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Michigan border patrol agents accused of 'routine racial profiling' of Latinos

Speaking Spanish in public and "shockingly arbitrary" traffic stops disproportionately expose Latinos to unfair border patrol scrutiny, according to the ACLU of Michigan.
Image: U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents direct vehicles re-entering the U.S. from Canada, which has opened its borders to U.S. citizens who can provide proof of vaccination and a negative Covid-19 test, for random searches and inspections at the Ambassador Bridge Port of Entry Aug. 9, 2021 in Detroit.
Cars are stopped before re-entering the U.S. from Canada in Detroit on Monday. Canada opened its borders to U.S. citizens who can provide proof of vaccination and a negative Covid-19 test.Matthew Hatcher / Getty Images

Two House Democrats are demanding answers from the Biden administration after a recent report accused Border patrol agents in Michigan of targeting state residents of Latin American origin from 2012 to 2019.

The two representatives, Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, have asked Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to address the “serious allegations of discrimination by Michigan Customs and Border Patrol agents” spanning across multiple administrations. The ACLU report was published in March.

CBP’s statewide activity “produces few tangible results related to its officially mandated mission in Michigan," the lawmakers' Aug. 4 letter stated, adding the report " found that agents “routinely spend their time and resources targeting people of Latin American origin who are long-term Michigan residents.”

While only 5.3 of the state’s overall population identify as Hispanic, over 96 percent of individuals apprehended by CBP across the entire state—even in encounters unrelated to illegal border crossing—were described as non-white. Yet data from more than 13,000 daily apprehension logs obtained by the report's authors show that more than 70 percent of those who were apprehended in the process of entering the U.S. from Canada — or who entered without inspection — were either Canadian or European.

Speaking Spanish should not be “arrestable offense”

According to the report, “in 19.2 percent of roving patrol and transit check arrests, the fact that a person is speaking Spanish or some other foreign language is used as the basis for establishing reasonable suspicion,” which is what border patrol agents need to justify their intervention.

There are also “lots of cases in which neighbors are reporting neighbors” for speaking Spanish in public, Boyce said.

“Speaking Spanish in public is not, and should never be, a suspicious thing to do or an arrestable offense. But yet that’s what you see actually initiating these enforcement accounts,” Geoffrey Alan Boyce, an academic director at Earlham College’s border studies program and one of the report’s main authors, told NBC News. “I think it’s just really a dangerous set of practices for the border patrol to be responding to.”

The ACLU also found that the border patrol agents engage “in racial profiling and the overpolicing” of Michigan’s communities of color by using “complexion codes” to describe those who have been apprehended. According to the report, more than 96 percent of those apprehended are reported as being “Black,” “Dark Brown,” “Dark,” “Light Brown,” “Medium Brown,” “Medium” or “Yellow.”

Kris Grogan, a spokesperson for the Customs and Border Protection agency, said via email that agency policy prohibits the “consideration of race or ethnicity in law enforcement, investigation, and screening activities, in all but the most exceptional circumstances,” adding that they are “fully committed to the fair, impartial and respectful treatment of all members of the trade and traveling public.”

Border patrol stops based on people’s reactions

Border patrol agents detained more people (nearly 64 percent) for routine traffic stops and reasons other than for border violations, according to the report. In an overwhelming majority of these cases, agents cited a person’s alleged reaction to seeing a marked border patrol agent or vehicle as a basis for suspicion, a practice Boyce described as “shockingly arbitrary and contradictory.”

An evaluation of narratives included in certain records shows that no matter how drivers of color reacted — whether they looked and acknowledged an agent or whether they didn’t, and whether they speeded up or slowed down — the action was recorded as “suspicious” and was used to justify an investigatory vehicle stop, according to the report’s conclusions.

Border patrol agents justify their interventions outside the immediate U.S.-Canada border through their broad interpretation of the “100-mile zone,” which they claim gives them the authority to conduct warrantless vehicle searches within 100 miles of any international border or waterway. Based on this, the immigration agency claims that the entire state of Michigan falls within this 100-mile zone.

CBP's Grogan stated that border patrol agents in Michigan conduct "enforcement actions away from the immediate border in direct support of border enforcement efforts and as a means of preventing trafficking, smuggling and other criminal organizations from exploiting our public and private transportation infrastructure to travel to the interior of the United States."

"These operations serve as a vital component of the U.S. Border Patrol’s national security efforts," the spokesperson said.

While the central mission of Michigan Customs and Border Protection is to apprehend people trying to cross into the U.S. from Canada without authorization, data shows that the vast majority of their encounters were unrelated to illegal crossings from Canada.

“If you were not born in the United States, that by definition, means you crossed a border at some point in the past. But that doesn’t mean you crossed in Michigan, that doesn’t mean you crossed unlawfully,” Boyce said. “Lots of people naturalize; their immigration status changes as they’re just going about their lives.”

Thousands of daily apprehension logs also show that 33 percent of the people arrested by border patrol agents in Michigan were U.S. citizens. Additionally, nearly 13 percent of all noncitizens apprehended were found to have some kind of lawful immigration status allowing them to live in the U.S.

Boyce said that a combination of practices allow agents to operate “through widespread and routine racial profiling, targeting people of Latin American origin or appearance and who are overheard speaking Spanish.”

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