Bias seen in Forest Service practice on Olympic Peninsula
A federal ruling made public Thursday found that the U.S. Forest Service's use of Border Patrol agents as language interpreters in stops involving Latinos on the Olympic Peninsula is discriminatory.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The U.S. Forest Service's use of Border Patrol agents as language interpreters and for law enforcement in stops involving Latinos on the Olympic Peninsula is discriminatory, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a decision.
As a result, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights within the USDA, which oversees the Forest Service, has ordered the agency to establish a new national policy so that non-English speakers can use national forests and parks without "an escalated risk of harm."
The USDA's lengthy and detailed decision is the result of an investigation into a complaint filed by a Hispanic woman in Forks, after her encounter last year with a Forest Service officer just outside the Olympic National Park.
The woman, unnamed in the report, and her male partner had been picking salal when a Forest Service officer approached and asked to see their IDs and permit to pick salal.
When a Border Patrol agent arrived a short time later, the two — both Latinos — ran. While the woman was quickly apprehended, her partner jumped into the fast-moving Sol Duc river and drowned.
Jorge Barón, executive director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which filed the case on the woman's behalf, said the decision, vindicates complaints made by many about discriminatory practices of the Forest Service on the Olympic Peninsula.
Tension there between the Border Patrol and Latinos and their advocates has escalated in recent years as the Border Patrol has increased its presence.
The use of these agents as Spanish-language interpreters is not unique to the Forest Service.
In April, the Immigrant Rights Project filed a separate complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security regarding the use of Border Patrol agents as interpreters for other law-enforcement agencies in the state.
The Forest Service officer involved in the Forks complaint told investigators that it's common for him to call the Border Patrol and that he did so in this case for two reasons: interpretation and backup.
His predecessor, he pointed out to them, had been killed in the line of duty at a traffic stop and that salal harvesters often use machetes or gloves with knives or razors attached to them when harvesting.
But USDA investigators reviewed all incident reports ever written by him and found that in every case where he called the Border Patrol, the individuals were Latino.
Further, they found that he never sought backup from Border Patrol for non-Latinos — even in instances where those individuals lacked valid IDs or permits or were in possession of dangerous weapons and acting aggressively.
Discrimination, the decision said, is heightened by the agency's use of Border Patrol agents as interpreters but can be mitigated by "well-designed practices and policies."
The Forest Service, the decision said, "has no specific policy regarding the use of Border Patrol as a backup to provide guidance or safeguard against discrimination."
The ruling orders the Forest Service officer to complete 40 hours of civil-rights training.
It also requires the Forest Service to post in its offices throughout the Olympic National Forest a notice acknowledging that it violated nondiscrimination laws and providing directions for how those who believe they have faced discrimination may file a complaint.
The agency is also required to establish a policy to ensure non-English speakers have access to national lands and another to monitor for racial profiling by collecting information on the race and ethnicity of individuals and instances when backup is used.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information in this article, originally published May 31, 2012, was corrected June 1, 2012. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington was involved in a complaint regarding the use of Border Patrol agents for interpretation assistance by other law enforcement agencies. The ACLU of Washington was not involved in that complaint.