WASHINGTON — With nonstop tension along the Mexican border, it’s easy to forget the relatively tranquil boundary with Canada can also be the scene of serious problems.

A study by the Michigan ACLU shows how the Border Patrol operates far from the border and considers the entire state of Michigan to be within the agency’s operational zone. The report accuses the agency of using that broad reach “to instill fear in Michigan’s immigrant communities” through racial profiling and over-policing.

This report was issued just two weeks after a March racial profiling lawsuit lodged by three Customs and Border Protection officers in Port Huron, Mich. It charged the agency with targeting African American drivers, while discriminating and retaliating against Black officers who protested that treatment.

The ACLU, along with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, Geoffrey Alan Boyce of Earlham College and Elizabeth Oglesby of the University of Arizona, obtained thousands of pages of documents through a 2015 Freedom of Information Act request, followed by years of litigation. Among the documents were 13,239 Detroit-sector daily apprehension logs from 2012 to 2018.

Researchers found that 85% of noncitizens apprehended by the Border Patrol in Michigan in that period were from Latin America — even though more than 70% of those arrested in the state attempting to enter the United States without authorization from Canada were Canadian citizens or originally from Europe.

Driving while brown or Black is a key reason for being stopped by the Border Patrol, according to the report.


“Whatever people of color do when driving near a Border Patrol vehicle is used as a pretext to pull them over,” it said, citing a “close evaluation” of the documents. In more than three-quarters of roving patrol arrests, “no matter how drivers of color react — whether they look at and acknowledge an agent, or do not look at or acknowledge an agent, or whether they speed up or slow down — that action is recorded as ‘suspicious’ and is used to justify an investigatory vehicle stop.”

The agency’s color consciousness bolsters its “blatant racial profiling,” according to the ACLU. A 2015 CBP chart printed in the report has 13 categories of skin color, listed alphabetically from albino to yellow. “Tellingly,” the report says, “more than 96% of those apprehended” were identified as “Black,” “Dark Brown,” “Dark,” “Light Brown,” “Medium Brown,” “Medium,” or “Yellow.” Among those stopped by roving patrols and transit checks, the discrepancy was even sharper, with only 1.5% of those cases involving a “Light” complexion person. The remaining 98% had “Medium” or “Medium Brown” complexion.

In nearly one-fifth of roving patrol and transit arrests, agents used speaking Spanish or another foreign language as the reasonable suspicion behind an investigation or arrest, the ACLU found.

Despite its name, the Border Patrol is active well beyond the border. It can board and search vehicles within 100 miles of U.S. boundaries. Yet the Border Patrol deems the entire state of Michigan within the 100 miles because Lake Michigan is considered an international waterway even though it does not border Canada or any foreign country. CBP did not explain why.

Nationally, only 1.8% of Border Patrol agents were African American, as of July 3, according to agency data. Nearly half, 47.9%, were Hispanic or Latino.

Responding to the ACLU report, a Border Patrol statement said it is agency policy “to prohibit the consideration of race or ethnicity in law enforcement, investigation, and screening activities, in all but the most exceptional circumstances. As such, CBP is fully committed to the fair, impartial and respectful treatment of all members of the trade and traveling public.”


Despite the policy, the Border Patrol nationally suffers “a persistent culture of racism,” according to a February American Immigration Council report. It cited text messages from a Border Patrol agent who was sentenced only to probation after running over a migrant with a pickup truck near Nogales, Ariz. The agent’s texts described Latinos as “savages,” and “subhuman s—” and the controversial “tonks.” His lawyer simultaneously defended the agent and unwittingly supported racist accusations against the agency by saying “tonk,” which has various interpretations, “is commonplace throughout the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, that it is part of the agency’s culture.”

The ACLU is working with CBP to change that image. ACLU attorney Monica Andrade, a co-author of the report, said the two organizations are engaged in discussions over ACLU recommendations, which include developing constitutional guidance for agents on reasonable suspicion for traffic stops.

The ACLU has already seen action from the Michigan State Police, which often works with the Border Patrol. The State Police issued a policy directive in April instructing its agents not to inquire about a person’s immigration or citizenship status or initiate or prolong a traffic stop to determine a person’s status unless that information is needed for another legitimate purpose, such as a criminal investigation.

“No one should have to live in fear of being targeted by law enforcement agencies because of the color of their skin or the language they speak,” Andrade said, “but, as the report reveals, that is exactly what’s happening in Michigan because of Border Patrol’s rampant use of racial profiling.”