Using Border Agents as Translators Has Tragic Consequences

July 6, 2011

Border Patrol Agent
© Getty Images

Guest post by Erica Schommer, border immigration attorney

This May, in a police stop gone wrong, Benjamin Roldan Salinas and a companion were detained by the U.S. Forest Service for picking salal (a plant used in floral arrangements), without a license.

Because Salinas did not speak English, the Forest Service called in Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to translate. Events escalated rapidly when Salinas, in fear of being apprehended by immigration agents, ran from the agents to a nearby river.

After days of searching, Salinas’ body was found near the river on June 4. His companion remained with agents, but was subsequently arrested by the CBP for a suspected immigration violation and placed in removal proceedings.

Salinas’ fear was due to a phenomenon in which the CBP is called on by outside law enforcement agencies under the guise of translator. Once on the scene, however, the CBP does not limit itself to translating and will question a person about potential immigration violations if it suspects the person of an infraction.

In Washington, where Salinas was apprehended and died, this practice is particularly confusing because many in the Latino community there are indigenous Guatemalans who speak indigenous languages, not Spanish. Therefore, the only practical effect of the CBP is to spark fear and to execute immigration-based arrests.

The practice of using the CBP as a translation service is inappropriate and has unintended consequences that led to a lost life in Washington. Non-immigration law enforcement and federal immigration officers have separate jurisdiction in their distinct areas of expertise. The U.S. Forest Service, who initially apprehended Salinas, has no immigration mandate and should not have any role in enforcing immigration laws.

Similarly in Pennsylvania, local traffic officers habitually rely on the CBP to provide interpretation services when questioning Spanish-speakers. Once on the scene, the CBP regularly decides persons on suspicion of a federal immigration violation. Considering the harsh rhetoric and anti-immigrant sentiment prevalent throughout U.S. politics, no reasonable non-English speaking Latino person would feel comfortable having a federal immigration officer translate for them to police officers. Yet, the practice continues.

It is imperative that local communities, especially in border states and areas with large Latino communities, feel confident that federal immigration officers are not involved with other law enforcement agencies so that individuals trust the police enough to report crimes and come forward as witnesses or victims. Law enforcement agencies can use professional translators, volunteer groups, and other community members to provide translation services. Even the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) relies on telephonic interpreters. Instead, the line between non-immigration law enforcement agencies and CBP has led to the initiation of formal removal proceedings and detention for many undocumented people stopped for basic traffic violations.

Why would a Latino person stop for the police, cooperate in police investigations, or report a crime when adhering to these civic duties could warp into a prolonged detention, separation from their family, job loss, or even deportation? There is absolutely no reason why CBP should be translating for other law enforcement agencies, nor does this practice adhere to our basic sense of propriety or decency.

The tension between states like Arizona that are trying to usurp federal immigration duties, and other states like New York who are running in the opposite direction by refusing to participate in Secure Communities, is likely to make headlines. However, the unnoticed local practices like using federal authorities as translators also continue to breed acute fear and distrust in all law enforcement.

If local police and federal immigration officers are truly to be separate, distinct entities, as they are designed, agencies must stop calling on the CBP to provide translation services or relying on the CBP in any way when performing their important duties to keep communities safe and secure. If not, it is only a matter of time before another life is lost or another tragedy occurs.