Anti-black bias alleged in British search of U.S. judge

July 11, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- The alleged abuse and humiliation of a U.S. judge by British customs agents has once again raised questions about the treatment black people receive when entering the United Kingdom.

The latest incident involved Margaret Jackson, an administrative judge from New York City. She had been invited by Britain's Society of Black Lawyers to speak on affirmative action.

When she arrived at Heathrow Airport June 12, she was detained by customs agents, who told her they suspected she was carrying drugs. She was arrested, body-searched and ordered to provide a urine sample, she said.

The judge said she was held for three hours before being released without being charged.

"When they told me to submit to a body rub [search], I asked them the basis for this. Then it was downhill all the way," Judge Jackson said from her home in Hempstead, N.Y.

"It was just a terrible ordeal. It will probably affect me for a long time. How can they go around abusing people, humiliating them?"

The Society of Black Lawyers sent a letter to Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke, demanding an apology. In the House of Commons, Keith Vaz asked the government to provide the names of people strip-searched at entry points and their race and sex.

Sharon McPhail, president of the National Bar Association, said from Detroit, "We were highly offended by what happened to this woman" and said there were clear indications the incident was racial.

The National Bar Association, the counterpart in the United States of the British black lawyers group, was a joint sponsor of the event Ms. Jackson was invited to attend.

In May, Adol Owen-Williams, a black Baltimore businessman, was held for two days by immigration agents at Gatwick Airport. He was accused of being a Los Angeles rioter, subjected to a rigorous search and finally denied entry.

After Mr. Owen-Williams wrote a letter to the Independent newspaper here, the British ambassador in Washington met with him, but no official apology has been forthcoming.

A Home Office spokesman said this week that the treatment of Mr. Owen-Williams had been investigated by the immigration department and that no action was contemplated.

A spokesman for the British Treasury Department, which oversees the customs agents, said Ms. Jackson's allegations were "totally untrue," that she was not searched, that she was not asked to give a urine sample and that she was detained for only a half-hour.

Chris Myant, a spokesman for the Commission for Racial Equality, said, "We have been broadly concerned with the treatment of people coming into this country. It is fairly obvious from a number of very prominent cases that black people are very badly treated."

The commission is the national body set up to enforce the 1976 Race Relations Act.

Mr. Myant said that in 1990, one in 40 tourists from Jamaica and one in 87 from Guyana were not allowed to enter Britain.

"Even when they win their appeals, they can't get their air fare refunded," he said.

In the same year, only one in 3,600 Norwegian tourists was refused entry.

The actions of immigration officers and policemen are outside the jurisdiction of the Commission for Racial Equality.

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, an independent organization that monitors immigration laws and their application, has recommended to the Home Office that an independent watchdog commission be set up to monitor immigration procedures.

It also has urged the government to grant the right of appeal to a visitor before deportation, thus saving the air fare, and to restore the rights of members of Parliament to intervene in specific cases before the person is deported.

This parliamentary privilege was lifted during Margaret Thatcher's last term as prime minister.

The council would also like to curb the authority of the agents at the gates.

Said Gulay Mehmet, a council official, "At the moment, it is at the discretion of the immigration officer to determine if you are here for the purpose you say. The basis for his decision is arbitrary, and there is no recourse until you are removed from the country."

Referring to the Owen-Williams case, Ms. Mehmet said, "I know people were outraged by that. But it happens frequently, and when it happens to people not so articulate, it goes unnoticed. We constantly get calls from people who are coming to visit family, coming on a holiday, whatever."

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