By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
Want more top stories? Sign up here for daily or weekly newsletters with our top news.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol and falls under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security, announced a policy Nov. 21 that states if another law enforcement agency requests assistance “based solely on a need for language translation, absent any other circumstances, those requests should be referred to a list of available local and national translation services.”
The practice of agents responding for the purpose of language assistance had become a point of contention between the Border Patrol and the Spanish-speaking population, particularly on the West End.
Eighteen people attended a 90-minute meeting on the issue at the Longhouse at Peninsula College in Port Angeles.
Nearly two dozen questions and comments were directed to a panel led by Kareem Shora, senior adviser with the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in Washington, D.C.
Shora was joined on the panel by colleagues Rebekah Tosado and Amy Vance, and Rosa Melendez and Sandra Blair of the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service.
Maria Pena of Port Angeles told the panelists she was “very appreciative for a step one because what step one means is there’s going to be more steps.”
Lesley Hoare of the Forks Human Rights Group and others described an undercurrent of fear because of the Border Patrol’s presence on the West End.
“This is a good step, but we’re still struggling with that [fear],” Hoare said.
“How do we start to tell people there can be trust?”
A Port Angeles woman who teaches in Forks said she has Spanish-speaking students who are struggling amid fears of profiling and deportation.
The woman, who did not identify herself and left the meeting in protest, cited a student whose family was stopped and searched along U.S. Highway 101.
“I want you to listen,” the woman told Shora, who asked which agency initiated the traffic stop.
“They’re feeling a lot of pain. I see the pain. I see that they’re not learning. My job is to teach them. I feel like I can’t do my job.”
Pena tried to articulate the message.
“What she is conveying is an unsafe environment, which has created an inability for children to learn,” Pena said.
“And it’s probably not just with our bilingual Spanish-speaking students; it is with the communities that work with them and communities that work with those communities.”
Shora encouraged the audience members to file grievances with the Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
He provided booklets containing the civil rights complaint form itself.
Others in the audience backed the Border Patrol and its mission to protect the border.
Shora said the meeting was a “community listening session” on the topic of language assistance, similar to quarterly meetings that have been held in Seattle over the past year.
“The reason for this meeting is to basically take what we did in Seattle for the past year and bring it here to Port Angeles to hear from directly you,” Shora said.
“We want to make sure that we’re hearing from people on the ground who are directly impacted by the DHS policies.”
Later in the meeting, Hoare called for more transparency.
“I am not in disagreement with the mission of the Border Patrol,” she said.
“But in so many circumstances, they are not doing their mission.”
Shora said there were “probably a lot of factors” that led to the change in policy on language assistance.
The Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed a civil rights complaint against the Department of Justice on the language-translation policy last May.
Law enforcement officials in Clallam and Jefferson counties said the new policy has little or no impact on their operations and that they have other avenues for obtaining translation assistance.
Little, no impact
Members of the panel were set to meet with Clallam County law enforcement agencies Wednesday.
The presence of Border Patrol agents has sparked local demonstrations for and against the agency.
The contingent of agents on North Olympic Peninsula has grown from four to 42 since 2006.
The agents are housed in an $11.9 million headquarters in east Port Angeles that opened in December.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.