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Calls Increase for Border Patrol Reforms

CROSSING THE LINE: Turmoil in the U.S. Border Patrol. Last in a series

April 24, 1993|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA and PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

EL PASO — For residents of this city's historic Segundo Barrio, Bowie High School has long epitomized a collective ethic: Education means opportunity, even for those from the south side of the nearby Rio Grande.

Recent events, though, have thrust the redoubtable community institution into a distinctly maverick position: a front-line force in a campaign against excesses by the U.S. Border Patrol.

Acting on a lawsuit filed by Bowie students, alumni and staff, U.S. District Judge Lucius D. Bunton issued an extraordinary injunction in December after ruling that agents illegally harassed the barrio community. He barred agents from questioning people based solely on appearance.

"I have no doubt they stop us just because our skin is brown," said Benjamin Murillo, assistant football coach and plaintiff, who said an agent stopped his car and put a gun to his head as he and two students drove to a game. "That's the bottom line, our skin color."

Outrage is mounting in other communities from Texas to California, where many--particularly Latinos, citizens and non-citizens alike--view the Border Patrol as a force that answers to no one. Calls for reform have increased from lawmakers, federal officials and immigration experts across an ideological spectrum.

"I think the Border Patrol needs to get closer to the community, particularly the Latino community," said Bob Burgreen, outgoing police chief in San Diego. "I don't think we can have law enforcement agencies that separate themselves from the people."

A coalition of elected officials and activists is pushing the Clinton Administration to create a civilian review commission--unprecedented for a federal law enforcement agency--to investigate allegations against officers.

"I think there's a need for better oversight of the Border Patrol, given the abuse that's occurred or been reported," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles).

In the two largest U.S. border cities, leaders took initial steps last year toward community input into Border Patrol operations. The El Paso City Council set up its own "accountability" commission, while a blue-ribbon panel convened by Burgreen recommended some type of civilian involvement in San Diego.

Border Patrol Chief Michael Williams said he opposes civilian oversight but endorses non-investigative community advisory boards whose members may "not necessarily agree with the Border Patrol . . . but who will act responsibly."

Underlying the Border Patrol's troubles is its muddled mission. National policy calls for controlled immigration, but the government chooses not to pay for all the agents needed to approach the formidable goal. The public clamors for a crackdown on illegal immigration, but employers welcome the cheap labor.

"If we wanted to stop illegal immigration, we could," former Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Gene McNary said. "We could stop it within a week. We don't do it, because we're diplomats."

Burgreen calls the agents' job "almost insanity," adding: "What this breeds is a contempt for the system in the minds of the officers, in the sense that it's usually a useless, senseless game-playing. . . . How you resist becoming calloused to people I don't know."

Would-be reformers seek to improve the patrol's haphazard internal discipline process and intensify scrutiny by outside watchdogs, particularly the Justice Department's inspector general's office, which monitors the patrol and other agencies.

Inspector General Richard J. Hankinson told a congressional panel recently that discipline throughout the INS--the patrol's parent agency--is "spotty" and "uneven," allowing violators to elude punishment or delay it for months or years.

Lack of oversight personnel, despite recent increases, remains a reason why the disciplinary machinery grinds at a torpid pace. "Clearly we want to do a better job of making this response as rapidly as possible," Hankinson said in an interview.

To help identify potentially abusive Border Patrol officers, the inspector general has begun tracking complaints against agents. Inspectors have also instituted a toll-free number to field reports about abuse and have improved cooperation with Mexican consulates, which help find victims and witnesses.

The Border Patrol has also made some reforms in the wake of community criticism.

After the Bowie High School decision, chiefs in El Paso unveiled a new bilingual complaint form and a brochure explaining how to file complaints.

And after last year's high-speed chase and crash that left six dead near the Temecula immigration checkpoint, management revamped policies in a way that reduced the number of pursuits. Since 1980, at least 35 people have died in Border Patrol pursuits.

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