U.S. border guards regularly engage in racial profiling, 3 Black officers allege in lawsuit

Allegations of racial profiling at the U.S. border are nothing new. What's more unusual is how they are now coming from inside the agency that oversees the U.S. border. They're contained in a lawsuit against the U.S. government from three officers stationed at a Michigan-Ontario border crossing.

Sue own department over alleged racism as new statistics emerge on Michigan stops

Three U.S. border officers stationed at the Blue Water Bridge crossing between Ontario and Michigan have sued the U.S. government alleging racial discrimination at the border. At the same time, the American Civil Liberties Union has released data that it says proves racial profiling at the border in Michigan. (Paul Sancya/The Associated Press)

Allegations of racial profiling at the U.S. border are nothing new: A number of reported incidents have made headlines, including last year's flood of detentions of Iranian-born travellers.

What's more unusual is how those allegations are now coming from inside the agency that oversees the U.S. border — and they're from border officers themselves.

They're contained in a lawsuit against the U.S. government from three officers stationed at a Michigan-Ontario border crossing.

The officers are all Black men, all U.S. military veterans and they're all employed by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency at the Blue Water Bridge crossing between Port Huron, Mich., and Sarnia, Ont.

Their lawsuit coincides with the release of data on thousands of apprehension records that the American Civil Liberties Union says proves blatant racial profiling at the border in Michigan.

"I've seen it with my own two eyes," said Mikal Williams, one of the three officers who filed the lawsuit several weeks ago in the U.S. District Court in eastern Michigan's southern division.

"Travellers of colour [are] receiving more scrutiny."

What the lawsuit alleges

The three officers filed the legal action against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the border agency, and will ask a court to grant exemplary and punitive damages in a dollar amount not yet specified.

Their allegations have not yet been tested in court.

The border agency has not yet filed its response to the lawsuit, and a spokesperson said its policy is not to comment on matters of pending litigation.

The legal complaint recounts several anecdotes in which, the plaintiffs say, their white colleagues were harsher on people of colour entering from Canada than on whites.

Border officer Jermaine Broderick, right, shown at the U.S. Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia in 2019, says after serving 14 years in the U.S. military, it bothers him to see and experience discrimination on the job. (Submitted by Jermaine Broderick)

One example in the court filing involves 17 U.S. citizens, all Black men, returning home from Toronto in SUVs who were pulled over. "[They] were treated without respect and were insulted ... only because of their race," the lawsuit claims.

Another alleged episode involves a Black family from Texas that accidentally turned onto the bridge toward Canada and was stopped after turning around the car to head back south.

The lawsuit says border officers called the local police department when they noticed the driver lacked a valid licence, which, it says, is not the way similar incidents are handled involving white drivers.

A supervisor then threatened the driver with arrest unless he had someone come to the border to drive his vehicle home — which, again, the lawsuit calls unusual.

"Management went above and beyond in trying to get this person arrested. He had no warrants, no criminal history," Jermaine Broderick, one of the plaintiffs, said in an interview with CBC News.

"There was no reason to try to put this person in jail."

'Stop that Black guy'

Another family was stopped on their way out of the United States. It was an American family on the bridge, leaving the country and heading north toward Canada.

The lawsuit alleges that a supervisor called the family suspicious-looking and says that opinion was based entirely on the fact they were Black people in a luxury vehicle.

"I was directed by a senior officer to 'Stop that Black guy,'" Johnny Grays, a 13-year veteran of the agency with eight years' experience at the Port Huron crossing, said in an interview.

"[He was] referring to a family crossing the border."

All three of the plaintiffs are U.S. military veterans. Here, Johnny Grays, left, is shown during an army deployment to Iraq in 2009 with a colleague and child. (Submitted by Johnny Grays)

Grays said stopping a Black family for no reason traumatized him because he thought of his own children as he saw the frightened kids in the vehicle.

The lawsuit alleges that after that incident, a top-level supervisor at the border told the officers they did a good job.

Asked whether he's seen Canadians being treated unfairly, Grays told CBC News: "Absolutely." He said dark-skinned people, from a wide array of nationalities, tend to get more scrutiny.

"Unjust scrutiny ... whether they be Canadian citizens or U.S. citizens. Brown people in general."

Plaintiff's request to leave border crossing was refused

The legal complaint alleges that the Black employees felt discriminated against at work themselves.

Grays said senior officers kept asking to touch his hair, even after he objected. He said a senior staffer repeatedly asked how he had a job in Port Huron instead of Detroit — which has a much higher Black population.

During Black Lives Matter protests last year, the suit alleges, a colleague joked that Grays could wear civilian clothes and infiltrate the protests.

It alleges that the colleague told Grays: "Tell the protesters your name is Indike Mfufu," using an African-sounding name.

Jermaine Broderick said that as an immigrant from Jamaica who spent 14 years serving in the U.S. military, it bothers him to see this discrimination.

"That [service] is [apparently] not good enough," he said in an interview.

Vehicles enter Port Huron, Mich., from Sarnia, Ont., on the Blue Water Bridge, as seen from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Blackhawk helicopter. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

"The shade of my skin colour has subjected me to undue scrutiny."

Broderick said he asked to leave the border crossing but was refused. Grays, after feuding with a supervisor mentioned in the lawsuit, filed a union grievance last year and was subsequently sidelined from his regular work.

"Placed on desk duty," he said in an interview.

Data from a study on Michigan

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan says it has statistical evidence that travellers are treated differently on the basis of race.

It sued to obtain, and has now released, thousands of federal documents spanning seven years — including more than 13,000 CBP apprehension log records from 2012 to 2019 in Michigan.

A report based on racial data on people detained by the CBP's law enforcement arm, which was released by the ACLU,  found that 96.5 per cent of those stopped are listed as having a dark, dark brown, light brown, medium brown, medium or black complexion.

Just 3.5 per cent are listed as having a light or fair complexion.

U.S. Border Patrol, the law enforcement unit of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, is accused in a new ACLU report of stopping people of colour in disproportionate numbers in Michigan. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Those numbers are wildly disproportionate, the ACLU report says, not only to the demographics of the state of Michigan but also to the demographics of people ultimately arrested for crossing illegally.

People of Latin American origin comprise less than 20 per cent of the state's foreign-born population, but 85 per cent of non-citizens apprehended in Michigan were from Latin America, the report says.

Because U.S. border officials exercise jurisdiction within 160 kilometres (100 miles) of any international waterway, they can stop travellers anywhere from the Canadian border to the farthest points in the state.

The ACLU report begins with the story of a lawful U.S. resident, Arnulfo Gomez, who was pulled over for his vehicle's loud exhaust system.

Despite having a valid Michigan driver's licence, he was forced to sit on the side of the road for half an hour while he and his wife were questioned, the report says.

"There was no reason for him to pull us over," the report quotes Gomez as saying. "As soon as he saw we are brown, he was after us."

He was never ticketed for the loud exhaust.