BELLINGHAM - A new federal policy ordering border agents to limit their role as interpreters for local police remains in flux, according to officials with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Until late November 2012, local law enforcement could call U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers if they needed an interpreter. That service ended after immigration activists said it led border agents to question the immigration status of crime victims and their families. So under a new memorandum, when police call U.S. border agents for an interpreter, they're referred to a list of private services.
"There's no one - not even the authors - who can tell you how this (memorandum) is going to be interpreted," said Kareem Shora, a senior advisor with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
Officials visiting from Washington, D.C., listened to concerns about the policy from a crowd of about 30 people Thursday afternoon, Feb. 7, at St. Luke's Health Educational Center on Squalicum Parkway.
Much of the discussion focused on a big loophole in the policy: If border agents are called out as backup because a police officer is endangered, they're still required to do their job and question people about their immigration status.
The nuanced tweak in policy was the result of "continuous feedback" from people claiming they were profiled by border agents based on language and ethnicity, Shora said.
"Our hope," he added, "is that we no longer see as many complaints. That will tell us something."
Then there are cases like Norberto Camacho, a pastor for Bellingham's Pan de Vida church, who recalled three times he was detained in public - for no reason he could see other than his broken English - by U.S. border agents.
Twice, he didn't feel compelled to file a complaint.
But on Jan. 19, his car broke down on Interstate 5 near Burlington and a state trooper rolled up behind him to ask if he needed help. He didn't, because he had a tow truck on the way, but the trooper stayed behind, he said. Within a few minutes a border agent swooped in and detained two of his friends in the car. One friend has since been deported; the other is being held in Tacoma. Camacho brought the complaint paperwork to the Thursday meeting
Run-ins like that have left local Latinos, or at least many members of Camacho's congregation, with feelings of distrust toward law enforcement.
"They are afraid to report any crime," he said through an interpreter. "They don't want to go to court, they don't want to be witnesses of anything, because they are afraid of the consequences of being contacted by the border patrol."
Michael D. Cox, head of the local Border Patrol agents' union, countered: "If you're in this country illegally, you should have fear."
To file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, visit dhs.gov/file-civil-rights-complaint.
To see the memorandum released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, click here.