City Council President Ben Stuckart published a warning online Tuesday to transportation carrier Greyhound, arguing it might be in violation of Spokane’s anti-discrimination laws by permitting federal border agents on its buses to check citizenship status.
“The actions are an overreach in this instance, and I think they’re just plain immoral on the separation of families,” Stuckart said in an interview, referring to the federal government’s policy at the U.S.-Mexico border that has drawn denunciation from both sides of the aisle.
Greyhound responded in a statement Tuesday, saying it had received the letter and would reply soon. The company said it is bound by federal law to allow the searches, which the Border Patrol acknowledges have been ramping up in recent months.
Stuckart contends in the letter, addressed to Greyhound President Dave Leach and Tricia Martinez, senior legal officer, that the city’s passage of a new civil rights code promising “equal participation … in public accommodations” was rendered impossible by the company’s allowance for Customs and Border Patrol agents to question passengers as coaches are parked at the intermodal facility in downtown Spokane. That property is owned by the city.
“As the City Council President, I want businesses operating in Spokane to comply with our laws which require equal access to public accommodations and conveyances,” Stuckart wrote.
Stuckart’s letter resembled one sent by representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union in 10 states in March, arguing that Greyhound had a Fourth Amendment right to refuse entry onto its coaches without a search warrant.
Lanesha Gipson, senior communications specialist with Greyhound, said in a statement the company was “caught in the middle of an issue that is not in our control.”
“In terms of our policy, while we are required to comply with the law by allowing Border Patrol agents to board our buses when they ask to do so, we do not support or coordinate these searches, nor are we happy about them,” Gipson said.
The statement cited a provision in federal law that permits warrantless searches within 100 miles of a U.S. border. Spokane lies just inside that boundary.
In response to questions about its policies, the Border Patrol issued a statement indicating the checks had been part of enforcement activities “for decades” and that in 2017, authorization of those activities returned to regional offices from the agency’s centralized headquarters.
“Transportation hubs are used by alien smuggling and drug trafficking organizations to move people, narcotics, and contraband to interior destinations throughout the country,” a Border Patrol spokesman said in a statement. “To combat these growing threats, the U.S. Border Patrol has increased the frequency of transportation checks around the country as an additional enforcement mechanism to reinforce (the agency’s) world-class approach to border security.”
Stuckart said he believed the ACLU was mulling legal action against Greyhound that would include some of the concerns raised about the practice of searches in Spokane. Doug Honig, a spokesman for the organization in Seattle, said he couldn’t confirm the organization was pursuing legal action, despite sharing Stuckart’s social media posts with multiple reporters at The Spokesman-Review.
“If at any time the ACLU would take legal action in Spokane, we would notify The Spokesman-Review expeditiously,” Honig said.
Ava Sharifi, a Lewis and Clark High School graduate who also served as a delegate for Bernie Sanders’ presidential run in 2016, has been in contact with both the council and the civil rights organization regarding an incident she witnessed firsthand at the intermodal center in March.
On the ride back to her studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, Sharifi said she saw agents question a passenger who said he was from Mali, Africa, and had been issued a visa, but didn’t have his paperwork with him. The man and his luggage were taken off the bus, Sharifi said, but he was allowed to return to his seat before the bus left. A Facebook post detailing the encounter was shared nearly 900 times, and Sharifi shared her experience in an email to the office of Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke.
“I had seen a lot of videos,” Sharifi said. “But, it’s like the cliche, I never thought it was going to happen on my bus.”
Spokane resident Kathe Cates said she’d also filed a complaint with the ACLU about an incident she believed occurred around Christmastime last year. On a trip to visit her son in Moscow, Idaho, Cates said border agents questioned a woman of Asian descent on her coach before it left Spokane.
“They profiled that little girl,” Cates said. She did not get the woman’s name, but reported the incident to the ACLU, she said.
Similar complaints have been lodged in cities across the country. The Border Patrol has said it does not consider race or ethnicity in its enforcement of federal laws.
Stuckart posted the letter on the Facebook page promoting his 2019 mayoral candidacy. City Councilman Mike Fagan, who often is the lone vote of dissent on a panel seen as left-leaning, said he understood Stuckart’s concerns but didn’t agree with his reasoning.
“I do not believe, at the end of the day, a municipal code is going to trump federal law,” Fagan said.
Fagan noted that immigration policy was “one of the biggest topics in the world, and especially in the nation right now.”
Stuckart acknowledged the ties between his letter and the ongoing discussion about the federal policy at the border.
“I’ve just been watching social media and I hadn’t really put anything out on my campaign website,” Stuckart said. “People are talking about this issue.”
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