Under Cover with a Civil Rights Attorney

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US Border Patrol has regularly been accused of racial profiling– asking for passports and identification from black and brown people while passing over white people. According to US Customs and Border patrol, racial profiling is the “invidious use of race or ethnicity as a criterion in conducting stops, searches, inspections, and other law enforcement activities based on the erroneous assumption that a person of one race or ethnicity is more likely to commit a crime than a person of another race or ethnicity.”

However, Border Patrol’s primary mission is to “detect and prevent the illegal entry of aliens into the United States,” implying they are essentially above the law against racial profiling when it comes to maintaining the border. Border Patrol patrols nearly 6,000 miles of Mexican and Canadian international land borders and over 2,000 miles of coastal waters around the Florida Peninsula and the island of Puerto Rico. Where I am living, Syracuse New York, falls within 90 miles of the Northern border, thus granting Border Patrol power to protect the border by any means necessary.

While the Northern border is by no means as militarized as the Southern border of the US, incidents of Border Patrol racial profiling travelers still routinely take place at the local regional transportation (bus and train) center. The transportation center is where I find myself on this particular Monday morning, posted up with a retired civil rights attorney and watching for an appearance from ICE or Border Patrol.

While we sat waiting in the transportation center, the lawyer I am with tells me about his past work to end housing discrimination and setting up systems to check for racial profiling. He helped to start CNY Fair Housing, which is a nonprofit that works to end housing discrimination. When citizens feel that they have been discriminated against for housing, CNY Fair Housing will have a few volunteer “testers” call and visit the landlord. These testers will be from different demographics (race, gender, class, etc) and if the landlord treats the testers differently based on their identities, this provides evidence to sue the landlord for discriminatory behavior.

Unfortunately, racial profiling by law enforcement/Border Patrol can be a lot harder to legally prove, thus the data that we are collecting this morning is for a longer term plan and will not provide immediate justification to sue if we see anything.

While waiting, I quietly ask what a lawyer’s position is on “illegal and legal immigration” statuses. He tells me that the law does not at all implicate any sort of truth, but is instead a political device to maintain order and is subject to the whim of politicians and lawyers. Therefore, as a lawyer, he understands that being an undocumented immigrant in the US is not technically legal, but that just means in his mind that the laws need to be changed to make it legal. No human being can be illegal according to his personal philosophies, and as a civil rights lawyer he was able to help shape precedents toward creating this future.

An hour or so later we leave the transportation center, with no sign of ICE or Border Patrol. This is on the whole a good thing, but at the same time it’s frustrating to know that racial profiling is happening, whether we saw it today or not.

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midwestern librarian, writer, activist

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