HISPANICS: Under the `suspicious' eye of border agents. `They slapped me around'

TUCSON lawyer Jes'us Romo is a naturalized United States citizen who often crosses the Nogales border on business. He is a legal adviser for the Mexican Consulate. Two years ago, the Tucson Police Department formally recognized the bilingual Mexican-American for helping to apprehend a burglary suspect who turned out to be a long-sought serial rapist. That year Mr. Romo, on his way home after a tiring day meeting clients in Nogales, Mexico, pulled his car into a vehicle lane of the Nogales, Ariz., port of entry.

Romo told the white INS inspector at the primary inspection check that he was a US citizen. The agent felt that Romo was exhibiting suspicious ``stress symptoms'' so he sent him to a secondary check for further examination. There he was carefully searched by Customs agents.

After searching his car and finding nothing, the agents asked for identification. Romo refused to cooperate, replying that citizens do not legally have to show identification when coming back into the country and that they had already searched him and found nothing. (Travelers, however, do have to satisfy inspectors that they are United States citizens.) The agents took him to a private interview room.

``They put me in a room with three agents for 40 minutes,'' he said. ``They asked if I knew how to read. When I said yes, they twisted my head and pushed me up against a sign that was on the wall. They kicked my feet to spread my legs, and two people spread me. Then they kicked me and knocked my head against the wall, slapped me around, and took everything out of my pockets. They made racist remarks about being Mexican. They were all white.''

An angry Romo sued. In May 1986 the government agreed to pay him $3,500. ``They gave no apology,'' he said. ``I think that agents violate the rights of US citizens all the time - all the people, but especially those of Hispanic descent. Although a lot of people complain and are angry, they don't follow through legally.''

Romo, who has become known at the Arizona ports of entry as something of a ``difficult case'' because of his outspoken belief that he is being discriminated against, has since had other run-ins with border agents. Recently, at the Douglas, Ariz., port of entry, an agent at the primary check directed him and his passenger, an Anglo lawyer, to proceed to a secondary area.

There, a Customs agent told Romo to produce identification. When Romo complained that they should also ask for identification from his white passenger, he was told they were only interested in him. When his passenger requested that he, too, be checked, they refused.

To Romo, who now has a number of clients that have had similar experiences along the border, this translates into outright discrimination.

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