Group files civil discrimination suit against Blaine and U.S. Border Patrol

Published on Wed, Jun 19, 2013 by Brandy Kiger Shreve

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Community to Community (C2C), a northwest Washington farmworkers’ rights organization filed a civil rights discrimination complaint against the U.S. Border Patrol and the cities of Blaine, Lynden and Sumas on June 13 for allegedly denying Latino residents access to 911 emergency services. 

“The complaint has been sent to the Department of Justice and we’re asking them to investigate promptly,” said Rosalinda Guillen, director of C2C.

The complaint alleges that the practice of using the border patrol as 911 dispatch for the northern area of the county discourages Latino residents from requesting emergency services when necessary. It goes on to say that “Latino residents of the area have repeatedly said they will not use 911 or police services because of the involvement of immigration authorities with local law enforcement,” and that “the threat of immigration apprehension deprives that Latino population of needed public safety services.”

“Community members see border patrol come when they call 911,” Guillen said. “There are high levels of fear in rural Whatcom County in regards to people using local law enforcement for protection and resolving issues. They’re afraid that if they call 911 that the border patrol or immigration will show up.” 

The 15-page complaint lists several instances in which Latino people trying to report fights, domestic violence or medical emergencies found themselves face to face with border patrol instead of the help they were seeking, resulting in detainment or interrogation.

In other cases, the complaint alleges that local police officers called in border patrol interpreters even when some or all of the people at the scene were bilingual and no interpreters were needed.

Based on these accounts, it requests that the cities terminate their use of border patrol-operated 911 dispatch within 30 days and the use of border patrol as an interpretation service within 14 days. 

“This is based on the culmination of several years of collecting information and hearing stories from local Whatcom residents. Why are these three cities using the border patrol for their 911 dispatch when everyone else in the county is using the What-Comm 911 dispatch?” Guillen said in a phone interview. “Why is there this interaction between federal government and local law enforcement?”

Though he had not yet seen the official complaint, Blaine police chief Mike Haslip said the collaboration between local law enforcement and the border patrol has a long-standing history and has been established for practical reasons. “It’s not just a cost-saving measure,” Haslip said. “This relationship has been in place since the 1960s. Part of it is geographic. Our three communities are on the very edge of the county and the other two agencies we would normally interact with – Washington State Patrol and the sheriff’s department – are constrained themselves. The staff that those agencies do have on the road have to spend their time in more populated areas, so we often go days and days at a time without seeing a state patrolman or sheriff’s deputy out here. The border patrol, though, we see a lot more frequently.”

Managing an understaffed police force – there are currently only seven full-time officers on duty for the city of 5,000 people – Haslip said they welcome the help that the border patrol is able to provide when responding to potentially hazardous situations such as domestic violence cases. “Those kind of calls are dangerous by their very nature,” Haslip said. “You never know what you might find and a sheriff’s deputy may be 15 to 20 minutes away. So we call the border patrol for assistance and it makes all the difference to have a resource like that readily available. But they don’t come unless we ask them to help us, and when they do come, they are only there to assist.”

He said that the practice of using border patrol for interpretation has already been discontinued in his department. “That used to happen,” he said. “But it hasn’t for quite some time. There were concerns raised that people calling didn’t want border patrol there, so now we call a translation service on our phone, or, in a pinch, we’ll use an iPhone app that translates for us so that we’re not relying on services that involve immigration officers.”

As for border patrol responding first to 911 calls, Haslip said calls that come into the 911 dispatch are triaged to determine who has jurisdiction and then forwarded to the correct agency. “If it’s a local Blaine issue, then it will get handed over to us,” Haslip said. “We have very well-defined operational procedures for making sure that local law enforcement is conducted by local officers, and federal issues by the feds, but sometimes you can’t tell right away who it is supposed to go to. Someone might call in the middle of the night and say there’s a prowler on their property. Well, is it a trespass? A burglary? A smuggler? There’s no way to know. The dispatcher has to make his best guess and then send help.”

City manager Gary Tomsic said that he planned to discuss the matter with the city council at their meeting on Monday, June 24, and that the city would have to move forward in a thoughtful way. “It can’t be a knee-jerk response,” he said. “This isn’t the first time the issue has come up, and if it’s happening our focus needs to be on fixing the problem. But what they are requesting could have serious implications for the city. It could be financially devastating since it would be a different communications system with different equipment that requires a buy-in, which we haven’t contributed to at all. But, it goes deeper than just law enforcement. This is an issue that really needs to be discussed on the public policy level. My hope is that the parties could spend additional time together to address the problem.”

He said that he did not see working with the border patrol as “counterproductive,” as the letter claimed. “The additional security is beneficial,” Tomsic said. “I feel,  that for the most part, the community feels that way too.” 

Haslip agreed. “It’s the best use of resources and it’s done out of simple necessity to provide as much service as we can without costing the public so much that they have to give up other basic resources,” he said. “From our perspective, it’s for the betterment of the community we serve.”