SEATTLE – The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the U.S. Border Patrol and seeking to bar their agents from making traffic stops, claiming people are being pulled over and questioned "without reasonable suspicion."
The lawsuit stems from tensions between immigrants and the expanded presence of Border Patrol agents on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula, which doesn't share a land border with Canada.
"People are being stopped based solely on their appearance and ethnicity. This is unlawful and contrary to American values," said Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which also joined the lawsuit. "No one in a car should be stopped and interrogated by government agents unless the law enforcement officer has a legal basis to do so."
The ACLU and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed the lawsuit on behalf of three peninsula residents who have been stopped by Border Patrol agents.
One of them is Ernest Grimes, a prison guard at Clallam Bay Corrections Center and a part-time police officer, who said he was pulled over in 2011. The lawsuit says the agent approached Grimes, who is black, with his hand on his weapon while yelling at him to roll down his window.
The lawsuit alleges the agent provided no reason for the traffic stop while he interrogated Grimes about his immigration status. Grimes was wearing his guard uniform at the time.
The other two men in the lawsuit are Latino U.S. citizens.
Jose Sanchez, a prison guard, said Border Patrol agents have stopped him numerous times and questioned him about his immigration status. In one instance, agents told Sanchez they were pulling him over because his windows were too dark, but they didn't ask for his car insurance or registration.
The other man represented in the suit, 18-year-old Ismael Ramos Contreras, was with a group of friends when four agents pulled them over. The lawsuit says one of the agents tried to take the keys out of the ignition and interrogated the teenagers but never provided a reason for the stop. Ramos also was asked for his immigration status outside a courthouse in Forks.
"The Border Patrol's actions have created a climate of fear and anxiety for many people living on the Olympic Peninsula. The residents in this suit all are U.S. citizens who worry that they could be stopped and questioned without reason any time they drive or are passengers in cars," said Sarah Dunne, the ACLU's legal director.
The lawsuit says traffic stops by Border Patrol agents violate the Fourth Amendment and exceed the agency's legal powers. It seeks to bar such stops until agents are trained on what constitutes reasonable suspicion.
The suit also asks the court to require that agents file paperwork justifying each traffic stop and make it readily available to a court-appointed special master. The lawsuit is seeking a class-action status.
An email to the Border Patrol Thursday morning was not immediately returned. But the agency has said it is following its mandate to enforce the country's immigration laws and protect the border and shoreline from terrorists, drug smugglers and other illegal activity.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush ordered U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, to beef up its presence on the U.S.-Canada border, which is almost twice as long as the U.S.-Mexico border.
In 2007, the northern border had nearly 1,100 agents. Now it has more than 2,200. In the same period, the number of agents in the Blaine sector, which covers the border area west of the Cascades, went from 133 to 331.
Over the years, Border Patrol enforcement practices common on the southern border, such as highway checkpoints, have been implemented along the northern border, miffing residents on the Olympic Peninsula, the area's congressman and local authorities. Agents cut back on road and ferry checkpoints after objections mounted.
Tensions rose last year after a forest worker drowned following a foot chase with a Border Patrol agent. The Mexican national jumped into a frigid river to elude the agent. His body was found entangled in roots three weeks later.
The Olympic Peninsula is home to rural towns around the edge of the Olympic National Park. Many immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala have moved there to work in the forests picking salal, an ornamental leaf.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.