In one case, during a girl’s birthday party in Washington state, a mother dialed 911 and, using English, asked for an ambulance because another child had an accident. She gave her surname of Martinez. Medics, sheriff deputies and, to her surprise, U.S. Border Patrol agents, rushed to the scene. The agents reportedly asked party guests “who they were and their names.”
In another case, in Lynden, Wash. in 2011, Border Patrol agents and police showed up after the Spanish-speaking father of Alex Martinez called for help. Martinez was mentally ill and behaving out of the ordinary. The agents, family members have said, asked about his legal status. Tensions escalated and Martinez, a U.S. citizen, reportedly was fatally shot 13 times by officers and agents.
Community to Community, a human rights group that helps Latinos and farmworkers, filed a 15-page civil rights complaint last week against the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Homeland Security over the use of federal border protection employees as 911 dispatchers and interpreters for the Washington cities of Blaine, Lynden and Sumas.
The Bellingham, Wash.-based organization maintains in the complaint that U.S. Border Patrol agents have responded to 911 calls with local police in these cities near the Canadian border and inquired about a person’s immigration status. The federal agents have shown up to emergency or routine incidents when Spanish speakers have called dispatchers or Latino surnames became known in the 911 conversation, according to the June 13 document.
Community to Community contends that the Civil Rights Act is being violated and that this local-federal cooperation is denying Latinos “meaningful access to law enforcement and other emergency services and (they) are subjected to discriminatory treatment in law enforcement,” according to the complaint.
Equal Voice News contacted spokespeople in Washington, D.C. from the two federal departments, as well as representatives from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle for comment. In an email, Emily Langlie, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle said that the complaint is under review. “We can offer no comment on it at this time,” she wrote.
Other spokespeople either did not respond by late Tuesday afternoon or referred questions to department representatives.
The complaint includes information from the Whatcom County government website that says residents in Blaine, Lynden and Sumas who call 911 will be transferred to the Border Patrol dispatch center in the region. The dispatch agreement with the city of Sumas started in 2000. Later, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security explained that the Border Patrol’s role in the area’s emergency dispatch services would be “limited,” according to the complaint which cites a 2011 government document.
Community to Community, and its counsel, Columbia Legal Services in Seattle, point to the right of people in the country to be free from discrimination under any program that receives federal dollars, as outlined in Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The community group said in the complaint that the cities of Blaine, Lynden and Sumas have received federal dollars from the U.S. Department of Justice for community policing programs.
The complaint asks federal officials to no longer allow U.S. Customs and Border Protection employees to serve as 911 dispatchers or interpreters for these cities and to prohibit border patrol agents from participating in local law enforcement actions.
The complaint includes about 30 examples in which named or unnamed residents in Washington state report Border Patrol agents showing up, asking immigration-related questions, and at times, detaining people. But the original reason for local law enforcement officers to stop a person was not related to immigration.
In one case in the complaint, Lynden police called the Border Patrol after a person named Ira was stopped for a broken automobile taillight. Ira is a U.S. citizen.
In another example, a Latino man’s automobile was hit in an accident. Border Patrol agents were the first to arrive, according to the complaint, and they checked his immigration status and detained him.
The report cites an incident in which an Oroville, Wash. police officer responded to a domestic violence case after a woman had called 911. Border Patrol agents became involved and the woman “was transferred to the immigration detention facility in Tacoma, Washington.”
An attorney who was involved in the incident is quoted in the complaint as having concerns about the “safety of DV survivors when the story is that a DV survivor called 911, the Border Patrol showed up and the survivor ended up being detained.”
In the case of Alex Martinez, his family said in the complaint, no independent investigation has been conducted regarding the reported involvement of the federal agents in the fatal shooting.
Brad Wong is assistant news editor for Equal Voice News.
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