The Harmful Effects of Using Border Patrol as Interpreters Along the Northern Border

Most people are aware of increasing collaboration between state and local police and federal immigration officers. Programs like 287(g) and the Secure Communities program, as well as state laws like SB1070, create a new role for local police, who are now put in the position of identifying immigrants for possible deportation. It has meant that a simple traffic stop can lead to removal from the United States.

However, fewer people are aware of the collaboration between state and local police and the Border Patrol, particularly along the Northern Border.  Too little attention has been paid to the Northern Border generally, although it has experienced massive increases in the number of Border Patrol agents and resources.  Today the IPC released a new paper – Border Patrol Agents as Interpreters along the Northern Border: Unwise Policy, Illegal Practice, by Lisa Graybill, that paints a vivid picture of the Northern Border and uncovers the practice of Border Patrol agents going beyond their mission and priorities and serving as interpreters in order to enforce immigration laws.

Advocates along the northern border have increasingly reported that Border Patrol agents are being called by local police officers to interpret for them with non-English speakers.  In other cases, Border Patrol agents are answering 911 emergency calls when the caller does not speak English.  Border Patrol agents also appear to be doing “ride alongs” with local police, and showing up at crime scenes and traffic stops.  The Border Patrol has used these opportunities to enforce immigration law, often detaining and deporting individuals they identify.  For example:

In May 2010, near St. Albans, Vermont, in the Swanton Sector, Diego was working at the dairy farm where he had been employed for three years when his co-worker Jorge accidentally called 911 by misdialing an international country code. When the 911 operator answered, his co-worker said “I don’t speak English,” and hung up the phone. About 20 minutes later, the state police arrived at the barn where the men were working, accompanied by U.S. Border Patrol agents, and several workers were taken into custody…When describing the event, Diego said, “I wouldn’t call 911, not after what happened, not if I broke my leg or was bleeding or anything. Not after what happened with my friends.”

Consistent with collaborative efforts between local police and federal immigration agents, this collaboration between Border Patrol and police terrifies local immigrant communities who are now fearful of calling the police or an ambulance or the fire department.  As is the case with 287(g) or Secure Communities, their fear has significant implications for public health and safety.

Several organizations have filed complaints about this practice, arguing that it is not only harmful, but potentially illegal.  Federal agencies are required to provide “meaningful access” to services to all persons, regardless of what language they speak.  It is hardly “meaningful access” when providing interpretation results in detention and deportation.  Through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed on behalf of an alliance of northern border organizations, the Legal Action Center (LAC) obtained additional information on the frequency with which the use of Border Patrol agents as interpreters for other law enforcement agencies leads to immigration enforcement.  Documents reveal that the agency has been aware of Border Patrol’s involvement in interpretation for local law enforcement agencies since at least June 2011.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s civil rights office found that the U.S. Forest Service’s practice of using Border Patrol agents to provide Spanish interpretation assistance was “discriminatory on its face, and not solely in the circumstances of this case.”  However, DHS has not changed its policy or released any new guidance restricting the Border Patrol from interpreting or responding to 911 emergency calls.  Based on all of the evidence obtained for IPC’s paper, it is time for DHS to stop this harmful and discriminatory practice.

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  • Dave

    First, local law enforcement participation in 287(g) does not mean that police officers “…are now put in the position of identifying immigrants for possible deportation.” They do make referrals to federal officials (ICE) for any persons who are arrested for a local crime or encountered during traffic stops based on a high probability that the person may be in the country illegally. Local police do not make determinations on the status of anyone that they are dealing with.

    Second, insofar as the 9-1-1 call goes, anyone who calls (even accidently) and hangs up will be visited by a local police officer – it is standard procedure to investigate all calls to ensure that there isn’t an actual emergency. In this case, because of the heightened concerns over national security, someone who calls 9-1-1 and says they don’t speak English and hangs up is going to get an added level of interest – and the Border Patrol was probably the most convienent federal response.

    As for ‘Diego’ saying that, because of what happened to his co-worker, he would never call 9-1-1…it’s no surprise that an illegal alien wouldn’t want to draw attention to himself. That is like saying that a bank-robber wouldn’t go to the hosppital if he was shot during the robbery…obviously he would be arrested when the hospital reported the incident.

    • http://www.immigrationpolicy.org Policy Center

      Hey Dave-

      For your first two points, I would direct you to the report we linked to in the text for an explanation as to why we believe they are problematic. As for your third point, the worry is primarily that, by creating a schism between the immigrant community – both documented and undocumented – and the police, we are creating an environment where crimes and emergencies can go unreported, or where police won’t be able to get witnesses to cooperate or to even come forward, which puts the community as a whole in a less secure position.

      Thanks for your comment!

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