Report: Just 1.3% of Border Patrol arrests in Michigan connected to illegal border crossings

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — More than 98% of Border Patrol arrests in Michigan and a small portion of northern Ohio targeted longtime residents of Latin American descent rather than people trying to illegally enter the United States from Canada, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report.

The report, produced after a federal judge ordered U.S. Customs and Border Protection to turn over arrest records from 2012 to 2019, shows just 1.3% of arrests involved people attempting to illegally enter the country. It also showed that agents made arrests hundreds of miles from international borders and nearly half of all people arrested were U.S. citizens or documented people.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle near the Michigan Central Train Depot in Detroit.

The ACLU of Michigan released the 50-page report "The Border's Long Shadow" to The Detroit News Thursday, and the data shows border patrol agents are conducting warrantless vehicle searches throughout Michigan and have normalized racial profiling while working with local and state law enforcement, the ACLU said.

Although Latin American people comprise 17% of the state’s foreign-born population, they make up 85% of noncitizens apprehended by the Border Patrol in Michigan and northern Ohio. 

In the U.S., agents are empowered to stop anyone within 100 miles of an international border. 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 even though Lake Michigan, for example, does not share a shoreline with Canada.

Customs and Border Protection spokesman Kris Grogan said agents in Michigan enforce immigration law and work closely with local, state, and federal law partners "to keep communities safe while securing the border between our nation's ports of entry." 

He said the Detroit sector, which includes all of Michigan and the Port Clinton area in Ohio, prioritizes enforcement efforts on criminals and targets transnational criminal organizations.

"It is the policy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to prohibit the consideration of race or ethnicity in law enforcement, investigation, and screening activities, in all but the most exceptional circumstances. As such, CBP is fully committed to the fair, impartial and respectful treatment of all members of the trade and traveling public," Grogan said in a statement.

While most Border Patrol work is conducted near borders, Grogan said agents are not limited geographically. From 2012 through 2019, the Detroit sector Border Patrol arrested 14,142 people from 132 different countries. Federal authorities have said in the past checkpoints elsewhere on highways and small roads have been vital to catching immigration violations.

From 13,000 daily apprehension logs, university scholars and experts with the ACLU found that 48.6% of all the arrests border patrol made were because a local law enforcement agency was involved first.

Michigan State Police initiated more contact with the Border Patrol than any other police agency — prompting nearly 37% of all incidents, according to the report. The Macomb County Sheriff’s Office had the second-most involvement, at 12% of arrests, followed by the Detroit Police Department, at nearly 10% of arrests.

"Everyone is entitled to the protections that our Constitution provides that includes undocumented immigrants," said Monica Andrade, an ACLU attorney who co-wrote the report. "It's not just about undocumented immigrants, the data shows that one in three people that have been stopped are U.S. citizens, another 13% were here lawfully and the only reason that they were pulled over is because of the color of their skin, or based on their speaking standards."

Messages were left Thursday with Detroit police and the Macomb County Sheriff's Office.

Arrest data from 2012-2019

The ACLU of Michigan presents its report "The Border's Long Shadow" during a virtual press conference Thursday.

Border Patrol agents allegedly use "complexion codes" to describe people they’re apprehending, according to the report. More than 96% of those arrested are described as "Black, Dark Brown, Dark, Light Brown, Medium Brown, Medium or Yellow." 

Most are stopped while driving and in 77% of cases, an agent cites a person's alleged reaction to seeing a marked Border Patrol agent or vehicle as a basis for suspicion.

"The records show that whatever a person does when driving near a Border Patrol vehicle is used as a pretext to pull them over," according to the report. "A person’s 'Hispanic' appearance frequently leads to investigation and arrest."

In more than 30% of cases, people had a passport or license that "police agencies either didn't know were legitimate or didn't care," the report states.

Most commonly, police summon Border Patrol for identification checks or "translation assistance," accounting for 26% of arrests, although the report says there was not a single case of a person who spoke any language other than Spanish.

Records indicate that local agencies are using this reason as an excuse to call Border Patrol, Andrade said.

"Border Patrol only finds themselves in places far removed from the border because they are getting the help of local law enforcement agencies," Andrade said. "Immigrants who have witnessed a crime are less likely to contact local police, if they have a reason to fear them, making us all less safe."

The ACLU showed email exchanges between agents reading “happy hunting,” in reference to arrests.

"This happens when police treat immigrant communities as less than human," Andrade said. "Something as simple as a traffic stop can be traumatizing and tear families apart."

Co-author of the report Geoff Boyce, who analyzed the data, said if the person was an American citizen or were in the U.S. lawfully, there's no information recorded as to why they were stopped, "and that's a lot of people," he said.

"If you’re not impacted, it’s hard to see the abuse by these departments. The numbers don’t lie," Boyce said. "This is the most robust insight yet anywhere in the country regarding the Border Patrol's interior enforcement practices that target communities within the 100-mile border zone...

"Ultimately the ripple effect of Border Patrol's actions touches us all, our families, our communities, and it raises the basic question about what kind of society we're becoming if we allow these abusive practices to continue unchecked."

The ACLU of Michigan submitted the Freedom of Information Act request to Border Patrol in 2015 after community members and advocates from different parts of the state complained of racial profiling and collusion between Border Patrol and local police, Andrade said. That led to a federal lawsuit which the ACLU won in March of last year.

"Detroit police have an anti-racial profiling ordinance... So, they need to follow it and that part was shocking to see they played a role and it's happening in spite of their policy," she said. "Over 60 local agencies have contacted border patrol and should adopt their own policy if they don't already have one."

More than 80% of arrests were long-term Michigan or Ohio residents between ages 7 and 26 and two-thirds of arrests took place in municipalities and townships that do not share a shoreline or international waterway, according to the report.

Border Patrol began its operations in March 2003 and its budget is the largest of federal law enforcement agencies. In two decades, its annual budget has grown from $6 billion to nearly $17 billion.

The number of agents in the Border Patrol's Detroit sector has grown from 35 in 2000 to 404 agents in 2019, the fastest rate of growth of any sector in the country, according to the report.

ACLU pushes for reform

The ACLU is calling on President Joe Biden's administration for reform on the federal, state and local levels to strengthen trust between immigrant community members and the police.

They request a reduction in the number of agents in the Detroit sector to address "over-policing" and a revision of the "outdated regulation of the 100-mile border zone to a reasonable distance," Andrade said.

"The first thing is to eliminate that outdated regulation that border patrol is wrongfully using to give them authority to be all over Michigan, you could get rid of that and solve a lot of these problems," she said.

The report highlights the case of Arnulfo Gomez, a lawful permanent resident of 30 years, who was driving in Traverse City with his wife and brother-in-law on July 5, 2018, and was pulled over by a Michigan State Police trooper for a loud exhaust.

Arnulfo Gomez with his two teenage children. Gomez has filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights alleging national origin discrimination by Michigan State Police for a traffic stop. The complaint is pending.

Gomez showed the trooper his driver's license, registration, proof of insurance and the IDs of the other passengers in the car, who are Latino. After 10 minutes, the three were detained along the side of the road while they awaited another state trooper's arrival.

The second trooper can be heard on a dash camera recording saying, "This guy here is good to go. He has a Michigan driver’s license." Then, after remarking on the difficulty all three people had speaking English, he mentions that a third MSP trooper is patrolling nearby with a U.S. Border Patrol agent riding along, according to the report.

"If he didn’t have Border Patrol there with him," says the trooper who initiated the stop, "I’d be like, ehh, whatever."

The officers contacted the third trooper and the Border Patrol agent who began questioning Gomez’s wife, who is undocumented, and threatened to arrest her, Gomez said.

Gomez said he watched nervously as the questioning of his wife continued, thinking about their two teenage children, both of whom are U.S. citizens. They were eventually allowed to go without an explanation.

"There was no reason for him to pull us over," Gomez states in the report. "As soon as he saw we are brown, he was after us. Then they called Border Patrol right away. Everything that happened to us was wrong."

The nonprofit is calling on state and local law enforcement agencies to adopt policies prohibiting employees from assisting, cooperating or facilitating with any federal agency with immigration enforcement, they say, to improve community trust with local and state police. In January 2019, the Kent County Sheriff's Department changed its policy on voluntarily holding detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement following the wrongful arrest of a decorated Marine veteran.

The ACLU is asking the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security to prohibit profiling based on perceived race, religion, national origin, gender and English proficiency.

At the state and local level, they're calling for anti-racial profiling legislation and legislation to provide eligibility for a state driver's license to all residents, regardless of immigration status.

Cindy Gamboa, director of advocacy at the Detroit Hispanic Development Corp. in southwest Detroit said there are many mixed-status Latino families that live in fear within eyesight of the border.

"Immigration enforcement in southwest (Detroit) is at an unprecedented level with families being detained and arrested while doing routine activities like dropping their children off at school," Gamboa said. "People are being forced to live in the shadows because they don't know who to trust. With the findings from this report, we must advocate for change."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_