Report traces tension in Lynden to Border Patrol's greater presence
A study by an immigrant advocacy group and the University of Washington questions the broad reach of an expanded Border Patrol along Washington's northern border.
Seattle Times staff reporter
In their report, OneAmerica and the University of Washington's Center for Human Rights recommended a series of policy changes for the U.S. Border Patrol, the Department of Justice, Congress and the state of Washington. Among them:
Restrict immigration enforcement by the Border Patrol at community gatherings such as funerals and places like schools and churches.
Bring enforcement by the Border Patrol in line with the Obama administration's aim of focusing on those immigrants who pose a public-safety threat.
Stop Border Patrol agents from responding to routine police calls, such as traffic incidents, and set clear expectations when agents serve as interpreters.
Call on Congress to refrain from increasing funding to the northern border until an investigation has been completed.
University of Washington Center for Human Rights
LYNDEN, Whatcom County — A new study paints a portrait of unease for illegal immigrants in this northern border town — where immigration agents not only dispatch 911 emergency calls but also provide Spanish-language translation for local law enforcement.
The 48-page report, by the Seattle-based immigrant advocacy group OneAmerica and the University of Washington's Center for Human Rights, concludes that an increased presence of U.S. Border Patrol agents in the Lynden area is creating an atmosphere of fear and mistrust for some immigrant families.
Many of the findings — that people are being stopped for traffic violations and deported or that Latino citizens are being stopped and questioned about their immigration status — are mirrored in other cities and towns across the nation's northern border where the Border Patrol also has beefed up its presence in recent years, according to the report's authors.
But at least for some in Lynden, those findings are not readily evident. At Isom Elementary School, for example, the principal describes Border Patrol families and immigrant families participating equally in school activities, without apparent tension. And the head of the region's raspberry commission said fears that farmers had about increased deportations of their workers have not been borne out.
OneAmerica and the UW center say their findings are based on testimony given at public hearings and more than 100 on-the-ground interviews over the past year that suggest border agents are engaging in racial profiling. And they raise concern that collaboration between those agents and local law enforcement make immigrants wary of reporting crime and seeking police help.
"People are fearful to go to work, leave their houses," said Kendra Anderson, lead organizer at OneAmerica and one of the report's authors. "You can't go anywhere without seeing the Border Patrol, so it's changed a lot about the way people live."
In a statement, a Border Patrol spokeswoman said the agency "strictly prohibits profiling on the basis of race or religion," adding that the agency uses specific facts and federal guidelines in determining whether individuals are in the U.S. legally.
Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said Canada's relatively lax immigration policies make it imperative that the U.S. shore up its northern border to prevent easy entry from those who mean harm.
Groups like OneAmerica, he said, "don't believe it's valid to enforce immigration law." Ultimately, border agents are law-enforcement officers with a job to do, he said, adding: "You don't see the IRS relaxing the rules so those who are not paying their taxes can feel more comfortable."
Some feel safer now
A quiet, pastoral community abutting the Canadian border, Lynden is the center of a regional dairy- and berry-farming industry.
It's an industry much like others in the state and nation that depends on migrant and immigrant workers — many of them longtime residents of the area, and some of them undocumented.
Since 2001, the number of agents on the northern and southern U.S. borders has escalated. In the Blaine sector, which covers Western Washington, Alaska and Oregon, the number swelled from 48 in 2001 to 331 last year.
In Lynden, pole-mounted cameras loom over farm fields and backyards, and agents in white and green vehicles idle alongside roadways throughout town.
The agents have become a part of this community — they attend church here and their kids are enrolled in local schools. But while their growing presence has ruffled a few longtime nonimmigrant farmers and other local families unhappy with what they consider an intrusion, others say they feel safer with the agents here: "It's one of the safest places in the world," said Henry Bierlink, executive director of the Red Raspberry Commission, who lives within a mile of the border.
Bierlink said farmers had worried that a buildup of agents would lead to more deportation of workers. But while he occasionally hears from farmers about "a couple of guys stopped for no reason and now they're gone," he said he sees no evidence of an unusual number of workers being deported.
Complaints up in area
About two years ago, OneAmerica began examining more closely the growing number of complaints by immigrant groups based in or near the state's border counties.
A majority of complaints were from Latinos.
"The most vivid examples were in Lynden, where Border Patrol's collaboration with local law enforcement is strongest," said Anderson, the study's author.
Ironically, the report shows that as the number of agents assigned to the Blaine sector increased, apprehensions declined. In 1999, for example, the 48 officers assigned to that sector made 2,421 apprehensions, while 331 officers made 591 apprehensions last year. The report points out that a number of outside factors could have contributed to that decline.
It found that many of the described incidents did not arise from the Border Patrol's independent enforcement actions but stemmed from times when border agents were working with local law enforcement, stopped in at local courts or responded to 911 calls.
More than 80 percent of the described incidents involved people being asked for documentation while driving or at a public place. Just over one-third came when officers were acting as interpreters.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @turnbullL.
Information in this article, originally published April 17, 2012, was corrected April 18, 2012. A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Isom Elementary School in Lynden.