SEATTLE – The U.S. Forest Service's use of Border Patrol agents as language interpreters and for law enforcement in stops involving Latinos on Washington state's Olympic Peninsula is discriminatory, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.
The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights within the USDA, which oversees the Forest Service, has ordered the agency to establish a new national policy so non-English speakers can use national forests and parks without an "escalated risk of harm," The Seattle Times reported ( http://tinyurl.com/7qe78ks).
The USDA's decision, made public Thursday, is the result of an investigation into a complaint filed by a Hispanic woman in Forks.
The woman, unnamed in the report, and a man were picking salal together last year when a Forest Service officer approached and asked to see their IDs and permit to pick the ornamental leaf.
When a Border Patrol agent arrived a short time later, the two — both Latinos — ran. While the woman was quickly apprehended, the man jumped into the fast-moving Sol Duc river and drowned.
Jorge Barón, executive director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, which filed the case on the woman's behalf, said the decision vindicates complaints made by many about discriminatory practices of the Forest Service on the Olympic Peninsula.
In April, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the Border Patrol seeking to bar agents from making traffic stops, saying people are being pulled over and questioned for the way they look and without reasonable suspicion. The lawsuit stemmed from tensions between immigrants and the expanded presence of Border Patrol agents on the Olympic Peninsula, which shares no land border with Canada.
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.
Border Patrol spokesman Richard Sinks said at the time that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection "strictly prohibits" profiling on the basis of race or religion.
The Thursday USDA decision said discrimination is heightened by the Forest Service's use of Border Patrol agents as interpreters but can be mitigated by "well-designed practices and policies."
The Forest Service, the decision said, "has no specific policy regarding the use of Border Patrol as a backup to provide guidance or safeguard against discrimination."
The decision requires the Forest Service to post in its offices throughout the Olympic National Forest a notice acknowledging that it violated nondiscrimination laws and providing directions for how those who believe they have faced discrimination may file a complaint.