Bellingham group asks feds to stop using border agents as police interpreters

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 15, 2013 

LYNDEN - Many Hispanic residents are afraid to call local police to report crimes, because Lynden, Blaine and Sumas police often call federal immigration officers to act as interpreters, according to a civil rights complaint that has been filed with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Attorney Daniel Ford of Columbia Legal Services filed the complaint Thursday, June 13, on behalf of Bellingham-based Community to Community Development, a farmworker rights organization. The complaint alleges that the use of Border Patrol officers as interpreters results in a violation of the civil rights of Hispanic residents.

Lynden Police Chief Jack Foster and Sumas Police Chief Chris Haugen said the matter is now in the hands of attorneys and they could not comment. Blaine Border Patrol spokesman Colin Burgin also declined comment. Blaine Police Chief Mike Haslip did not respond to a request for comment.

The complaint also notes that U.S. Border Patrol provides dispatching services for the three small-city police departments, meaning that anyone from those cities who calls 911 for any kind of emergency will wind up talking to a Border Patrol dispatcher.

Angelica Villa, a local Community to Community activist who has been a farmworker, said immigration officers don't restrict themselves to language services when local police call them in.

""People are afraid to call the police if they have problems," Villa said. "Immigration does not come to interpret. They come to ask whether they are in the country illegally."

Attorney Ford's complaint letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asks the Justice Department to order the three cities to cease the practice of using Border Patrol officers as interpreters within 14 days. He also asks for an order stopping them from using Border Patrol as a dispatch service within 30 days.

The 15-page complaint lists several instances in which Hispanic people trying to report fights, domestic violence or medical emergencies found themselves facing Border Patrol agents. In some of those instances, the complaint says, the Hispanics were citizens or legal residents but still faced immigration questioning because they were Hispanic. In other cases, the complaint alleges that the 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.

The complaint also cites cases in which a Border Patrol interpreter wound up taking people into custody for immigration violations, separating husbands from wives and children.

"Latino residents of the (Blaine, Lynden and Sumas) area have repeatedly said they will not use 911 or police services because of the involvement of immigration authorities with local law enforcement," the complaint letter says. "The threat of immigration apprehension deprives that Latino population of needed public safety services. ... The fusion of state law and immigration enforcement amounts to deprivation of meaningful access to law enforcement services for those of Latino descent."

Ford said there are private professional interpreter services available to local police, and they should use those services or hire their own interpreters instead of relying on the Border Patrol.

Several active members of Whatcom County Democrats attended the press conference to express support.

Daydre Phillips, outreach chairman for the local Democrats, said a woman who has been beaten or raped should not have to fear deportation if she calls police.

"This is not right," Phillips said. "This has to stop. This is the time that we have to stop it. They are human beings. They deserve our respect."

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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