Originally published by Desert Sun
In February, a 32-year-old undocumented man was waiting to board a bus at the Indio Greyhound station when U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents allegedly detained him and questioned him about his immigration status.
They told him they stopped him because his “shoes looked suspicious,” like someone who had recently crossed the border, according to Eva Bitran, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. She said he was wearing “normal shoes,” but at least one of the shoe’s laces were untied.
“To me, this seems like a half-concocted, after-the-fact rationalization for stopping someone because he’s of Latino ethnicity,” Bitran said.
The man has been held at the Adelanto Detention Facility in San Bernardino County for more than a month, and Bitran represented him in a recent bail hearing, she said. A Border Patrol spokesman said he could not comment on the matter.
The ACLU said this detention at the Indio Greyhound station is not an isolated incident. In a letter sent Wednesday to Greyhound, ACLU affiliates in California and nine other states alleged that across the country, Border Patrol agents are increasingly boarding Greyhound buses to question passengers about their citizenship and immigration status. According to the letter, sometimes people are removed from buses and detained, in what the ACLU sees as a violation of riders’ constitutional rights.
A Greyhound spokeswoman said the company is required to comply with the law and cooperate with law enforcement agencies if they ask to enter bus stations or board buses. But the ACLU argued that the bus company has the constitutional right to refuse to allow immigration agents aboard.
The ACLU letter urged Greyhound to change its policy and refuse to consent to Border Patrol agents boarding its buses without a warrant, except when legally required.
“Greyhound is in the business of transporting its passengers safely from place to place,” the letter said. “It should not be in the business of subjecting its passengers to intimidating interrogations, suspicionless searches, warrantless arrests, and the threat of deportation.”
Greyhound spokeswoman Lanesha Gipson confirmed the company received the ACLU letter. In a statement, she said the company is beginning to talk with the Border Patrol, “to see if there is anything that can be done to balance the enforcement of federal law with the dignity and privacy of our valued customers.”
She acknowledged immigration agents’ practice of boarding buses could hurt its passengers and business.
“We are aware that routine transportation checks not only affect our operations, but our customers’ travel experience, and will continue to do everything legally possible to minimize any negative experiences,” she said.
This practice of immigration agents patrolling bus and train stations is not new. Agent Juan Gonzalez, spokesman for the El Centro Sector of the Border Patrol, told The Desert Sun in January that during so-called “consensual encounters,” agents introduce themselves to people and ask if they are legally present in the country. He said they are looking for “anything that violates federal immigration law,” including smugglers, narcotics and undocumented people.
Agent Justin Castrejon, another spokesman for the El Centro sector, said he could not provide statistics on how many people have been apprehended at area bus stations.
The practice is backed by federal law, Castrejon said. He pointed to a statute that gives immigration officials the authority to, without a warrant, board any “railway car, aircraft, conveyance or vehicle,” that is, “within a reasonable distance from any external boundary of the United States,” to search for undocumented immigrants.
But the ACLU argued there is legal precedent establishing that agency policies can’t override the Fourth Amendment, which generally allows law enforcement to enter areas of a business that are open to the public but requires a warrant or consent to enter non-public areas. It argued that a ticket is required to board a bus, making it not public.
“The Fourth Amendment protects businesses as well as individuals, and we believe Greyhound has the Fourth Amendment right to refuse consent to board its buses,” the letter said.
The ACLU sent the letter on behalf of affiliates in California, Washington, Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Michigan, Florida, Maine, Texas and Arizona. The organization is still trying to quantify how common this practice is, but it said it documented cases in each of the 10 states where Border Patrol agents detained passengers and questioned them about their citizenship and immigration status.
The letter alleged the agency has singled out passengers because of their skin color or foreign accent, in violation of their Fourth Amendment right preventing unreasonable search and seizure.
“The courts have been very clear that reasonable suspicion can’t come just from the color of your skin, or your presumed ethnicity, or the presumed language that you speak,” Bitran of the ACLU said.
She said incidents when people are questioned on buses are considered seizures, which “we believe are without reasonable suspicion and violate passengers’ rights.”
Volunteers with the ACLU will be at the Greyhound station in Indio on Friday at 10 a.m. to distribute “Know Your Rights” brochures to passengers. People have the right to remain silent and refuse searches when confronted by government agents who do not have warrants, the ACLU said. It said they also have the right to record video of the incidents.