Group protests use of Border Patrol agents as interpreters for local law enforcement

By Manuel Valdes
The Associated Press

Forks resident figures in rights group’s complaint

By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News

A Forks woman who was with Benjamin Roldan Salinas on May 14, 2011, before his fatal flight from Border Patrol agents was among six people whose interactions with the Border Patrol were cited in a complaint filed last week with the federal government.

Roldan Salinas’ body was found June 5, 2011, in the Sol Duc River 3 miles east of Sappho and about 4 miles downstream from where he fled the traffic stop.

The complaint filed by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project focuses on traffic stops that involved translation assistance that was requested of the Border Patrol by various law enforcement officers.

The woman, identified in the complaint as M.N., was the same person who was traveling as a passenger with Roldan Salinas, Northwest Immigrant Rights Project Legal Director Matt Adams confirmed Friday.

After Roldan Salinas fled, the woman, who is the mother of two children who are U.S. citizens, was arrested on an immigration violation.

The immigrant advocacy group filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Here’s the complaint’s account of the traffic stop that involved Roldan Salinas and his companion:

The woman and Roldan Salinas, of the West End, were traveling on U.S. Highway 101 when the vehicle was pulled over by a U.S. Forest Service officer who began questioning the two about permits for harvesting salal.

When a Border Patrol vehicle arrived, Roldan Salinas fled.

The woman was detained by the Border Patrol and transferred to the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center while her children were cared for by community members.

The statement from the Border Patrol said the Forest Service officer had requested translation assistance.

“However, the incident report filed by the USFS officer makes clear that the officer called a U.S. Border Patrol agent prior to making contact with the occupants of the vehicle,” according to the complaint.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at paul.gottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.
It has become a common practice among local law enforcement agencies in many counties around Washington state: If a person is pulled over and can only speak Spanish, call the U.S. Border Patrol.

Except, immigrant right advocates argue, Border Patrol agents don’t just provide interpretation.

They often question individuals and arrest people who they find are illegally in the country.

“This is a discriminatory practice because it means only certain members of the community are targeted for immigration enforcement: those perceived to be Spanish speakers,” said Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, based in Seattle.

Last week, Baron’s legal aid organization sent a letter to the Department of Justice and Homeland Security outlining these and other concerns they say violate the Civil Rights Act.

The letter outlines six cases, ranging from Forks to Spokane.

In all, Border Patrol agents were called in to interpret, and now people in those incidents are facing deportation.

In their package, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project included a dashboard camera video where a Border Patrol agent is purportedly heard using a derogatory term for illegal immigrants.

But Shawn P. Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, said Border Patrol agents don’t target specific types of people, except those violating the nation’s immigration laws.

“We arrest people from all over the world, not just from Mexico,” he said.

“If you’re out of status and you’re here illegally, we will arrest you and remove you from the country.”

The issue of Border Patrol agents serving as interpreters is one of several points of contention the Border Patrol is facing in the state with immigrant advocacy groups.

More than a week ago, the American Civil Liberties Union and Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed a federal lawsuit seeking to bar Border Patrol agents from doing traffic stops on the North Olympic Peninsula, saying people are being pulled over and questioned for the way they look and without reasonable suspicion.

Jose Sanchez and Ismael Ramos Contreras of Forks, and Ernest Grimes of Neah Bay, are the complainants in the lawsuit, which was filed in federal District Court in Seattle.

After the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush ordered U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, to beef up its presence on the U.S.-Canada border, which is almost twice as long as the U.S.-Mexico border.

Before that, Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian national who was convicted on multiple counts for plotting to bomb Los Angeles International Airport around Jan. 1, 2000, was arrested by customs agents in Port Angeles.

He was caught with explosives in the trunk of his rental car when he drove off a ferry from British Columbia in December 1999.

In 2007, the northern border had nearly 1,100 agents. Now, it has more than 2,200.

In the same period, the number of agents in the Blaine sector, which covers the border area west of the Cascades, went from 133 to 331.

The number of Border Patrol agents who cover Clallam and Jefferson counties increased from four in 2006 to 24 in April 2009 to 36 by mid-September.

The beefed-up Border Patrol contingent, based in Port Angeles and under the purview of the agency’s Blaine Sector office, also is scheduled to move into a new $5.7 million headquarters about 2 miles east of downtown by the end of June.

Over the years, Border Patrol enforcement practices common on the southern border, such as highway checkpoints, have been implemented along the northern border, prompting protests.

Agents cut back on road and ferry checkpoints after objections mounted.

Tensions rose last year after a forest worker, Benjamin Roldan Salinas, drowned following a foot chase with a U.S. Border Patrol agent.

Roldan Salinas, a Mexican national, jumped into a frigid river to elude the agent. His body was found entangled in roots three weeks later.

Also last year, a Border Patrol agent stationed in Port Angeles testified in Washington, D.C., that agents there have nothing to do.

Moran said political pressure led the Border Patrol to scale back checks at transportation hubs and that he wouldn’t be surprised if the lawsuit and complaint letter lead to more changes.

If they do, he said, it will take away a basic tool for agents.

“It’s a core function that we perform,” he said from San Diego, where he is based.

“Traffic stops are one of our fundamental duties to catch terrorists, illegal aliens and drug smuggling.

“Most people, if they’re not traveling on foot, they’re traveling on vehicle.”

Moran added that the political onslaught by “interest” groups on the Border Patrol is taking a toll on the morale of agents.

Often, law enforcement agencies in counties and cities near the border don’t have fluent Spanish speakers on staff, so they rely on phone language services, community or family members, or, in some cases, Border Patrol agents who are required to have practical Spanish.

“Our issue is when we need an interpreter, someone who is close, available and competent,” said Bob Calkins of the State Patrol.

Baron said a lawsuit on the use of agents as interpreters may be filed.

But for the time being, he’s calling on the Department of Justice to uphold the Civil Rights Act, which he said is the main legal recourse.

At the very least, Baron said, he wants the cases against the six people dismissed.

A Border Patrol spokesman in Blaine deferred questions to its Washington, D.C., office, but an email inquiry was not returned.

Last modified: May 05. 2012 5:47PM
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