AUSTIN, TEXAS — The first time Filemon Vela got stopped by the US Border Patrol, outside Laredo in January, he was told it was because he was driving a Ford Explorer, a vehicle of choice for immigrant smugglers. The second time Mr. Vela was stopped, in August, he was told it was because his windows were tinted.
In both instances, Vela and his companions were released without charge. After all, Vela is hardly the sort who smuggles illegal aliens. He is a federal judge. But the stops have left Vela wondering if the Border Patrol might not need to alter the way it does business. "It's an important matter; people should not go around violating statutory rights," says Judge Vela. "Do not lose sight of the fact that it is judges who will decide if a stop is illegal or not."
For good or ill, Border Patrol stops like this have become a part of life along America's border with Mexico.
Officials of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) argue that this is a natural outgrowth of having twice the number of Border Patrol agents in the field as five years ago, under the Clinton administration's massive crackdown on illegal immigration.
But as younger, greener Border Patrol agents make more and more stops, there are increasing questions as to whether the training they receive is adequate, and whether the civil rights of law-abiding citizens - the vast majority of them Hispanic - are being sacrificed in the process.
"Most Latinos are impacted one way or another by INS activity, so in one sense it is racial profiling, because it disproportionately affects them," says Luis Plascencia, associate director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Texas in Austin.
Mr. Plascencia says Latinos in border areas will have two choices: adjust to the new environment and accept it, or contest it in some way, perhaps through the political process.
"It is useful when you have elected officials stopped, or high-profile cases," he adds wryly, "because then it's not just some Mexican getting stopped; it's us Americans."
Mark Krikorian, director of a think tank on immigration issues, says that cases like Vela's illustrate the difficulties of growing a federal agency quickly.
"It takes a while to grow an agency properly, so you don't have too large a proportion of green officers in the field," says Mr. Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington.
On top of this influx of rookies, Krikorian adds, "The training itself isn't as good as it could be, because they are training in circumstances that aren't comparable to the desert Southwest. I mean, why are Border Patrol agents trained in Georgia and South Carolina?"
Spokesmen for the Border Patrol in Laredo say it's much too early to determine whether agents - particularly those who stopped Judge Vela - will require additional training.
But Richard Marroquin, the deputy sector chief in Laredo, says not to expect any major changes in policy. "I don't think there will be any policy changes in stops, because the law is set by Congress," says Mr. Marroquin, who refused to discuss the specifics of Vela's case.
In any case, he says, current law gives Border Patrol agents much more leeway than ordinary policemen in making stops. "It's called 'reason to believe,' not 'probable cause,' " he says.
Agents look for numerous factors that may not be illegal in themselves. "We might look for types of vehicles, such as large-capacity vehicles, how many people are in the car, what direction the car is coming from, and what's the attitude of the driver when you pull up alongside," he says.
"Some people will be driving 70 miles per hour on the highway, and we'll pull up behind them and they'll slow down to 50, then to 40, then to 20, just hoping that you'll keep on going. Add all of that up to make a determination of whether to stop someone."
For his part, Vela doesn't think race played a part in his getting stopped. To this reporter, he joked, "I'm whiter than you."
In addition, south Texas is a part of the country where up to 90 percent of the population is Hispanic, and where the vast majority of Border Patrol agents are Hispanic, as well. In such an environment, the race of a driver would hardly constitute "reason to believe" that something illegal is going on.
Still, Vela worries that individual Border Patrol agents may be undertrained and overstepping their authority. "In our country," he says, "law-enforcement personnel have to conduct themselves and perform their duties in accordance with constitutional mandates."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society