Border Patrol Officers Rewarded For Arrests With Gift Cards: Report

01/31/2013 05:33 pm ET

The lure of bonus pay and extra vacation time perhaps drove border patrol agents in western New York to arrest hundreds of people that were in the country legally, a new report finds.

Over five years, Border guards patrolling Rochester's bus and train stations arrested about 300 people who weren't suspected of any other crime, but weren't carrying complete citizenship or immigration papers, according to a report released this week by the immigrant rights group Families for Freedom and the New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic.

"The border patrol thinks that you can be expected to carry your passport at all times," said NYU School of Law Professor Nancy Morawetz, a co-author of the report. "You can put the pieces together and see the encouragement of reckless arrests -- arresting first and asking questions later."

The Rochester agents reported to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol sector in Buffalo, where the workplace culture emphasized making high numbers of arrests, researchers said.

Supervisors dispensed bonus pay of up to $2,500 per year, a week's worth of extra vacation time and $100 gift cards to retailers like Home Depot. In depositions cited in the report, border patrol managers provided little explanation for what criteria went into distributing the rewards.

The agency's rewards programs are relatively new and have seen tremendous growth. The bonus pay budget was almost $200,000 in 2011, compared to $5,000 in 2003, the report says. The office introduced the vacation award in 2009 with a pie of 400 hours to be divided up. In 2011, there were more than 1,000 vacation hours available for the taking.

The researchers fear the incentive of extra pay and time off from work possibly contributed to overzealous stops and wrongful arrests. "A law enforcement agency that focuses on arrests allows the agents to operate in a way that harasses people in the community," said Morawetz. "These law enforcement officers have enormous power over people's liberty."

Agents on patrol were encouraged to engage travelers in what border patrol officials called "consensual, non-intrusive conversations." They asked people about their national origins and immigration status. Depending on the answers, people could be arrested or detained for formal questioning.

Swept up in the tide were college students, skilled foreign-born workers and tourists stopped by border guards, the report found.

The researchers say the potential for racial profiling is obvious. Topping the list of the wrongly arrested were 33 people from China and 30 from India. Significant numbers were from Latin America, the West Indies, Africa and other Asian countries, according to the report.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol declined to answer questions about the report, but provided a statement:

CBP officers and Border Patrol Agents protect border security, while facilitating trade and travel, and do so while preserving the civil rights and civil liberties of all people with whom the officers and agents interact. CBP does not tolerate racial profiling. Our officers and agents are trained in how to recognize people and situations that present a potential threat or violation of law without regard to race. No such practice of paid incentives and awards for specific human targets or enforcement actions has ever occurred within the Border Patrol, nor will it ever occur within the ranks of any CBP component.

Families for Freedom teamed up with Morawetz after hearing complaints a few years ago that people were being unfairly targeted by border patrol agents in upstate New York. This is the second report the partners have released assailing the border patrol's practices.

Contrary to court statements previously made by officials, the report revealed that the New York state border patrol offices kept detailed records of arrest statistics. In 2011, wrongful lockups at the Rochester train and bus hubs accounted for more than 10 percent of all arrests made at those sites, according to border patrol records obtained by the researchers.

The agency's Buffalo sector covers a 450-mile stretch of the U.S. border from western Pennsylvania to northern New York, near the source of the St. Lawrence River. Its jurisdiction extends south to include all of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, as well as much of western New York.

The report's authors say the arrests made in Rochester show that the border patrol's active presence goes far beyond stopping illegal entries along international borders, and they worry there could be systemic flaws in border patrol offices throughout the country.

"The documents show that USBP agents act on the assumption that no matter where they operate within the United States, they may arrest any noncitizen," the report says. "USBP's demand for 'papers' is universal, resulting in an enforcement culture that maximizes arrest rates."

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