"Do you have your papers?" As if Forks were in Eastern Europe 60 years ago.
After all that outcry about Arizona turning into a “show me your papers” police state, it turns out it was nothing compared with what was going on right here in Forks.
Yes, Forks. The old logging town turned “Twilight” tour stop on the Olympic Peninsula. The one whose source of pride is that it’s nowhere near the center of anything, especially the hot-button issues of the day.
Yet Forks is where, of late, you could be walking down the sidewalk minding your own business and be asked, out of the blue, to justify your Americanness.
“Tienes papeles?” a federal agent allegedly asked a high-school student, who was walking with his mother outside the Clallam County District court building in Forks.
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“Do you have your papers?” As if Forks were in Eastern Europe 60 years ago.
The student, Ismael Ramos-Contreras, turned out to be a born-and-raised U.S. citizen. Not to mention the student-body president at Forks High School, a checker at the town Thriftway, and bound next fall to Western Washington University.
Ramos-Contreras is one of three U.S. citizens who sued the U.S. Border Patrol last week for making stops like this without cause. Most of the stops occurred when they were driving on Highway 101 outside Forks.
Ramos-Contreras has been stopped twice. The guy stopped the most — three times — is a guard at the state prison outside Forks (whoops again!). Twice the agents said they pulled over his car because its windows were tinted (though the driver’s window was not).
What is definitely tinted is the skin of the three men.
The Border Patrol’s activities in Forks started out as perplexing but have evolved into something disturbing. It began in 2007, with the sudden appearance of car checkpoints on the highway there. The Border Patrol was pulling over every car and questioning the occupants.
I wrote a column about it at the time, basically saying “huh?” The patrol insisted they were hunting terrorists. Not by clamping down on border crossings. By stopping traffic in Forks.
“We are working on many initiatives to secure the border from a breach by terrorists or terrorist weapons of mass destruction,” an agent told me then. “This is just one of those initiatives.”
Nobody believed it. About a year later, the patrol acknowledged they were really doing immigration control. That’s fine — it’s part of their job. But the checkpoints, not near any border crossing, were so annoying to locals going about their daily lives that in 2009 the patrol dropped them.
They were replaced with something worse: “roving patrol stops.” At least the checkpoints equitably hoovered up everyone. In the new policy, the feds apparently go around stopping people for nothing more egregious than driving with tinted windows.
Even the Arizona law, the much-debated SB 1070, doesn’t go that far. People there could be questioned about their citizenship, but only after a “lawful stop, detention or arrest” for another crime.
Attorneys for the Forks Three — a team that includes Perkins Coie, Seattle’s heavyweight corporate law firm — contend that not even the feds can stop you away from the border without “clear, reasonable suspicion.”
“From a civil-rights standpoint, Forks is definitely worse than Arizona,” says Matt Adams, legal director of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
Why is this happening, here of all places?
The speculation is the Border Patrol here is overstuffed with post-9/11 money and can’t find ways to spend it. Last year a local agent went public that the Port Angeles office is so overstaffed the agents now drive aimlessly around the peninsula, bored and looking for ways to justify their existence.
So I have a proposed new mission for them: Start a dragnet for illegal Canadians.
Supposedly there are 75,000 of these “illegal eh-liens” living among us. Start some roving patrols in, say, downtown Seattle. Or outside hockey games in Kent. Just as you’re doing with tinted people in Forks, start asking for the papers of those who appear to fit the Canadian profile.
That’d be the end of our glut of Border Patrol agents.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.