The Border Patrol's Language Barrier

An immigrant-rights group aims to stop masquerading translators.

Less than a week after the Border Patrol was hit with a class-action lawsuit, the agency is facing a new challenge. Last week, the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed a complaint with the federal departments of Justice and Homeland Security, charging that agents' practice of acting as "interpreters" while interrogating people about their immigration status is a civil-rights violation.

NWIRP, which also joined the American Civil Liberties Union in filing a lawsuit alleging racial profiling, submitted this new complaint on behalf of six individuals stopped for traffic violations by officers from various local law agencies throughout the state. The officers called in the Border Patrol, ostensibly to interpret, and the six wound up in deportation proceedings. Most are the parents of American citizens. Two were pregnant when detained.

NWIRP claims that the practice violates several provisions of the Civil Rights Act, including its guarantee of "meaningful access" to government services (in this case, interpretation) regardless of race or national origin. It would not be acceptable "if people were being charged for interpretation," NWIRP executive director Jorge Barón says. "In this case, it's even worse. People are having to endure questioning from the Border Patrol about their immigration status."

It is indeed a strange use of the Border Patrol, as we wrote in a cover story ("Twilight for Immigrants," July 27, 2011) prompted by the death of a Forks man who drowned after running away from an "interpreter." That incident and others like it suggest that local law-enforcement officers sometimes have another agenda when calling in the Border Patrol. Barón says he's dealt with cases in which agents were called even though the individuals in question spoke English.

The notion of a hidden agenda is bolstered by a dash-cam video NWIRP released last week. The video, obtained by NWIRP through public disclosure, captures a Washington state trooper talking to Border Patrol agents she called in after making a traffic stop in Bellingham last February. Near the end of the encounter, the trooper thanks the agents for coming.

"No problem," replies an agent. "Give us a call anytime."

"Oh yeah, well, we like to," the trooper responds. "We just have to do it in a roundabout way."

State Patrol spokesperson Bob Calkins says he has "no idea what she meant by that." But he says that it's apparent from the video that the trooper really needed interpretation services, and asked dispatch for anyone available, not just Border Patrol agents.

Calkins says the Border Patrol will continue to be "in the mix" of interpreters used by state troopers. Local agents are undoubtedly thankful for that, because they might have little to do otherwise.

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