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Lawsuit: Border agency searches in Michigan go too far

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — Michigan-based immigrant and civil rights groups are suing the U.S. government, arguing a 100-mile zone where border agents can conduct warrantless searches to prevent illegal entry is too broad.

The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center and American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed the federal lawsuit Wednesday in Detroit. The lawsuit seeks specific information on where and how far from the border stops occur and why agents are stopping many people who are in the U.S. lawfully.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents are empowered to check anyone within 100 miles of an international border. The lawsuit says the agency considers the entire state of Michigan to be within 100 miles of the Canadian border or one of the Great Lakes, which function as international borders.

Border officials declined comment, citing “pending litigation.” But federal authorities have said checkpoints elsewhere on highways and small roads north of the U.S.-Mexico border have been vital to catching immigration violations.

According to the lawsuit, data logs that were obtained show nearly one-third of people processed by border agents in the Detroit sector, which includes Michigan and parts of Ohio, are U.S. citizens, and roughly 40 percent are either citizens or lawfully in the country. Fewer than 2 percent of foreign citizens who were stopped have a criminal record, the logs indicate.

Advocates and researchers have attempted unsuccessfully for more than a year to acquire documents under the Freedom of Information Act on the 100-mile zone, said Susan Reed, senior attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

A few heavily redacted documents released so far raise serious concerns about the program as a whole, Reed said, which CBP claims allows its agents to search the vehicle of motorists anywhere in the state — even those belonging to American citizens and immigrants who are lawfully in the United States — without a warrant.

“The documents we have gotten so far show that the vast majority of immigrants being detained by Border Patrol are long-term members of Michigan communities. That fact, coupled with the rate at which U.S. citizens are stopped by CBP, gives us clues about the effectiveness and constitutionality of the ‘100-mile zone’ policy,” Reed said. “In order for the American public to hold CBP accountable and to develop a rational border policy, we need to know more.”

ACLU officials allege federal law gives border agents extraordinary powers to conduct warrantless vehicle searches and detentions within a “reasonable distance” of the border solely for the purpose of preventing illegal entry into the United States.

Because CBP has set the “reasonable distance” at 100 miles and considers the Great Lakes to be the “functional equivalent” of an international border, the entire state of Michigan is within the warrantless “100-mile zone,” said Miriam Aukerman, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan, in a statement.

“It’s not reasonable to claim that the entire state of Michigan is a border zone. Border enforcement — and the powers that go with it — belongs at the border and not in our communities,” Aukerman said. “CBP, as the largest federal law enforcement agency, must be accountable to the American people. This cannot happen as long as CBP is operating in the dark and refusing to provide even the most basic information about who is being targeted for these warrantless searches, where and why.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.