The U.S. Forest Service's use of Border Patrol agents as language interpreters and for law enforcement in stops involving Hispanics is discriminatory, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled last week.
The decision, which could shape future U.S. policy, asserts that by calling the Border Patrol for translation services during a routine stop in Washington's Olympic National Forest, the Forest Service violated the civil rights of a spanish-speaking woman, The Washington Post reports.
The federal department says the incident was "humiliating" to Hispanics and a covert, deceptive tactic used by the Border Patrol to capture more illegal aliens. The ruling, ultimately made by the Agriculture Department's assistant secretary for civil rights, will likely create more red tape for law enforcement agencies to cut through as they try to help secure the border while also tiptoeing a fine line to avoid accusations of racial profiling.
Assistant Secretary Joe Leonard Jr. reportedly said involving the Border Patrol "escalates" situations involving Hispanics and law enforcement.
The decision requires the Forest Service to post in its offices throughout the Olympic National Forest a notice acknowledging that it violated nondiscrimination laws and providing directions for how those who believe they have faced discrimination may file a complaint.
“Given the increased risk of being questioned about immigration status during an interaction with [Border Patrol], the policy of using BP for interpretation assistance is problematic in all situations because it places a burden on [limited English proficient] individuals that non-LEP individuals do not experience,” Leonard ruled.
The Forest Service, the decision said, "has no specific policy regarding the use of Border Patrol as a backup to provide guidance or safeguard against discrimination."
The incident in question actually occurred in 2011. An officer with the Forest service came across a Hispanic couple inside the national park who were seemingly harvesting plants on federally owned lands – which is illegal.
The Washington Post has more background on the encounter:
The couple didn’t speak English and he didn’t speak fluent Spanish and, anticipating that situation, he called the Border Patrol for backup and translating.
But when a Border Patrol agent arrived, the couple fled. The woman was apprehended, but the man jumped into a river to try to escape and drowned. The Border Patrol took the woman into custody but released her several days later, reportedly on humanitarian grounds.
The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project complained to the Agriculture Department, which oversees the Forest Service, and last week’s ruling was the result.
Matt Adams, legal director of the project, said the Border Patrol has been expanding its reach in the Northwest and that has meant more encounters well away from the border.
“They’ve got nothing to do out there as far as their traditional mission, that is enforcing people coming through the border. So in order to justify those expanded numbers, they utilize these other tactics,”Mr. Adamssaid. “At the end of the day, they can drag in bigger numbers, but it’s not focused on the border.”
His group is challenging other federal agencies’ use of the Border Patrol for translation services, and has filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act seeking logs for how often agents are used for translation.
Last week’s ruling relies in part on an executive order issued during the Clinton administration that says language is interchangeable with national origin, which is protected by federal law.
Critics are upset with the ruling and argue the federal government is granting special privileges to illegal aliens who do not have a legal right to be in the country.
“The ACLU and illegal alien rights groups are well aware that American courts have never upheld their argument that language and national origin are equal, so they battle out these disputes in private between the agencies in order to come to a settlement where both the courts and the taxpayers are absent from the table,” said Suzanne Bibby, director of government relations for ProEnglish. “This is their new strategy because they know they will lose in the courts.”
A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection told the Washington Post that CBP is reviewing the decision but that the agency remains committed to civil rights.
Residents reportedly told the review board overseeing the case that the Forest Service officer accused to civil rights violations was notorious for harassing Hispanics and for teaming up with the Border Patrol.
However, the Forest Service officer in turn said he was concerned that the Hispanic community had been "tracing" his movements, according to the report.
In the end, Leonard was more convinced by the residents' complaints and remained suspicious of the officer.
The Washington Post reports that the ruling was based on a few legal arguments: First, that the complainant was within her right to visit the national forest; second, that a law enforcement stop affects the availability of the service provided by the national forest; and third, that the Forest Service must take steps to protect those with limited English, including making them not feel unduly threatened.
In April, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the Border Patrol seeking to bar agents from making traffic stops, saying people are being pulled over and questioned for the way they look and without reasonable suspicion. The lawsuit stemmed from tensions between immigrants and the expanded presence of Border Patrol agents on the Olympic Peninsula, which shares no land border with Canada.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.