Report Raises Human Rights Concerns on Wash.-Canada Border

Apr 17, 2012

A new report says border patrol agents in Washington state routinely profile people of certain races and religions. The report released Tuesday by the University and Washington and immigrant advocates focuses on the U.S.-Canada border. KUOW’s Liz Jones reports.

Researchers for this report spent the past year visiting trailer parks, migrant camps and apartment complexes across northern Washington. They collected more than 100 incident reports from immigrants about unusual interactions with border patrol.

“Like calling 911 to get an ambulance and having the border patrol show up. You know, small things like that where you just think, ‘that doesn’t seem normal,'” says Ada Prince-Williams, with the immigrant rights group, One America. They partnered with the UW Center for Human Rights on this report.

The report lays out what it calls a pattern of ethnic and religious profiling by border agents. Many immigrants interviewed describe how border patrol stopped and questioned them for no apparent reason. That happened outside of churches, schools and court houses.

Border patrol along the northern border has dramatically expanded since 9/11. In northern Washington, the number of agents has shot up from about 50 to now more than 300.

Prince-Williams says the increased surveillance and enforcement is cutting deep into immigrants’ lives.

Prince-Williams: “They don’t go to church. You know, they only drive at night. They try to go to the store when it’s dark. They don’t do a lot in the daytime.”

She says immigrants also resist calling police out of fear border agents will show up, too.

Richard Sinks is a spokesman for the Border Patrol in Blaine. He explains local police often call in border patrol to help with Spanish translation. But the limitations are clear:

“We will not arrest or even seek immigration status of a victim or a witness," he says. "We’re strictly there for translation in that type of request.”

Sinks also says agents can walk up and talk to anyone in a public area. But agents generally stay away from sensitive places, like churches and schools, unless there’s an emergency.

As for racial profiling, Sinks rejects that charge. He says agents must have clear reasons to stop someone for questioning. That can include erratic driving or if a person speaks with a foreign accent.

“Terrorists are all sizes, colors, makes, they come from anywhere in the world," Sinks says. "So it would be counter-productive on our part to focus on one particular group or ethnicity.”

The report authors are calling for changes in how border patrol operates. They want agents to stop serving as interpreters for local police. They also want a clear policy that restricts enforcement at churches, hospitals and other sensitive locations.

Border patrol supervisors met with One America during the research for this report. Agent Sinks says they’re happy to continue that conversation about their practices and policies.

Copyright 2012 KUOW