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HISPANICS: Under the `suspicious' eye of border agents

By Nadine EpsteinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 14, 1988

Nogales, Ariz.

ABOUT 20 miles north of the Mexican border, a light-green US Border Patrol van signals a Greyhound bus, which is heading north, to pull over. The patrol officers are making a routine check for illegal aliens. Federal courts have ruled that the Border Patrol can stop vehicles on roads leading from the border - even without specific evidence that illegals are on board.

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On the bus, Jos'e Luis Castillo, a University of Arizona law student and native-born American citizen, looks up from his torts book as agents begin checking immigration documents. Two Germans sitting across from Mr. Castillo anticipate the agents and produce their passports. But they are ignored by an agent, who asked Castillo for papers.

``Why me?'' Castillo asks. The agent doesn't explain. But the Germans are tall and blond, while Castillo, of Mexican ancestry, is short and dark like most of the million or so illegal Mexicans deported from the United States each year. It is experiences like this, everyday occurrences for Mexican-Americans in these parts, that lead Castillo to feel that the Border Patrol is a ``private police force for Hispanics,'' one whose activities amount to discrimination against Mexican-Americans.

``A lot of middle-class, ordinary people here are not educated, and they are easily intimidated,'' says Louis Menendez, a federal public defender based in Laredo, Texas. ``They are always on the spot, always being hassled. It's a feeling that permeates everything down here.''

Harold Ezell is the commissioner of the Western Region of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). He denies that the INS or its officers are discriminatory. ``A third of all the agents in my region are Hispanic. But if you're in an area where more people are Hispanic, your law of averages is going to be greater than if you are in a more Caucasian area.'' Mr. Ezell is a controversial figure whom Hispanic groups are pressuring to resign.

Laws governing the Border Patrol vary, depending on where the agent is making a stop. At the immediate border (including airports) and at regular checkpoints (like the road on which the bus was stopped), INS agents have wide discretionary powers to search without warrants on the basis of ``reasonable suspicion.'' On roving patrols away from the border or where no historic pattern is followed, the US Supreme Court has ruled that, to pursue suspicions, agents must have clearly explainable grounds besides race or ethnicity.

Critics say that the term reasonable suspicion is too easy to abuse. ``An officer can say he [a suspect] made no eye contact or he made eye contact, he gave a furtive glance or he didn't. Either way it's `reasonable suspicion,''' says Mr. Menendez.

But the INS argues that to be effective, its agents must rely on instincts they have developed. ``They call it `eyeballing,''' says lawyer Hal Gross, a former aide to Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California, who conducted a 1985 study into alleged border abuses for the senator.

``I'm very skeptical about that claim [of successful eyeballing]...,'' he said. ``In effect [you have] an ethnic community that is discriminated against regardless of immigration status.''

Less visible are the rights of illegal aliens like Jos'e Romero, who was arrested in 1987 when a Border Patrol agent boarded the Greyhound bus he was riding between Nogales and Tucson, Ariz.