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Report alleges ‘abusive behavior’ by border agents

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

LAS CRUCES – An ACLU report alleges “abusive behavior” – including racial profiling and intimidation tactics – by border agents in the 100-mile zone of New Mexico where the Border Patrol runs checkpoints inside the United States.

The Border Patrol – a division of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency – said that racial profiling goes against its policy and that checkpoints “are a critical enforcement tool” to intercept smugglers intent on illegally moving people, drugs or other contraband into the U.S.

New Mexicans who live within 100 miles of the Mexican border face checkpoints on U.S. highways where border agents stop all traffic, ask for U.S. citizenship and immigration status and occasionally search vehicles as they look for illegal drugs or unauthorized immigrants.

There are six permanent Border Patrol checkpoints in southern New Mexico, many that have been in place for decades.

The report by the ACLU of New Mexico’s Regional Center for Border Rights titled “Guilty Until Proven Innocent,” scheduled for release today, alleges border agents have engaged in “a broad range of abusive behavior,” including “racial profiling, unjustified detentions and searches, verbal abuse, intimidation, physical abuse and interfering with the delivery of emergency medical treatment,” according to the report.

U.S. citizens reported 50 complaints of abuse by border agents and officers to the ACLU last year, according to the report; another half-dozen complaints came from lawful permanent residents or unauthorized immigrants. Some of the alleged abuse occurred at ports of entry, but the majority occurred at interior border checkpoints or during roving patrols in the U.S., the report said.

Border Patrol agents in the El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico, reviewed an advance copy of the ACLU report. Spokesman Ramiro Cordero did not deny the allegations outright, saying that they were never brought up directly to the Border Patrol.

Border agents stop millions of people at its New Mexico checkpoints each year and at times find drugs or immigrants who are traveling in the U.S. illegally, he said.

In the first seven months of fiscal 2015, border agents checked 1.7 million vehicles with an estimated 3 million occupants at interior checkpoints, Cordero said. The checks have turned up more than 1,700 pounds of marijuana and nearly 70 pounds of cocaine, and agents have apprehended more than 300 suspected unlawful immigrants.

New rules

But the ACLU contends that the Border Patrol operates with little meaningful oversight or accountability, even as the federal government and many local law enforcement agencies, including in Albuquerque, review their policies on racial profiling and use of force.

The Justice Department issued new rules in December banning many federal law enforcement agencies from profiling subjects based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation. While the new rules apply for the first time to many national security activities, Border Patrol agents and customs officers working on the Southwest border were exempted from the new rules.

Cordero provided the Journal with a copy of CBP’s own policy, which prohibits the consideration of race or ethnicity in its law enforcement, investigations and screening activities.

The ACLU report provides a snapshot of the 100-mile zone in southern New Mexico, where roughly 354,500 people live, 60 percent of families in the region consider themselves Hispanic or Latino and about half speak a language other than English. More than a quarter of 334 respondents to an optional ACLU survey said they do not feel comfortable traveling through a Border Patrol checkpoint.

Hispanics and Spanish-speakers felt especially singled out, the report said.

“People feel they are treated differently based on the way they look in southern New Mexico,” said Brian Erickson, policy advocate at the ACLU of New Mexico’s Regional Center for Border Rights, which produced the report. “(CBP) should be held to the same standard as any other law enforcement agency.”

CBP spokesman Roger Maier said: “Professionalism is an important component for CBP. We strive to act in a professional manner in all our interactions with members of the traveling public and trade community.”

Anyone who feels wronged during an encounter with a border agent or customs officer should “ask to speak to an on-duty supervisor at the location where the interaction occurred immediately. CBP always has managers on duty who are in a position to address concerns.”

The ACLU collected information contained in the report through surveys conducted at presentations made around the region during the first half of 2014 and at four “Know Your Rights” checkpoints deployed near Border Patrol checkpoints on highways, where drivers were invited to pull over to share their experiences and report concerns.