PORTLAND, Maine — The U.S. Border Patrol’s suspicions about a family were aroused because they appeared to be of “Central-American origin” and because they spoke Spanish while shopping at a store in Maine, an advocacy group complained Monday.
An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine described the agent’s comments, outlined in a Border Patrol affidavit in federal court, as “textbook racial profiling.”
“We’ve known for a long time that the Border Patrol uses racial profiling in deciding who to question. This is an example where they’ve been explicit about it, saying they’re approaching people based on the color of their skin and the language they’re speaking,” attorney Emma Bond said.
A New England spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined to comment.
The Sept. 19 episode, which was first reported by the Bangor Daily News, unfolded when two agents saw a family entering a Goodwill store in Bangor, Maine.
The affidavit said agents on patrol “observed a group of people who appeared to be of Central-American origin.” Then one of the agents “overhead several people speaking in Spanish” in the store, the affidavit said. Agents then questioned the family.
After leaving the store, Mateo Carmelo-Bartolo, 31, of Guatemala, was arrested after he admitted to agents that he was in the country illegally, the Border Patrol said.
Carmelo-Bartolo remained in detention on Monday. His attorney, Ronald Bourget, said he was not ready to discuss the case.
The U.S. Supreme Court bans profiling based solely on race, and Bond said she’s never seen a Border Patrol agent make the sort of acknowledgment in an affidavit that this one did.
In Montana, two women who say they were questioned and detained for 40 minutes for speaking Spanish in 2018 sued. The agent’s only reason for doing so, they said, was because of the language they were speaking while waiting in line to buy milk and eggs.
The women, who are U.S. citizens, contend the agent’s actions violated their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures and their Fifth Amendment right to due process. The agency is seeking to dismiss the lawsuit.
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The Maine case comes as the Border Patrol has increased highway checkpoints, bus station checks and other activities farther from the Canadian border under Chief Patrol Agent Jason Owens, who assumed his duties last winter at the U.S. Border Patrol in Houlton.
According to law, the Border Patrol can conduct operations like those within 100 miles (160 kilometers) of the borders, even though agents have authority in all 50 states. Those parameters allow such operations across the entire state of Maine.