For U.S. Border Control, call 911

Latino residents in Blaine, Lynden and Sumas face discrimination as U.S. Border Patrol agents respond to their emergency calls.

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U.S. border patrol agents answering 911 calls? Bellingham group cries foul.

Latino residents in Blaine, Lynden and Sumas face discrimination as U.S. Border Patrol agents respond to their emergency calls.

During a young girl’s birthday party in Washington state, her mother called 911 and — in English — asked for an ambulance after another child attending the party had an accident. The mother gave her surname: Martinez. Medics, sheriff deputies and — to her surprise — U.S. Border Patrol agents arrived at her door. The agents reportedly asked party guests for their names.

In Lynden, Wash. in 2011, Border Patrol agents and police showed up after the Spanish-speaking father of Alex Martinez called for help. The younger Martinez, who was mentally ill, had been behaving strangely. The agents, family members have said, asked about his legal status. Tensions escalated and Alex Martinez, a U.S. citizen, was fatally shot, 13 times, by officers and agents.

It is cases like these that promoted Community to Community, a human rights group that helps Latinos and farmworkers, to file a 15-page civil rights complaint last week against the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Homeland Security over their use of federal border protection employees as 911 dispatchers and interpreters for the Washington-Canada border towns of Blaine, Lynden and Sumas.

In the complaint, the Bellingham-based Community to Community maintains that U.S. Border Patrol agents respond to 911 calls along with local police officers in these cities near the Canadian border, and then when they arrive they inquire about immigration status. The federal agents have shown up at emergency and routine incidents when Spanish speakers have called dispatchers or when Latino surnames come up in the 911 conversation, according to the June 13 document.

Community to Community contends that the Civil Rights Act is being violated and that this local-federal cooperation is denying Latinos “meaningful access to law enforcement and other emergency services.”

Equal Voice News, my publication, contacted spokespeople in Washington, D.C. for the two federal departments, as well as representatives from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle for comment. In an email, Emily Langlie, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle said that the complaint is under review. “We can offer no comment on it at this time,” she wrote.

Other spokespeople either did not respond or referred questions to department representatives.

Community to Community's complaint includes information from the Whatcom County government website about how residents in Blaine, Lynden and Sumas who call 911 will be transferred to the Border Patrol dispatch center in the region. The dispatch agreement with the city of Sumas started in 2000. Later, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security explained that the Border Patrol’s role in the area’s emergency dispatch services would be “limited,” according to the complaint which cites a 2011 government document.

Community to Community and its counsel, Columbia Legal Services in Seattle, point to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which guarantees the right of people in the country to be free from discrimination under any program that receives federal dollars. The complaint states that the cities of Blaine, Lynden and Sumas have received federal dollars from the U.S. Department of Justice for community policing programs.

The complaint also asks federal officials to stop allowing U.S. Customs and Border Protection employees to serve as 911 dispatchers or interpreters in these cities and to prohibit border patrol agents from participating in local law enforcement actions.

The complaint includes about 30 examples in which named or unnamed residents in Washington state reported Border Patrol agents showing up, asking immigration-related questions, and at times, detaining people when the original reason for local law enforcement's involvement was not related to immigration.

One complaint describes how Lynden police alerted the Border Patrol after they stopped a person named Ira for driving with a broken taillight. Ira is a U.S. citizen. In another instance, Border patrol agents were the first responders on scene after a Latino man’s car was struck. The agents checked his immigration status and detained him.

The Community to Community complaint also cites an incident in which an Oroville, Wash. police officer responded to a domestic violence case after a woman had called 911. Border Patrol agents became involved and the woman “was transferred to the immigration detention facility in Tacoma.” An attorney quoted in the complaint worried about the “safety of domestic violence survivors when the story is that a survivor called 911, the Border Patrol showed up and the survivor ended up being detained.”

Family members of the late Alex Martinez noted in the complaint that no independent investigation has been conducted regarding the reported involvement of the federal agents in his fatal shooting.

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Brad Wong

Brad Wong is a former editor and Seattle Post-Intelligencer journalist.