The increase in security along the northern border has grave consequences for Washington’s Latino community, a new report suggests.
The report, The Growing Human Rights Crisis Along the Northern Border, alleges that the human rights of residents in communities like Lynden and Blaine are under attack. The report includes 109 interviews and other on-the-ground research in Snohomish, Whatcom, and Skagit counties about interactions between residents and the Border Patrol, which operates as part of the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
To produce the report, immigrant advocates at the public advocacy group OneAmerica enlisted aid from the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (CHR) to help collect, document and analyze evidence of the problems they perceived in the communities they serve.
“In 2008 and 2009, we were invited to participate in a series of meetings convened by Washington’s U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell with local law enforcement officials along the northern border who were themselves concerned with the increased presence of federal agents along the border and the undermining of community trust,” the report authors noted. “We had also begun to hear many concerns about the Border Patrol’s behavior, particularly towards people of color living and working in towns within 100 miles of the Canadian border. They had experienced themselves or heard stories of people too afraid to go to the courthouse to pay a fine, too mistrustful of the authorities to call 911, or too fearful to leave their home to attend church or go to the grocery store. They sought ways to educate and empower their neighbors to seek sustainable policy solutions, to improve the safety and well-being of all in border cities and towns.”
According to the 52-page document, Border Patrol officers systematically engage in racial profiling. They also work routinely with local police, courts, and emergency responders in ways that create a climate of mistrust and fear, which “can imperil immigrants’ access to police protection, urgent medical attention, fire protection, and other emergency services.” The basic constitutional and international human rights of persons of Hispanic descent, with and without legal citizenship, are being jeopardized in the region, the report concluded.
“Fusion of local law enforcement with CBP has dire consequences for community safety,” the report authors said. “As one community member, Ira, explained to us, ‘People are afraid to call the police for help because they know they are connected to immigration. It’s hard to tell apart who is who because we feel they [local law enforcement and federal immigration] are the same.’”
Richard Sinks, speaking on behalf of the Border Patrol in Blaine, says the agency strictly prohibits “profiling on the basis of race or religion.” Agents must have clear reasons to stop someone for questioning, he said.
The problem is perhaps more related to the volume of enforcement more than incidence of violations.
Since 9/11, the number of agents deployed along the northern border has increased dramatically—from 340 in 2001 to 2,069 a decade later, meaning there is now one CBP agent for every two miles of northern border compared to one agent for every 13 miles in 1999. While much of the increased enforcement has been justified as necessary because of its connection to national security, a systematic review by the report authors of all prosecutions occurring in Washington State indicates that of 43 prosecutions for terrorism in Washington State since 2001, zero have been referred to the courts by the Border Patrol.
For the cities of Blaine, Lynden, and Sumas, the Border Patrol also provides dispatch services for 911 calls, and on occasion arrives at the scene of the incident alongside—or even before—first responders. Border Patrol’s purpose in emergency situations is to provide interpretation and backup, yet they do not set aside their objective of immigration enforcement even in emergency situations. As a result, Latinos report they feel inimidated in reporting crime.
From more than 100 Latinos interviewed near the border, a pattern emerges.
If you were a person of Hispanic descent, you’d regularly be flagged down by Border Patrol agents who noticed that your vehicle’s muffler is noisy or a taillight is out, according to the report. If you spoke Spanish near a CBP officer, he or she would try to engage you in “casual” conversation leading to questions about where you were born. You could be stopped at a ferry terminal in the middle of a family emergency, as the report says happened to one Latino woman carrying her immigration papers who was rushing an injured family member onto the Anacortes ferry enroute to a doctor.
“Many of the incidents reported did not arise from the Border Patrol’s independent enforcement activities, but from the complex interface between Border Patrol and other federal and local agencies,” the report authors cautioned. Those include collaboration with local law enforcement, with 911 emergency services, and with local courts.
Border Patrol agents routinely provide backup and language interpretation when requested to do so by local police, they said. Once on the scene, Border Patrol agents routinely asked for the immigration status of the present individuals.
Police actions that arise from language or appearance raise the spectre of racial profiling, a complicated and troubling issue, the authors admitted.
“Our research documented numerous accounts of the Border Patrol engaging in apparent racial and religious profiling in the northern border region,” the authors noted. “In interviews, community members described a large number of incidents in which CBP stopped individuals for no discernible reason other than their appearance, accent, or perceived inability to speak English.
“Community members reported that without reason to suspect unlawful activity, the Border Patrol regularly approaches people who appear to be Latino for such questioning in numerous public locations including gas stations, ferry terminals, the Greyhound station, the Bellingham airport, or outside of Wal-Mart,” the authors continued.
The authors urged Congress to pass the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA), which would close loopholes in Dept. of Justice guidelines by making sure people cannot be stopped or questioned on the basis of their race, ethnicity, religion, or country of origin.
They additionally suggest CBP operations should be firewalled from routine forms of collaboration between their officers and local police. Mixing federal with local operations only intensifies anxiety among residents who need help from local first responders, they said.
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