New York Immigration Advocates Say Upstate Border Control Abusing Power

November 11, 2011

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Immigrant rights advocates and the New York Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday accused the Border Patrol in upstate New York of abusing its authority by questioning the citizenship of train and bus passengers, as well as people going about their business in towns miles away from any international crossing.

A report based on a Freedom of Information request suggests agents charged with securing the U.S.-Canadian border have taken advantage of their 100-mile area of jurisdiction to snare and deport illegal immigrants who have been in the country for years, using police-state tactics that allow them to boost arrest rates and justify increased funding.

"Upstate New York is not a Constitution-free zone," said NYCLU Advocacy Director Udi Ofer. "The Border Patrol takes an extremely broad view of its mission that would disturb most Americans who expect to be able to go about their daily lives without having to prove their citizenship status to armed government agents."

The report includes examples of U.S. citizens who have been wrongfully arrested and detained by Border Patrol agents.

The report released by the NYCLU, New York University Immigrant Rights Clinic, and Families for Freedom analyzed arrests by Rochester-based agents from 2006 to 2009. The city sits across Lake Ontario from Canada and has no international land crossing. After a Rochester-to-Toronto ferry stopped operating in 2006, transportation checks became a key part of the agents' duties.

Transportation arrests constituted nearly two-thirds of all arrests in Rochester from 2007 to 2009, according to the report.

The Associated Press reported last month that the Border Patrol recently stopped the routine transportation checks in favor of acting only on specific information about a potential threat. Current and former agents said field offices around the country began receiving the order in September, soon after the Obama administration announced that to ease an overburdened immigration system, it would allow many illegal immigrants to remain in the country while it focuses on deporting those who have committed crimes.

Responding to Wednesday's report, Customs and Border Protection said the Border Patrol is constantly reviewing and adjusting strategies to improve effectiveness.

"Local field commanders in the sectors analyze intelligence pertaining to threats, risks and vulnerabilities facing their (areas of operation) on a daily basis and resources are deployed to mitigate these threats accordingly utilizing a variety of enforcement techniques," the statement said. "Intelligence driven transportation checks are one of many tactics utilized to address emerging threats."

From 2006 to 2009, Rochester agents arrested 2,743 people during routine walk-throughs of trains and buses, the report found. Of those arrested, less than 1 percent had entered the country within the previous 72 hours and 76 percent had been in the United States for more than a year. Most had medium or black complexions and most were detained in jails or holding centers while their cases were pending, according to the report.

"These transportation raids ... do little to protect the border but they threaten constitutional protections that apply to citizens and immigrants alike, invite racial profiling, tear apart families and burden taxpayers with the cost of detaining individuals who were arrested while innocently going about their business," the report said.

The Buffalo sector of Border Patrol, which includes the Rochester office, has been a leader among the eight segments that make up the 4,000-mile northern border in the number of arrests of illegal immigrants who enter the country through the southern border, an Associated Press review found. About half of illegal immigrants arrested in the sector in any given year are from Mexico.

In addition to recommending that the transportation checks stop, the authors of Wednesday's report said state and local police should refrain from collaborating with Border Patrol agents on arrests or calling them for help translating so that the local officers preserve residents' trust and cooperation. They also called on the governor and state attorney general to monitor the federal agents' operations.

"It's clear that the Border Patrol has strayed far from its mission patrolling the border and is abusing its authority through improper questioning, arrests and detentions," Nancy Morawetz, director of the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic.