The U.S. Border Patrol's required proficiency in Spanish historically has made the agency a vital link to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in need of language translation assistance, but that service no longer will be available.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Deputy Commissioner David V. Aguilar said in a little-circulated Nov. 21 memo that Border Patrol agents no longer will respond to requests for language assistance from law enforcement personnel not part of the Department of Homeland Security.
One veteran Border Patrol agent called Mr. Aguilar's new policy "absurd," saying it would "diminish our ability to serve the communities we patrol" and that "cooperation among agencies undoubtedly will be reduced."
"The new policy is a dramatic departure from the Border Patrol's historic support of other law enforcement agencies," said another agent. "The Border Patrol receives literally hundreds of requests each month for Spanish language translation assistance from law enforcement agencies."
Both agents asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
While many rank-and-file Border Patrol agents and other state and local law enforcement officials think the ruling will negatively impact the effectiveness of field operations and could impact officer safety, it is widely applauded by immigration advocates who say agents use the opportunity to question people about their immigration status and, in many cases, initiate removal proceedings.
The American Immigration Council welcomed the new policy, adding that while Spanish-English interpretation for local law enforcement officers has increased sharply in recent years, the practice "unconstitutionally targeted individuals for deportation based on the fact that they looked or sounded foreign and eroded trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement agencies."
Border agents said translation requests often result in arrests or a detainers being placed on illegal immigrants. Other times, they said, a translation request is the result of a law enforcement agency being overwhelmed with multiple suspects or victims who do not speak English. They said timely, effective interviews and interrogations often make the difference in safeguarding lives and property as well as ensuring successful prosecution.
Sheriff Tony Estrada in Santa Cruz County, Ariz., whose jurisdiction includes 53 miles of U.S.-Mexico border, said his deputies are bilingual and that not having Border Patrol agents available for translation assistance was not a problem but could be for agencies farther away from the border.
"It doesn't make any sense to me," Sheriff Estrada said. "We're here to help each other out. That's what law enforcement is all about. I don't know why the policy was changed. I don't think they have been overwhelmed."
The veteran sheriff said language translation assistance should be considered a "valuable resource" — one a law enforcement agency would want to exploit.
"My view is that we in law enforcement try to be as helpful as we can," he said.
The Aguilar memo directs that federal, state and local law enforcement personnel needing language translation assistance who are not part of Homeland Security should be directed to "a list of available local and national translation services."
Law enforcement agencies nationwide routinely have requested assistance from the Border Patrol in seeking to communicate in Spanish with suspects, victims and others, some of it related directly to officer safety. Calling the Border Patrol for assistance has been a common practice among many local law enforcement agencies.
While the available services are being reduced, the Border Patrol has doubled in size since 2003 and now employs more than 21,000 agents. From fiscal 2004 to fiscal 2012, the agency's budget has increased by 94 percent to $11.65 billion. Meanwhile, the number of apprehensions of illegal immigrants has declined by more than 72 percent.
CBP spokesman Michael Friel said the new policy "helps further focus CBP efforts on its primary mission to secure our nation's borders." He said the agency "remains committed to assisting our law enforcement partners in their enforcement efforts." He said the new policy ensures that support to law enforcement counterparts "is in keeping with CBP's established enforcement priorities while continuing to ensure officer safety."
The CBP statement did not mention the position of immigration advocates concerning the policy or the fact that the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed a civil rights complaint this year with the Justice Department and the Homeland Security Department challenging the practice of using Border Patrol agents as "interpreters." The complaint said the practice violated federal civil rights laws by failing to ensure that all people have access to government services, regardless of limited English skills.
Several rank-and-file Border Patrol agents said the inability to communicate effectively would inhibit intelligence collection and drive a wedge between Border Patrol agents and officers from other agencies. They also noted that the new policy does not provide for discretion, meaning agents in the field will have to refuse to respond to a call for assistance.
"Imagine the frustration of a local sheriff who needs translation assistance in the middle of the night on a weekend," one senior agent said. "The sheriff knows we have units close by who are not tied up, but we simply refuse to respond. What a devastating impact this policy will have at every level."
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