DETROIT - Alarmed by reports of profiling at the hands of U.S. Border Patrol agents, immigrant advocate groups and 11 members of Congress have asked the Government Accounting Organization (GAO), the governmental independent watchdog, to audit Border Patrol practices.
Their letter, announced at a Tuesday telephone press conference, asks the GAO to investigate Border Patrol activities that "undermine immigrant communities' trust in law enforcement, violate people's civil rights and adversely impact public safety."
Jacki Esposito, advocacy director of the New York Immigration Coalition, criticized one common practice undermining that trust: using Border Patrol agents both on 911 calls and as interpreters. This creates a chilling environment in immigrant communities, she said.
It can also lead to horrible tragedies and crimes. Jesus Martinez painfully recalled how his son, Alex Martinez, a U.S. citizen, was shot dead by Border Patrol agents in front of him and another son on the front steps of their home in the state of Washington.
Jesus Martinez said Alex had mental problems, and he called 911 requesting that his son be taken to a hospital. Border Patrol agents responded to the call, and when his son came out of the house carrying a flashlight, he tripped, fell on an agent and was shot dead.
"They said he had a hammer. They were lying. It was a flashlight," said the father.
"It's evident there is a systemic issue regarding racial profiling not only at the southern but also the northern border as well," said Dawud Walid, the Michigan executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Walid said American Muslims, legal residents and citizens, without evidence of any wrongdoing, have been subjected to hours of detainment re-entering the U.S., including being separated from their children, handcuffed, and having guns brandished at them.
Walid said some have been asked invasive religious questions such as, "Do you pray? How many times a day do you pray? Which mosque? Who is the imam of your mosque?" Freedom of religion and freedom of association, our "most precious of rights," are compromised for all when such abuses occur, he said.
Although complaints have been filed with the Department of Homeland Security, they were told nothing could be done, Walid said.
Detroit, a border city with Windsor, Canada, just across the Detroit River, is one of the hotspots. Congress members signing the letter included Detroit-area Democrats Hansen Clark, John Conyers and Gary Peters.
Ryan Bates, director of the Michigan Alliance for Immigrants Rights, said that after years of internal investigations, "it's become clear that Border Patrol can't police itself."
He said even former agents have documented abuse. Most notable was the testimony of a former agent and whistle-blower presented in a two-part PBS "Need to Know" documentary.
"It's time for an independent watchdog to help get Border Patrol under control," said Bates.
Photo: Rep. John Conyers, D - Mich., and Dawud Walid speak at Detroit rally against profiling. John Rummel/PW