Plaintiffs say U.S. agents used racist terms

Border Protection accused of profiling area Hispanics
BLADE STAFF WRITER * U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents not only tolerated but fostered systemic racism by profiling Hispanic subjects and by using racially charged terms to describe those people, an attorney for plaintiffs in a federal discrimination case argued in court in Toledo on Tuesday.

John Murray, attorney for the plaintiffs suing the Border Patrol made the accusations during opening statements in U.S. District Court. 

He and attorneys for the defendants addressed key claims of the lawsuit, including the use of derogatory terms by border patrol agents and the legality of stops and seizures by agents at the Sandusky Bay Station in Port Clinton.

The organizational plaintiffs, Farm Labor Organizing Committee, and Immigrant Worker Project are represented by Advocates for Basic Legal Equality and the Sandusky law firm Murray and Murray. U.S. Customs and Border Protection is represented by attorneys from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The bench trial is presided over by Judge Jack Zouhary in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Western Division.

Mr. Murray said the border patrol profiled Hispanics for search and apprehension and that agents used “racially charged” terms to “diminish the humanity” of Hispanics. The plaintiffs introduced border patrol email correspondence using the word “wet” or “wets” a shorthand for the term “wetbacks.”

Attorneys for the defense refuted claims of systemic racism or profiling.

“Racial profiling has no place in law enforcement,” defense attorney William Silvis said. He said the evidence would not show border patrol agents actively targeted any specific group, and they were within their legal rights for all searches and apprehensions.

In opening statements, the defense said the increased patrols that came with the Sandusky station’s opening are necessary to guard the border with Canada. He said denied the term “wet” or “wets” was related to race and said the term referred to legal status and not a group of people of any ethnicity.

Outside the courthouse, FLOC organizers hosted a noon rally to show support for the trial and voice opposition to racial profiling by border patrol and local police agencies.

FLOC organizer Ramon Perez estimated about 200 people attended, including groups from Cleveland, Akron, Lorain, Norwalk, and Painesville. Several dozen people, including many youths, wore FLOC shirts and waved flags with the union’s logo. Others came with American flags and handmade signs.

As the rally concluded, several members of Toledo Police, including Chief George Kral, mingled with the crowd.

Baldemar Velasquez, FLOC president, addressed the crowd shortly before returning to the courtroom to testify.

Inside the courtroom, Mr. Velasquez testified that the presence of border patrol, colloquially referred to as “immigration,” or “la migra,” has a “chilling effect” on agricultural businesses in Northwest Ohio. Since the station opened in 2009, profiling has driving out laborers who have been stopped or questioned by border patrol about their immigration status, he said. He cited one produce operation that moved to South Carolina outside the patrol boundaries of border patrol.

“That’s the boogeyman in our community,” Mr. Velasquez said. “Those guys in the green uniforms. The border patrol.”

Mr. Velasquez testified that he has always understood the term “wets” to be a derogatory term for people of Mexican descent.

Two witnesses for the plaintiffs, Willian Bautista-Morales and Edson Perez-Perez testified through an interpreter about encounters they had with officers from border patrol, Ohio Highway Patrol, and Huron Police.

The trial is to resume today before Judge Zouhary and is scheduled to last two weeks.