One June morning in 2011, an Anacortes police officer pulled over a Hispanic man, supposedly for failing to signal a left turn. The traffic stop quickly turned into something else, however. The officer suspected that the man, a local artist and longtime Anacortes resident named Gustavo Vargas Ramirez, was in the country illegally, and called the Border Patrol.
“Hold on to him for us,” a Border Patrol agent told the officer, who subsequently handcuffed Vargas and took him to the Anacortes police station. There, a Border Patrol agent named Wayne Hafstadt questioned the Mexican-born artist, who would go on to spend more than two months at the Northwest Detention Center.
Represented by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Vargas later sued the federal government, claiming that he was illegally arrested by the Border Patrol. While the artist was, in fact, undocumented, the Fourth Amendment requires probable cause before any arrest is made. Instead, Vargas claimed, what Agent Hafstadt (as well as the local officer) did in his case was to profile him based on his race.
Last month, U.S. District Court Judge James Robart agreed. While Vargas was perhaps unusual in that he had a driver’s license without a Social Security number, Agent Hafstadt was largely relying on “generalizations” like language and ethnicity to request the artist’s arrest—“generalizations that, if accepted, would cast suspicion on large segments of the law-abiding population,” the judge opined.
As Seattle Weekly reported then, in 2011, it was a time when both legal and illegal immigrants did in fact face constant suspicion and immigration interrogations along the northern border and throughout the Olympic Peninsula. Carried out by the Border Patrol with cooperation by other law-enforcement agencies, these stops were thinly disguised, if at all, by pretexts like a supposed traffic infraction.
The fear was palpable, especially after a Forks immigrant named Benjamin Roldan Salinas drowned in the Sol Duc River as he fled Border Patrol agents in May 2011. So was the anger. In 2012, three immigrants from the Olympic Peninsula filed a class action suit against the Border Patrol, accusing the agency of unconstitutional practices. What made that suit particularly damning is that the plaintiffs were all American citizens who had been interrogated on the flimsiest of reasons. Two of them were also corrections officers, including one who was stopped and interrogated while in uniform.
NWIRP and the ACLU, which jointly represented the plaintiffs in the case, won a landmark settlement in 2013 that required Border Patrol agents on the Olympic Peninsula to undergo training on constitutional practices. Now this latest ruling serves as notice all along the northern border that Latinos and other immigrants can’t be stopped and interrogated at random.
Surprisingly, the Border Patrol, which in the past vigorously defended its practices to Seattle Weekly and others, is not crying foul. After the lawsuits as well as a series of complaints by citizens, community groups, and members of Congress, the federal entity has changed its stance—and its leadership in the Northwest.
“It definitely was time for a new chapter in the Blaine sector,” says Dan Harris, the Border Patrol Chief Patrol Agent there. He arrived on the scene last May, just a few months after former Seattle police chief and federal drug czar Gil Kerlikowske became head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that encompasses the Border Patrol. Harris says he was personally selected by Kerlikowske, who indicated a desire for “top-notch law-enforcement professionalism.”
Upon coming to the Northwest, Harris says he immediately grasped that “We have to change completely our footprint and ways we interact with the community.” He notes that he instituted new training procedures, including ongoing instruction on “how to protect the civil rights and civil liberties of the people we deal with,” and attends a quarterly roundtable in Seattle with immigrant advocates and the Department of Homeland Security’s civil-rights and civil-liberties director.
He also stresses that his agents are currently focused on catching “immediate cross-border violators”—that is, people caught sneaking across the border, not longtime residents like Vargas. In addition, Harris says, echoing recent federal directives, agents are most interested in criminals and terrorists, “those causing harm to the country.”
Immigrant advocates along the northern border and on the Olympic Pensinula say that the Border Patrol has sharply curbed its reliance on racial profiling. “Things are definitely a lot calmer than they used to be,” says Lesley Hoare, a member of the Forks Human Rights Group. Yet the issue has not entirely gone away.
At around 4:30 in the afternoon on November 23, three Hispanic men were driving home to Forks after a long day of timber cutting on the Quinault Indian reservation when they were stopped by two Olympic National Park rangers, according to two of the men detained. The ostensible reason: A light on the license plate of their truck was not working.
As in so many stops in the past, the agents quickly turned their attention to the men’s immigration status, in particular one whom they suspected of being here illegally. That man, who asks not to be identified for fear of retribution, says he questioned the rangers about their actions. “You’re not Border Patrol,” he says he told them. They called the Border Patrol, though, and demanded he wait until agents arrived.
Melchor Ramos, one of the other men in the truck, says they also demanded that he wait, although he is a legal resident who has lived in the U.S. for 36 years. He says the same was true for the third man, an American citizen.
“I need to go. I’m wet and starving,” Ramos says he told the rangers. It was raining that day, and the men had been working in the soggy woods since 7:30 in the morning.
The rangers replied that the Border Patrol would be here “pretty soon”—which turned out to be an hour and a half. During that time, Ramos says, the rangers kept shining a flashlight in his face and forbade him and his co-workers from speaking Spanish together.
Ramos’ daughter, Marta, says she was “shocked” by the incident, especially since it came after the 2013 settlement in the class action lawsuit. Her brother Ismael was one of the plaintiffs in that suit—a citizen and former student body president of Forks High School who was stopped twice by the Border Patrol while still a teen. Upset to see another family member detained, she wrote a letter of complaint to the superintendent of the Olympic National Park, which she says has not been answered.
Park spokesperson Barb Maynes says she has no details about the case, but that rangers routinely “work collaboratively” with various law-enforcement entities, including the Border Patrol. The Border Patrol’s Harris says he doesn’t know about the case either.
Ultimately, the two men legally here went home and the third—undocumented but in the country since 1996, the husband of a citizen and the father of two children born here—was taken to the Northwest Detention Center. He spent a month there and was released after immigration authorities agreed to review the case. The outcome for him could have been a lot worse.
Yet the stop as a whole highlights the ambiguity that still infuses our nation’s immigration policy. A federal judge and top leaders at the Border Patrol may reiterate the importance of civil liberties. But NWIRP legal director Matt Adams notes that a Department of Justice guideline against racial profiling that came out in December contained a footnote that exempted law enforcement at the border. “That was a very disappointing blow,” he says.