted, substituting new, real-time, intelligence-driven transportation security screening measures that are smarter and more precise, so that they strengthen the security of all travelers while respecting civil rights and civil liberties.

Another, smaller, recent success story is the meeting of interfaith religious leaders that I chaired in partnership with TSA, in Washington, D.C., to help understand and perhaps address modesty concerns related to the new Advanced Imaging Technology tools - whole body imaging - DHS is placing in airports around the country. We learned a great deal from these leaders and have since been able to institute some changes to standard operating procedures, to ameliorate, somewhat, some of those concerns.

In short, our effort is for CRCL's activities to serve as a model for constructive engagement between your communities and government, in order to implement the most basic commitments of American democracy and protect liberty, fairness, and equality under the law. I believe that the partnership between my office and the communities represented here is strong, and I very much look forward to deepening it as we together face old and new challenges. Thank you again for inviting me to be with you tonight.

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