US agencies and border residents grope for better relationship

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Like two separate worlds, communities and federal agencies along the United States-Mexico border exist side by side with surprisingly few channels of communication between them. Many inhabitants of the border region perceive agency harassment and discrimination as a widespread problem.

Most local Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and Customs Service officials have tried to improve community relations. And the INS is making a conscientious attempt to educate the public about the Immigration and Reform Act of 1986.

But communities have few forums for registering criticism or effecting change on the local level. Americans who live in other parts of the country do not always understand how different the two worlds of the border are.

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One is the world of Joe Garza - chief agent for the US Border Patrol in the Laredo, Texas, sector. Mr. Garza, born and bred on the border, says he believes with all his heart that he and his agents are courteous ``do-gooders'' who protect illegal aliens from unscrupulous employers while also safeguarding citizens from criminals who try to enter the US. He fervently believes in the ``three-tiered stool'' of the 1986 Immigration Control and Reform Act: enforcement, employer sanctions, and amnesty.

In the other world is Laredo native Rafael Torres, an activist who daily listens to complaints about ``La Migra,'' the Hispanics' name for the INS. In Mr. Torres's view, the border is an artificial line that cuts families in two and disrupts a natural, historic flow of life. To Torres and others, agents are rude ``outsiders'' with little respect for individual rights.

With the exception of the amnesty provision, Torres finds the new immigration act hard to swallow.

But instead of hurling the usual accusations at each other across a gulf of hatred and misunderstanding, Torres and Garza have used an obscure passage in the new immigration law to create a congressionally mandated community task force that is unique along the border.

In its one 1987 meeting, the task force brought together community activists, high officials of the INS, and a Mexican consul.

``It's a great way of getting local input to create policy changes,'' says Torres, who hopes to arrange a second meeting for the near future. ``The task force ... is a way for people to make their feelings and concerns known to the [INS] district director. And it makes the agency understand the community better.''

Agent Garza agrees. But he sees the task force mainly as a way to inform the community about the new legalization process, not as a long-term entity.

And although local critics of the border agencies see task forces and meetings as crucial in easing tensions, they also say these activities are unlikely to affect fundamental policy changes on the national level.

One needed reform, says Hal Gross, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, is clarification of internal agency policies so that agents have less discretionary power.

In 1985 Mr. Gross, while on the staff of Sen. Alan Cranston (D) of California, conducted a study of civil rights allegations against the INS. He found little ground for brutality claims, but says that agents have too much discretion and there is not enough oversight of their activities.

``Discretion is not bad if there is some way to uncover abuses,'' Mr. Gross says. ``But what we discovered is that the INS is a self-protecting agency which did not have the personnel to carry through investigations at all levels.''

According to INS assistant director of public affairs Verne Jervis, the INS is making a concerted effort to increase the number of investigators in its Office of Professional Review (OPR) and inform the public that such an office exists. Between March 1986 and March 1987, 448 complaints were reported to the INS - 47 of them were civil rights complaints. Of the civil rights complaints, five were substantiated and 10 are still being investigated, he said.

For the same period in 1987-88, 128 civil rights complaints were reported out of a total of 928 complaints. Of these civil rights complaints 44 were found to be untrue, 9 substantiated, and the remainder still under investigation.

``The reason for the increase [of complaints] is that the OPR unit is more visible. We are adding officers and making a real effort to let people know about it. We want to do a credible job of policing ourselves, so this is important.''

The OPR unit now has 60 investigators nationwide.

Most critics agree that lawsuits, although expensive and time-consuming, are the most effective way to force the INS and US Customs to clarify policies. In 1986 the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights sued the US Customs Service, forcing it to publish directives for the first time on its search and seizure policy. Not only did legal action bring the problem to the attention of the agency, but the very existence of written directives sent a message to agents, says CCR lawyer David Cole.

As a result, there are fewer illegal searches of Americans returning from Nicaragua, and illegal seizures of personal papers, books, and newspapers have dropped off dramatically, he says.

At the same time, critics would like to see agency policy information made accessible to the public at ports of entry. While brochures on what fruits can be brought into the US are available, there are no lists of citizen rights, complaint forms, or suggestion forms.

The Border Patrol's voluntary departure form that delineates the right to a deportation hearing is confusing and vague, they say.

Better training could also help alleviate some of the alleged abuses, critics add. ``I think what's happening is that agents are not well trained and come to the border with a war mentality,'' says Jesus Romo, a Tucson lawyer who received a $3,500 settlement from the US government after he filed suit alleging that he was harassed and roughed up at the Nogales port of entry because he was Mexican-American.

``We provide the best law-enforcement training in the world,'' Garza says in rebuttal. Each Border Patrol agent spends 17 weeks at the federal training center at Glencoe, Ga., and receives training in Spanish, immigration law, and statutory authority, among other subjects. The training process weeds out many applicants. ``Hiring a Border Patrol agent is not like hiring someone to do your lawn,'' Garza says. An even more fundamental need than training, critics say, is a restructuring of the border agencies.

``The INS has far more resources dedicated to the apprehension of aliens than it does to administrative deportation hearings,'' says Peter Schey, executive director of the National Center for Immigrant Rights. ``So if any significant numbers of aliens refused to sign for voluntary deportation, the system would rapidly clog up and collapse. Thus, there's an inherent tension within the system that strongly encourages the securing of voluntary deportation.''

Laredo chief agent Garza says there are good reasons behind voluntary deportation. ``Every person here illegally is entitled to a hearing, so it's up to the person. But when we catch someone right on the river or contiguous territory, why should we demand that this poor person go into detention, face a hearing, and post a high bond when he can be home in a half hour or so? It'd be like if you were caught speeding on a highway and took it to Supreme Court instead of paying the fine. It would be costly to them and costly to us.''

Critics also would like to see the Border Patrol stripped of recently expanded powers to make narcotics seizures and arrests, which they believe have increased incidents of violence and other types of abuses. Agent Garza finds this criticism unfounded. ``We've always seized drugs incidental to our duties,'' he says. ``It's not like we're becoming all powerful all of a sudden.''

In his Washington, D.C., office, lawyer Hal Gross reflects philosophically: ``It's important to remember, the balance between effective border patrol and rights is constantly evolving. ... It's difficult to find the right balance.''

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