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Saturday, June 15, 2013 - Page updated at 09:00 p.m.

Latinos face trouble by calling 911 in border towns, group says

By Lornet Turnbull
Seattle Times staff reporter

Many Latinos living in the northern border towns of Sumas, Blaine and Lynden have grown fearful of calling 911 in emergencies because they know that frequently U.S. Border Patrol officers who process those calls respond along with the local police.

That claim is contained in a civil-rights complaint a Whatcom County immigrant-advocacy group has filed against U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the three cities.

The complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice claims the agency and the cities together violate the civil rights of Latinos by subjecting them to racial profiling and discriminatory treatment no other group has to endure.

“There’s a high level of fear throughout the entire Latino community” — even among those who are legally present in the country, said Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community in Bellingham.

“Someone calls 911, immigration shows up and then ... a family member has been deported.”

Calls to CBP officials in Blaine were not returned on Friday, and officials from the three cities declined to comment specifically on the complaint.

In recent years, stepped-up border enforcement on both the northern and southern borders of the U.S. has led to an increase in the number of Border Patrol officers in cities like Blaine, Sumas and Lynden, where growing numbers of Latinos have found work in the agricultural industry.

The U.S. Census estimates 8,000 Latinos live in Whatcom County.

And the problem they have with 911 is rooted in an age-old practice.

While all emergency calls are handled by the What-Comm 911 dispatch center in Bellingham, calls for police originating in Sumas, Blaine and Lynden are transferred to the Border Patrol dispatch in Blaine.

The Border Patrol then contacts the relevant local police jurisdiction to respond, something it has done for more than five decades.

Until last year, Border Patrol officers might have responded at the request of local police to provide interpreter services.

But they ended that practice after a complaint by another group of advocates, although patrol officers still provide local backup.

While he said he couldn’t comment on the complaint itself, Lynden Police Chief Jack Foster said his department is in the process of contracting for interpreter services.

The routing of 911 calls through the Border Patrol originated at a time when there were few police officers in Lynden and few Border Patrol officers at the northern border.

Often, Foster said, Border Patrol is the first law-enforcement agency to provide backup when Lynden officers need it.

But advocates say that’s part of the problem.

Over the past four years Guillen’s group, Community to Community, has gathered information from residents about their use of the 911 emergency service.

Their complaint lists dozens of incidents in which Latinos reported negative interactions with the Border Patrol after contacting 911.

In one case, a domestic-violence victim ended up being detained after calling 911.

In another, Lynden police, after pulling over a U.S. citizen for a broken taillight, called Border Patrol agents, who asked him about his immigration status, the complaint says.

Daniel Ford, an attorney for Columbia Legal Services, which filed the complaint on behalf of Community to Community, said the practice of having the Border Patrol route 911 calls violates a section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination against people based on their race or national origin by agencies that receive federal funding.

“People are being robbed of the service 911 provides,” Ford said. “That violates the civil rights of the Latino community.”

Guillen said the problem is most prevalent in Lynden.

Her group wants these communities to hire bilingual officers and adopt a policy similar to other cities’ in Whatcom County that do not use the Border Patrol for 911.

She said, “The population in these communities are changing, and the communities need to change along with it.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or On Twitter @turnbullL.

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