Cities asked to stop using agent interpreters

BELLINGHAM — A farmworker rights organization is asking that three cities in northwest Washington stop using Border Patrol agents as interpreters when Hispanic residents call police to report crimes.

The Bellingham Herald reported that attorney Daniel Ford of Columbia Legal Services complained about the practice in Lynden, Blaine and Sumas in a letter to the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday. He sent it on behalf of Community to Community Development, a farmworker rights group based in Bellingham.

Angelica Villa, a Community to Community activist who has been a farmworker, said immigration officers don’t restrict themselves to language services when local police call them in, but also ask about immigration status.

“People are afraid to call the police if they have problems,” Villa said. “Immigration does not come to interpret. They come to ask whether they are in the country illegally.”

The letter asks DOJ to order the three cities to stop using Border Patrol officers as interpreters within 14 days.

The police chiefs in Lynden and Sumas, and the Blaine spokesman for the Border Patrol, Colin Burgin, declined to comment. The chief in Blaine did not immediately respond to an interview request, the newspaper said.

The complaint also notes that U.S. Border Patrol provides dispatching services for the three small-city police departments, meaning that anyone from those cities who calls 911 for any kind of emergency will wind up talking to a Border Patrol dispatcher.

The 15-page complaint lists several instances in which Hispanic people trying to report fights, domestic violence or medical emergencies found themselves facing Border Patrol agents. In some of those instances, the complaint says, they were citizens or legal residents but still faced immigration questioning because they were Hispanic

In other cases, the complaint alleges that the local police officers called in Border Patrol interpreters even when some or all of the people at the scene were bilingual and no interpreters were needed.

The complaint also cites cases in which a Border Patrol interpreter wound up taking people into custody for immigration violations, separating husbands from wives and children.

“Latino residents of the area have repeatedly said they will not use 911 or police services because of the involvement of immigration authorities with local law enforcement,” the letter says. “The threat of immigration apprehension deprives that Latino population of needed public safety services. … The fusion of state law and immigration enforcement amounts to deprivation of meaningful access to law enforcement services for those of Latino descent.”

Ford said there are private professional interpreter services available to local police, and they should use those services or hire their own interpreters instead of relying on the Border Patrol.

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Information from: The Bellingham Herald, http://www.bellinghamherald.com

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