Early last month, the chief of the Border Patrol’s Blaine sector was suddenly and mysteriously removed from him duties. In a move that the head of the local union representing Border Patrol agents assumed was designed to put the chief “out to pasture,” John Bates was temporarily assigned to the agency’s headquarters in Washington D.C.
Does that have implications for the Border Patrol’s local practices? It’s a question worth considering in light of the settlement announced yesterday between the agency and several plaintiffs represented by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the ACLU of Washington. The suit accused the Border Patrol of making unconstitutional traffic stops on the Olympic Peninsula by racially profiling drivers rather than acting upon reasonable suspicion of immigration violations.
The Border Patrol admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement, but agreed to provide “refresher” training for its agents on what constitutes a legal stop. The agency will also submit reports documenting its stops on the peninsula for the next 18 months to both NWIRP and the ACLU.
What the settlement does not do, NWIRP legal director Matt Adams concedes, is lay out exactly what practices the Border Patrol are allowed to do, or specify whether agents need to deviate from past behavior at all.
Indeed, Emily Langlie, spokesperson for U.S. Attorney for Western Washington, says that “throughout this litigation, we have contended that the Border Patrol was not doing anything wrong. So there is no need for anything to change.”
Here’s where reading the tea leaves comes in. While Adams says he does not know whether Bates’ removal has anything to do with the suit, he also notes that the former chief was a vocal defender of his agents’ expansive techniques. As Seattle Weekly reported in a 2011 cover story, Border Patrol agents—not just on the Olympic Peninsula but all along the northern border—have been operating according to a dubious interpretation of reasonable suspicion.
In an interview for that story, I asked the agent then in charge of the Port Angeles station, Jason Carroll, what constituted suspicious behavior. From the story:
He mentions “erratic driving” and then drifts off into a vaguer explanation. “There are a lot of physiological things,” he says. “Say you’re driving down the road, and you’re speeding. All of a sudden you see a Washington state trooper behind the bushes. What happens to you?”
The story also goes into the case of a Hispanic man who says he was pulled over by an agent using the rationale of a broken tail light. The official policy of the Border Patrol was, and is, that routine traffic violations fall outside the scope of agents’ authority.
But, as Langlie points out, there are exceptions. Agents are empowered to stop drivers who are creating a danger to the public, for instance. In the report followed by the agent in the above case, he made no mention of a broken tail light but cited “public safety” issues posed by the Hispanic man’s “erratic driving.”
What’s more, Border Patrol agents can enforce all types of traffic violations on federal properties, which include national parkland, a vast swath of the Olympic Peninsula.
So there’s ample wiggle room for agents wanting to cite a legally acceptable reason for a stop that is really motivated by seeing a car full of Hispanics. The directives given from the top will undoubtedly set the tone, which is why a change in leadership could be important. The Border Patrol has also switched around the top command at the Port Angeles station in recent years, according to Adams.
NWIRP’s legal director says that things, in fact, have already changed for the better on the peninsula. And he hopes that the training and the ongoing monitoring brought by the settlement will further cause agents to modify their behavior.
But he also recognizes that more trouble may lie ahead. The proposals over Congressional immigration reform would balance leniency for those undocumented with measures, included beefing up the Border Patrol, that are aimed at curbing new illegal migration.
Many observers, including a Border Patrol whistleblower who surfaced in 2011, have attributed the questionable practices on the peninsula to a glut of agents with nothing to do. Adding yet more agents to the northern border could well magnify the problem, unless the settlement really does create a new culture among the ranks.