Fabiola Santiago

In the hunt for undocumented immigrants, Border Patrol agents hassle citizens, too

Immigration checks by Border Patrol officers along the Mexican and Canadian borders, like this one in 2010 at the Buffalo-Depew Amtrak station, are nothing new. But constant searches of passengers on Greyhound buses in Florida are.
Immigration checks by Border Patrol officers along the Mexican and Canadian borders, like this one in 2010 at the Buffalo-Depew Amtrak station, are nothing new. But constant searches of passengers on Greyhound buses in Florida are. NYT

Joshua Dobarganes, a Miami-born and raised actor, experienced first-hand Wednesday night what it’s like to live in Florida under President Donald Trump’s draconian immigration crackdown.

Returning home on a long Greyhound bus ride from Jacksonville, the 31-year-old was the first passenger to get off at the West Palm Beach stop to get some fresh air — only to find Border Patrol agents waiting in the dark, guns in holsters, and accompanied by a dog.

An agent put up his palm in front of Dobarganes in a motion to stop, and asked where he was coming from, and then: “Are you an American citizen?”

Feeling confused, Dobarganes offered his driver’s license between nervous chuckles, and asked if there was anything else they needed.

“Here I am, ‘a person of interest’ momentarily,” Dobarnages tells me Thursday. “I haven’t stopped thinking about it.”

On Friday, January 19, 2018, U.S. Border Patrol officials boarded a Greyhound bus in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and demanded proof of citizenship from every passenger.

Two darker-skinned Hispanic men who didn’t speak English weren’t as lucky as Dobarganes, who passed the inspection in perfect English. The men, who had boarded the bus at the Orlando stop, were put in handcuffs and questioned repeatedly, “Do you have a knife? Do you have a knife?”

They remained silent, compliant, Dobarganes said, and there was never an attempt by the Border Patrol agents to translate what was going on. Meanwhile, other agents boarded and searched the bus.

“I was born and raised here. I graduated from FIU [Florida International University], and it’s strange to be in this place, with these people in my face, looking through my bag,” said Dobarganes, whose parents came from Cuba in the late 1960s as teenagers. “What the hell is this? I felt this was very much a violation. It was all so in the dark. I’ve been taking these buses in the past and this had never happened.”

The bus driver didn’t offer any explanation to passengers. “We left like it never happened.”

READ MORE: “Trump said he’d round up ‘bad hombres.’ How did a Jamaican grandma get on that list?”

By my tally, this is the third such search-and-arrest on a Greyhound bus recently in Florida. There were two others at the Fort Lauderdale stop. One of them ended with the arrest of a Jamaican grandmother with an expired visitor’s visa who had been meeting for the first time her granddaughter in Orlando. The other was a Guyanese man whose U.S. citizen father had filed a petition for him. Who knows how many more have gone unreported. It’s also worth noting that the city of West Palm Beach got a threatening letter from the Justice Department demanding more cooperation on the same day the Border Patrol stalked its Greyhound station by night.

I sought answers from Greyhound — which services 18 million passengers a year in the United States — about what its responsibility is to its customers when a government agency has clearly targeted a company used by a large population of people of color, and particularly Latinos. But I didn’t get much.

Spokeswoman Lanesha Gipson repeated a previously released statement: “We’re in communication with the Border Patrol, but by law we are required to comply with all local, state and federal laws and cooperate with the relevant enforcement agencies if they ask to board our buses or enter stations.”

Immigration Bus Inspection (2)
In this image made from video, a Border Patrol officer requests identification of travelers on a Greyhound bus in Fort Lauderdale. The agents escorted a Jamaican woman off the bus. Raquel Quezada AP

But how about providing information to customers about what’s happening and letting them know before they board a bus like lambs to the slaughterhouse?

“Unfortunately, even routine transportation checks negatively impact our operations and some customers directly,” said a company statement she emailed. “We encourage anyone with concerns about what happened to reach out directly to these agencies. Greyhound is reaching out to the agencies to see if there is anything we can do on our end to minimize any negative effect of this process.”

Perhaps it’s time for people of conscience to address the Border Patrol’s carte blanche in Florida, where roads are within 100 miles of the coast that is legally considered a border, with economic and legal pushback. (Not to mention with our votes come election time in November.) Some legal experts say that the Border Patrol has to show reasonable suspicion that it’s tracking down specific criminals before conducting operations — or the agents risk violating the Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizures.

But for starters, it goes without saying that undocumented immigrants should stay away from riding Greyhound buses.

The company, particularly one that touts its unique Mexico-U.S. service, does have a moral obligation to customers and a legal one, too, to keep them safe. That it’s open season on immigrants by presidential decree is no excuse for the malaise in addressing the search-and-arrest issue with transparency, information and heart.

Likewise for Motel 6, which is being sued by a civil rights group in Phoenix for discriminating against Latino customers at two locations. Employees — chivatos, snitches, we’d call them here — gave the personal information of customers, gathered at registration, to immigration agents who arrested seven guests. They provided it without requiring authorities to get a warrant or without any reasonable suspicion that a crime was committed, alleges the lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Is it time to boycott companies like Greyhound, Motel 6 — and other businesses who lend themselves to questionable practices that violate the spirit of constitutional law and are deplorable in a country that calls itself “free”?

After all, in their hunt for undocumented immigrants, Border Patrol agents hassle citizens, too. And, given the billions of dollars Trump is asking from Congress to grow Border Patrol and ICE ranks, it might not be long now before we qualify for classification as a police state.

Sooner or later, the dragnet will get around to knocking on your door, too.

“I’m never taking the bus again,” says Dobarganes.

Like this Miami son raised on the ideal of freedom and justice for all, you too should be asking: What the hell is going on here?

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