U.S. Border Patrol halts search tactic

The U.S. Border Patrol has stopped its controversial practice of routinely searching buses, trains and airports for illegal immigrants at transportation hubs along the Canada-US border.

Procedure was seen as racial profiling by critics

A U.S. Border Patrol agent walks through a lineup of cars at the border crossing near Blaine, Wash., south of Vancouver, B.C. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

The U.S. Border Patrol has quietly stopped its controversial practice of routinely searching buses, trains and airports for illegal immigrants at transportation hubs along the Canada-US border and in the nation's interior, The Associated Press has learned.

The decision prevents border agents from using what had long been an effective tool for tracking down people in the United States illegally, critics say.

Current and former Border Patrol agents said field offices around the country began receiving the order last month, soon after the Obama administration announced that to ease an overburdened immigration system, it would allow many undocumented people to remain in the country while it focuses on deporting those who have committed crimes.

Millennium bomb suspect Ahmed Ressam was arrested at the border in late 1999 when he drove off a British Columbia-Washington ferry in a rented car full of explosives. (AP file photo)
The routine bus, train and airport checks, which typically involved agents milling about and questioning people who appeared suspicious, had long been criticized by immigrant rights groups and civil libertarians. Critics said the tactic amounted to racial profiling and violated the civil liberties of travellers.

But agents said it was an effective way to catch unlawful immigrants, including smugglers and possible terrorists who had evaded detection at the border, as well as people who had overstayed their visas. Often, those who evade detection head quickly for the nearest mass public transportation in hopes of reaching other parts of the country.

Halting the practice has baffled the agents, especially in some stations along the northern border from Bellingham, Wash., to Houlton, Me.,  where the so-called "transportation checks" have been the bulk of their everyday duties. The Border Patrol is authorized to check vehicles within 160 kilometres of the border.

The order has not been made public, but two agents described it to the AP on condition of anonymity because the government does not authorize them to speak to the media. The union that represents Border Patrol agents planned to issue a news release about the change on Monday.

"Orders have been sent out from Border Patrol headquarters in Washington, D.C., to Border Patrol sectors nationwide that checks of transportation hubs and systems located away from the southwest border of the United States will only be conducted if there is intelligence indicating a threat," the release says.

Those who have received the orders said agents may still go to train and bus stations and airports if they have specific "actionable intelligence" that there is an illegal immigrant there who recently entered the country. An agent in Washington state said it's not clear how agents are supposed to glean such intelligence, and even if they did, under the new directive they still require clearance from Washington, D.C., headquarters before they can respond.

Local commanders still in charge

U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Bill Brooks repeatedly insisted that any shift in enforcement tactics does not amount to a change in policy as local commanders still have authority to aggressively pursue illegal immigrants near the border and at transportation hubs.

"It's up to the local commander to position his agents the way he wants to position them. What we've done is gone to a risk-based posture," he said.

In a separate statement, the agency said that  conducting "intelligence-based transportation checks allows the Border Patrol to use their technology and personnel resources more effectively, especially in areas with limited resources."

Shawn Moran, vice-president of the union that represents agents, was outraged at the changes.

"Stated plainly, Border Patrol managers are increasing the layers of bureaucracy and making it as difficult as possible for Border Patrol agents to conduct their core duties," the National Border Patrol Council's statement said. "The only risks being managed by this move are too many apprehensions, negative media attention and complaints generated by immigrant rights groups."

The Border Patrol has dramatically beefed up its staffing in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001, doubling to more than 20,000 agents nationally. Along the northern border, the number has jumped  to more than 2,200 from about 300 in the late 1990s.

Until receiving the new directive, the Bellingham office, about 40 kilometres from the Canadian border, kept agents at the bus-and-train station and at the local airport 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Now, the agents have little work to do, a Washington state-based Border Patrol agent who has been with the agency for more than 20 years told the AP.

The situation is similar in upstate New York, where an agent told the AP -- also on the condition of anonymity -- that a senior manager had relayed the new directive during a morning roll call last month. Since then, instead of checking buses or trains, agents have spent shifts sitting in their vehicles gazing out at Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, where few illegal immigrants cross.

"They're already bored," the agent said. "You grab the paper every day and you go do the crossword."

The change was immediately obvious to Jack Barker, who manages the Greyhound and Trailways bus station in Rochester, N.Y. For the past six years, he said, Border Patrol agents boarded nearly every bus in and out of the station looking for illegal immigrants.


Last month — one day after the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 and all of the hype that surrounded it — the agents stopped coming, Barker said. They haven't been back since.

 "What's changed that they're no longer needed here?" Barker asked. "I haven't been able to get an answer from anybody."]\

Doug Honig, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, welcomed the news.

"If the Border Patrol is indeed not boarding buses and trains and engaging in the random questioning of people, that's a step in the right direction," he said. "People shouldn't be questioned by government officials when there's no reason to believe they've done anything wrong."

Kent Lundgren, chairman of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, said the transportation checks have been a staple of the agency for 60 years. His organization has heard from agents around the country complaining of the change, he said.

"From the tactical point of view, the Border Patrol is no longer checking transportation unless there's a specific threat," he said.

Gene Davis, a retired deputy chief in the Border Patrol's sector in Blaine, Wash., emphasized how effective the checks can be. He noted that a check of the Bellingham bus station in 1997 yielded an arrest of Palestinian Gazi Ibrahim Abu Mezer. Abu Mezer skipped out on a $5,000 bond -- only to turn up later in Brooklyn, where New York police shot him as he prepared to bomb the city's subway system.

Davis also noted that would be millennium bomb suspect Ahmed Ressam was arrested at the border in late 1999 when he drove off a ferry from British Columbia to Washington in a rented car full of explosives.