HISPANICS: Under the `suspicious' eye of border agents

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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``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.

Had the arrest occurred a year earlier, the young Mexican would have faced routine alternatives: voluntary departure, or detention likely to lead to deportation. Instead, because he had illegally lived and worked for years in the US as an agricultural worker, Mr. Romero was eligible for amnesty under the new immigration act.

Although he was not informed by the arresting agents that he had this right, Romero, a member of the Arizona Farmworkers Union, knew he was eligible and asked for an eligibility interview. The agents ignored his request and forced him to sign a ``voluntary departure'' form, Romero says. He insisted upon calling a lawyer and later sued the INS.

Late last year a federal district judge ruled that agents in Arizona and Nevada must inform undocumented aliens of their rights of amnesty as agricultural workers and allow them to call lawyers. He also ordered the INS to advertise that right in the US and Mexico. Despite this precedent, ``99 percent'' of apprehended illegal aliens are encouraged or pressured into signing away their rights, says Peter Schey, executive director of the California-based National Center for Immigrant Rights.

Mr. Schey and others accuse the Border Patrol of deporting Spanish-speaking US citizens. They also charge that people have been beaten, shot, and run down by agents in all-terrain vehicles. These allegations make up a small percentage of overall complaints and are difficult to prove, but the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is attempting to document them to bring the problem to the attention of Congress.

``We have a kid who was shot three times in the back, deliberate chases, and rundowns,'' says Roberto Martinez, who directs the AFSC's monitoring office in San Diego, near the area where alien traffic is the highest and violence at its worst. ``At least eight people have died or been injured in the last three years by the Border Patrol.''

Commissioner Ezell vehemently denies brutality among the Border Patrol agents. The agency has saved the lives of aliens lost in the desert and has a special unit in California aimed at protecting illegals from border bandits.

``Aliens who have made the crossing a number of times are no more afraid of the Border Patrol than the man in the moon,'' Ezell says. ``If we were brutal and Gestapo-like, there'd be a whole lot more going on than the few claims that are made. I'm not saying that everyone who works for me is perfect. There have been mistakes. But 99 percent of agents are outstanding in attitudes and courtesy. And an average Border Patrol agent processes more people in one year than any other federal law-enforcement officer does in his lifetime career.''

Deaths are always investigated by the INS Office of Professional Responsibility and city or county prosecutors, explains Bill Veal, deputy chief Border Patrol agent in San Diego.

``We are certainly as interested as anyone else in seeing that an officer who does exceed his authority ... not be a Border Patrol agent,'' says Mr. Veal, who blames the recent increase in violence on border bandits.

There are not many criminal convictions in these cases, although civil juries and judges have on occasion sided with the illegal alien. Last summer, a California judge awarded $574,000 to the 14-year-old boy shot in the back (he was not killed). The judge disagreed with local, state, and federal officials who all found that the shooting was justified.

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