Ending the climate of fear

A formal settlement between the feds and three men represented by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and the ACLU reflects a peculiarly American pattern.

After flitting around the country in the 1830s, Alexis De Tocqueville wrote, “Scarcely any political question arises in the United States that is not resolved, sooner or later, into a judicial question.”

It’s an axiom that applies equally to questions of civil and human rights.

The original lawsuit, filed in April 2012, alleged that Border Patrol agents were making traffic stops on the Olympic Peninsula without reasonable suspicion. The premise was clear, that the plaintiffs were targeted because of their race. An ACLU press statement underlines, “Agents provided flimsy pretexts or no reason at all for the stops.”

That was the case with Ernest Grimes, an African-American Clallam Bay corrections officer and part-time cop who was pulled over by a Border Patrol agent in 2011 and interrogated on his immigration status. (Grimes’ corrections uniform and ID didn’t exactly telegraph undocumented worker.) Jose Sanchez, also a corrections officer, was stopped in Forks in 2011 because his untinted windows were “too dark.” The border agents then quizzed the American on his citizenship.

Make no mistake: These were dream plaintiffs. For every Sanchez, there are hundreds more without the time or resources to agitate for justice.

Tuesday’s settlement illustrates what happens when racial profiling and, by extension, human rights, are reduced to legalese: There’s no admission of liability. As part of the settlement, the Border Patrol will send a letter to the ACLU and NWIRP affirming its “continued commitment to constitutional policing.” (It certainly trumps unconstitutional policing.) Another outcome, “a single refresher training on the application of Fourth Amendment principles” is window dressing. The settlement directs that “the content and length of the training will be determined solely” by Customs and the Border Patrol. Bosh. The department’s office of chief counsel needs to invite the plaintiffs to that single refresher and let them share their stories. They breathe life into the Fourth Amendment.

The release of field contact data is the one settlement deliverable that may make a difference. Latinos on the peninsula and in Whatcom and Skagit counties have been on the receiving end of an over-staffed post-9/11 Border Patrol for years. Quantifying that bolsters the case for a fix.

The settlement is an incremental step, and courts have a limited purview. To make this right, Washington’s congressional delegation needs to push to codify reforms and make the Border Patrol accountable. The atmosphere of fear and intimidation along the northern border must end.

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