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South Asian American Org Cuts Ties with Southwest over Profiling Allegations

Citing instances of alleged racial and religious profiling, non-profit organization South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) has terminated its seven-year partnership with Southwest Airlines.

"We felt it was a hard choice to make, but it was one that was important for us to make and one that we continue to stand by," Suman Raghunathan, executive director of SAALT, told NBC News. "As an organization that is dependent on funding from foundations, corporations, and individuals, it is never easy for us to decline funding that we have already secured."

Khairuldeen Makhzoomi works in his office in Berkeley, Calif., Monday, April 18, 2016.
Khairuldeen Makhzoomi works in his office in Berkeley, Calif., Monday, April 18, 2016. A University of California, Berkeley student who came to the U.S. as an Iraqi refugee says he was unfairly removed from a flight at Los Angeles International Airport earlier this month because a fellow passenger was alarmed by an innocent conversation he was having in Arabic. Southwest Airlines said in a statement Sunday that the passenger, Makhzoomi, was taken off the April 9, 2016, flight from Los Angeles to Oakland, California, for questioning and the plane took off while that was happening. Haven Daley / AP

"But we felt it was an important reflection of our organization to put our money where our mouth was and to decline funding that we felt was coming from a corporation that wasn't illustrating and upholding the values we at SAALT believe in, particularly around speaking out against racial and religious profiling," she added.

During the last several years, Southwest has provided SAALT with funding that has supported multiple programs in the organization, including its Young Leaders Institute, according to Raghunathan. Its relationship with the airline also allowed the organization to defray travel costs for individuals who attended conferences in Washington D.C.

SAALT, which works to elevate South Asians voices and build a more inclusive society, announced the decision on Friday. However, it officially cut ties in the summer, Raghunathan said, following a series of publicized racial and religious profiling incidents on Southwest flights, including one where a University of California, Berkeley student was removed after speaking to his uncle on the phone in Arabic.

RELATED: App Helps Report Racial Profiling Allegations at Airports

Raghunathan said SAALT requested that Southwest apologize to individuals who were profiled, as well as information on current employee training practices with respect to addressing and avoiding racial and religious profiling. Thus far, no apology has been issued, she said, and the organization said it has not seen any efforts from the airline to create protections for the type of profiling that has occurred.

Another factor that weighed into SAALT's decision to conclude its relationship with Southwest was the probability that these cases are occurring on a much larger scale.

"Underreporting of such incidents is rampant and what also gave us cause for concern with respect to Southwest practices is the likelihood there were many, many more and other individuals who were also affected by and the victims of racial and religious profiling on Southwest flights." Raghunathan said.

Southwest has refuted the claim that profiling has occurred and said it remains committed to serving all communities, including Muslims, Pacific Islanders, and Asian Americans.

RELATED: Advocates Call on Southwest Airlines to Review Practices Amid Profiling Allegations

"Contrary to statements being made, Southwest Airlines Employees have not engaged in racial or religious profiling, and Southwest has never been investigated or fined for any profiling activities," Melanie Jones, senior manager of communication at Southwest, told NBC News in an email. "Our Employees, who are responsible for maintaining the safety and security of the 125 million Customers who fly us each year, in very rare instances must make difficult decisions as a result of a Customer's own behaviors and actions…. While we aren't able to discuss the details of specific instances, these decisions are based on fact and not on racial or religious profiling."

"It was our pleasure to support SAALT for seven years with time, talent, and treasure," she added. "While disappointed they chose to end our relationship, we respect their decision."

SAALT has lost $10,000 by dissolving its relationship with the airlines and is now seeking community support to help it continue its Young Leaders Institute program.

"We know just how important it is for us to continue building and fostering a pipeline of future South Asian American leaders and we are committed to ensuring that the program continues to develop and blossom and evolve," Raghunathan said. "We are indeed seeking support from our community members to make sure we can have folks help us make up the gap."

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