Less than a week after the Border Patrol was hit with a class action lawsuit, the agency is facing a new challenge. Yesterday, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed a complaint with the federal departments of Justice and Homeland Security, charging that agents' practice of acting as "interpreters"--while at the same time interrogating people about their immigration status--is a civil rights violation.
NWIRP claims that the practice violates several provisions of the Civil Rights Act, including its guarantee of "meaningful access" to government services (in this case, interpretation) regardless of race or national origin. It would not be acceptable "if people were being charged for interpretation, " NWIRP executive director Jorge Barón tells SW. "In this case, it's even worse. People are having to endure questioning from the Border Patrol about their immigration status."
It is indeed a strange use of the Border Patrol, as we wrote in a cover story last year on the Border Patrol, prompted by the death of a Forks man who drowned after running away from an "interpreter." That incident, and others like it, suggest that local law enforcement officers sometimes have another agenda when calling in the Border Patrol. Barón says he's dealt with cases in which agents were called even though the individuals in question spoke English.
The notion of a hidden agenda is bolstered by a dash-cam video NWIRP released yesterday related to one of its cases. The video, obtained by NWIRP through public disclosure, captures a Washington State trooper talking to Border Patrol agents she called in after making a traffic stop in Bellingham last February. (See excerpted video on next page.)
Near the end of the encounter--in which a Border Patrol agent identifies the four people in the car as "all wet"-- the trooper thanks the agents for coming.
"Oh no problem, give us a call anytime," says one of the agents.
"Oh yeah, well, we like to," the trooper responds. "We just have to do it in a roundabout way."
Post continues, along with video, on the next page...
State Patrol spokesperson Bob Calkins says he has "no idea what she meant by that." But he says that it's apparent from the video that the trooper really needed interpretation services, and asked dispatch for anyone available, not just Border Patrol agents.
Calkins says Border Patrol agents will continue to be "in the mix" of interpreters used by state troopers, who also call upon municipal police officers and county sheriff's deputies.
Local Border Patrol agents are undoubtedly thankful for that because, as the dash-cam video underscores, they might have little else to do otherwise. There's been a dramatic build up of agents on the northern border in recent years, but not the cross-border traffic to justify it.
"We're in a unique situation for the Border Patrol," an agent tells the trooper in the video. The Border Patrol used to do (immigration) checks on public transportation, the agent explains. "But they pulled us off those duties."
"Really?" asks the trooper.
"Yeah," says the agent. " Political."
"Yeah, now we're basically on coastal patrol. No, I'm serious. It's pretty bad. So this is the only type of stuff we see nowadays."