Border Patrol Racial Profiling Lawsuit: ACLU, Immigrant Advocacy Group, Settles Case Over Traffic Stops

Border Patrol
A Border Patrol agent restrains a sniffer dog after inspecting a train near the Texas border with Mexico. Reuters

The Border Patrol in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state has reached a settlement on a lawsuit filed by two immigrant advocate groups which accused it of using racial profiling in stopping and questioning motorists. Every six months over a period of 18 months, the Border Patrol will have to provide the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project -- which brought the suit in conjunction with the ACLU -- with copies of the reports agents write up after each traffic stop in the peninsula. The case was brought on behalf of three US citizens who complained of harassment from the Border Patrol in the rural towns which rim the 1,441-square-mile Olympic National Park. 

The New York Times reported in May 2012 that the Border Patrol in Washington operates to combat potential terrorism and smuggling threats coming into the country from Canada -- a ferry connects British Columbia with the Peninsula -- but that many residents accuse the agency of acting like its main focus was illegal immigration from Latin America. Agents would sometimes hang around the warehouse where Mexican immigrants sold the salal they'd picked in Washington fields, the Times wrote, or show up to assist with the local police's routine traffic stops. 

For others, according to the article, the agency uses little more than skin tone to pick out targets of suspicion. One of the plaintiffs, 19-year-old Ismael Ramos Contreras of the town of Forks, told the Associated Press that he'd been the target of immigration-related stops by the Border Patrol on two separate occasions: once, when four agents pulled over him and a group of his friends without ever providing a reason for the stop, and again when an agent inquired into his immigration status outside a courthouse. A second of the three plaintiffs, prison guard Ernest Grimes, said he was pulled over in 2011 by an agent who kept one hand on his weapon while interrogating him about his immigration status. Grimes, who is black, said he was never told why he'd been stopped, and that he had been wearing his guard uniform at the time.

The immigrant advocate groups involved received the news as a victory. "This agreement confirms that Border Patrol can't pull over a vehicle because of the driver's race or ethnicity or simply because the person lives in proximity to the border," Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, told the AP. "We hope that the reporting requirements and the additional training will ultimately provide greater accountability, and restore a measure of dignity for folks who live in this region." Cecilia D. Wang, director of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, told the AP that the case sheds light on what she characterized as the problems with using traffic stops as a way to enforce immigration law, and added that Washington isn't the only border state to see tensions arise from the Border Patrol's use of the tool. 

The government had pursued a settlement with the two groups after a motion to get the case dismissed failed. "This settlement is confirmation that we can both ensure the safety of our borders and protect all members of our communities in a constitutional manner," U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan told the AP in a statement. "I appreciate the dedication and hard work of the Border Patrol, who are both the first line of defense against danger and the first to welcome millions of our visitors."

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David Iaconangelo is a Brooklyn-based writer and translator.  Formerly editor of ZafraLit, a blog of new short fiction from Cuba.  He has lived in and reported from various Latin American countries.