In December 2012, then acting Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) David Aguilar had announced a policy restricting his agencies’ officers and agents from acting as interpreters for state or local law enforcement agencies—which had become a common practice along the northern and southern borders. However, just last month, current CBP Commissioner, Gil Kerlikowske reversed course and authorized CBP Agents to again act as interpreters for state and local police despite significant civil rights concerns associated with that practice.

Prior to December 2012, border communities throughout the country were seeing the use of Border Patrol agents as interpreters. Some local agencies contacting Border Patrol did not do so simply for their language skills, but to trigger immigration enforcement actions against the community members involved. The extent and problematic nature of this practice was extensively documented in a 2012 report by Lisa Graybill, Border Patrol Agents as Interpreters Along the Northern Border: Unwise Policy, Illegal Practice.

It was with great relief when in 2012 the agency issued new guidance directing CBP agents not to respond to requests for translation assistance from other law enforcement organizations and to refer them to private local and national translation services.

However, on a conference call on June 20, 2016, Commissioner Kerlikowske announced he had decided to rescind the 2012 policy.

In response, over 150 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), wrote a letter to Commissioner Kerlilowske, outlining their many concerns with this policy reversal including pointing to a decision by another government agency (USDA) not to use border patrol for translation services which still stands:

“The assessment that using Border Patrol agents as interpreters constitutes discrimination was not one made solely by advocates but was also confirmed by a ruling from another federal agency in 2012… In a thorough 40-page decision, USDA concluded that “the use by [the Forest Service] of [Border Patrol] for interpretation assistance is discriminatory on its face, and not solely in the circumstances of this case.”  Moreover, USDA also determined that, apart from the discriminatory impact of the practice, it was an inappropriate means to obtain interpretation assistance: “The ‘interpretation services’ that [Border Patrol] provides [the Forest Service] … do not satisfy the ethical standards of interpretation services; they are not impartial, or confidential, nor do they advise individuals of the potential conflicts of interest and risks in using [Border Patrol] as interpreters.”

Unfortunately the announcement last month by the Commissioner, without any consultation with NGOs, is a huge step in the wrong direction. Not only is the agency returning to a discriminatory practice but the decision was made with no prior discussion or transparency.

As the NGO letter notes, “There has been no change in the legal landscape that undermines USDA’s conclusion in 2012 that the prohibited practices under the 2012 policy were discriminatory; there is therefore no justification to rescind the policy.”

Photo by t3hwit.