With President Barak Obama feeling his oats after reelection, thanks in no small part to the Latino vote, he's indicated that one of his top priorities is comprehensive immigration reform. So far, he's taking baby steps in that direction.
*See Also: Nowhere-Near-the-Border Patrol in Forks
The latest: His administration announced that the Border Patrol will no longer send out agents as "interpreters."
The mid-December decree by the Department of Homeland Security is a long time coming, and will put a stop to a strange practice that has often translated into a back-door way to question immigrants. While purportedly serving as interpreters for other law enforcement and state agencies, Border Patrol agents have routinely asked about immigration status, demanded to see documents and taken suspected illegal aliens into custody.
It's often been clear that such activity is the real reason the Border Patrol was called in the first place. Witness a deadly encounter we wrote about last year in Forks. A U.S. Forest Service officer stopped a Latino couple picking salal in the forest, ostensibly to see if they had the proper permit. Before even talking to Benjamin Roldan Salinas and girlfriend Crisanta Ramos, the Forest Service officer called in the Border Patrol. As we wrote:
Not only couldn't the officer have known at that stage that he would need such a service, but when he finished the phone call and pulled over the couple, Ramos says, he communicated just fine on his own.
"Permiso?" the officer asked.
When Salinas indicated they didn't have a permit, the officer, speaking English but using gestures to make himself understood, asked for an ID. Salinas handed over his driver's license and Mexican identity card.
Then the Border Patrol arrived and Salinas made a run for it, heading for the nearby river. He ended up drowning.
In the aftermath, immigrants' advocates stepped up their complaints about the Border Patrol. In May, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed a complaint with the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, claiming that the government, by failing to provide interpretation free of the risk of deportation, was violating civil rights.
The feds didn't admit that, of course. Instead, a statement by Customs and Border Protection cast the directive as ridding the agency of distractions and helping to further "focus" its efforts on its "primary mission to secure our nation's borders."
It is truly a small step in terms of needed reforms. When we looked into the Border Patrol's activity last year on the Olympic Peninsula and across the northern border, we found a range of dubious practices that had agents essentially stopping and questioning anyone they pleased, rather than adhering to laws that demand "reasonable suspicion."
The advocacy group OneAmerica, in a report on the northern border released later in the year, documented similar activity, including Border Patrol agents showing up in response to 911 calls. That's why the organization, while hailing the new mandate as an "encouraging step toward more accountability," also cautions that "we still have concerns."