Federal agents have increased their presence in the Spokane area in what some believe is an overreaching effort to combat illegal immigration at a local level.
Officials with the U.S. Border Patrol say they’re not specifically targeting illegal immigrants and that their presence at police stops in the Spokane County area is part of an ongoing partnership with local law enforcement.
But a Seattle-based immigrant rights group alleges border patrol agents are responding to calls even when their presence is not necessary, simply because they suspect someone may be an illegal immigrant.
“Only people who are Spanish speakers or are perceived to be Spanish speakers are the ones being questioned,” said Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
A complaint sent by the immigrant rights group Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security details a case in Spokane where a man stopped on suspicion of speeding is now in custody facing deportation after border patrol agents showed up and determined he was in the United States illegally.
The man, who is identified by the initials K.L, was not cited for anything related to the traffic stop but was arrested in front of his 4-year-old daughter, who is a United States citizen, and remains in a federal holding cell in Western Washington.
The man has no criminal record and did not need a translator when border patrol agents responded to the traffic stop, the complaint alleges.
Barón said the border patrol is violating civil rights by questioning people about their immigration status when they have no reasonable suspicion to do so. People are being targeted for questioning because of their language skills, or perceived language skills, he said.
“You’re not asking everybody, you’re targeting certain people for that activity, and that constitutes profiling. That constitutes discrimination,” Barón said.
U.S. Border Patrol spokesman James Frackelton referred questions about the complaint to the Washington, D.C., office of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which didn’t respond Wednesday.
Frackelton said agents are not doing anything new - they’re simply making themselves available to assist local law enforcement. One of the agency’s main jobs is to enforce immigration laws anywhere in the United States.
“We’re not going to back away from doing our jobs,” Frackelton said. “People seem to think agents need to be right up there at the border, but actually we can enforce immigration law anywhere in the United States.”
City leaders are arranging meeting with agency officials to discuss their increased presence in Spokane, which also has prompted a complaint to Spokane police Ombudsman Tim Burns that the level of response is excessive.
“We just want to have a clear understanding of why all of a sudden they’re having a stronger presence,” said City Councilor Nancy McLaughlin, chair of the city’s Public Safety Committee. “When we think of border patrol, we think of the Canadian border. Why are they down here listening to our frequencies?”
Frackelton said the agency’s mission hasn’t changed.
“If you don’t really understand who we are and what we do, there are questions,” he said. “It’s just one agency supporting another.”
The number of border patrol agents in this region has soared from 40 in 2003 to 285 this year. That’s for an area that extends just west of Oroville in north Central Washington to east of Whitefish, Mont. and down to the Interstate 90 corridor.
“The fact is we’re starting to do really what we’re supposed to be doing, and it’s going to brush some people differently,” Frackelton said. “Most taxpaying citizens are good and very happy with what we do, which is the job of national security.”
The complaint details six incidents in Washington in which border patrol agents responded to local traffic stops and detained suspects for immigration violations. Agents respond under the guise of needing to provide language translations even when it’s not needed, the complaint alleges.
Spokane police Major Frank Scalise, who supervises the patrol division, said he wasn’t familiar with the complaint but said it’s not standard for officers to request border patrol assistance if they suspect someone may be in the country unlawfully.
“It’s not something we focus on, and it’s not something we emphasize,” Scalise said, referring to a suspect’s immigration status.
“Unless someone says, ‘Oh I know you guys would catch me, I’m an illegal immigrant,’ I don’t know how far down that path we would go,” he said.
Baron said local law enforcement officers appear to know that calling the border patrol can initiate immigration proceedings against a suspect.
The human rights center has released dash camera footage of a Feb. 12 traffic stop in Mount Vernon in which a Washington State Patrol trooper thanks a Border Patrol agent who detained the driver for suspected immigration violations. The federal agents tells the trooper to call for assistance any time, and the trooper, who is not named, responds “Oh yeah, well, we like to, we just have to do it in a roundabout sort of way.”
An agent also is overheard saying he believes the occupants of the car are “all wet,” which refers to a slur for Hispanic immigrants.
The traffic stop resulted in the detention of a married couple with 1- and 4-year-old children who are U.S. citizens. The husband was deported; his wife, who is pregnant, was released from custody on “humanitarian grounds” but still faces removal from the country.
In the Spokane traffic stop, a Spokane police officer stopped the man at North Nevada Street and East Wellesley Avenue about 8:30 p.m. on suspicion of speeding. The man provided valid license, registration and insurance and received a verbal warning. He had no problems communicating with the officer, but border patrol agents arrived anyway. The agents wrote in a report that they developed “reasonable suspicion” to question the man’s immigration status, but they don’t state what those reasons were.
Barón said targeting possible illegal immigrants with no criminal history through routine proceedings like traffic stops contradicts President Barack Obama’s pledge to focus on illegal immigrants involved in violent crime.
He also questioned Frackelton’s assertion that the border patrol’s growing resources are allowing them to have more of a local presence. Using highly trained and salaried border patrol agents to provide language transitions for traffic stops doesn’t seem like a good use of resources, he said. He said contract translators are available for a fraction of the cost of an agent’s salary.
“If they really have that many resources, we need to reconsider whether that’s good investment,” Barón said. “We don’t have enough money for local law enforcement and important human services. It’s a question of priority for the community.”