Spokane vs. the Border Patrol

How immigration agents stake out a city bus station.


This story was originally published by The Intercept and is republished here with permission. 

“The whole wall thing, I think that’s what really beefed it up,” the Greyhound bus driver told me at the end of her shift. She was referring to the sudden increase in Border Patrol agents boarding buses and pulling passengers off for questioning in Spokane — a friendly, midsize city on the eastern edge of Washington state, and nobody’s idea of a border town. 

Amid the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement crackdown, the Border Patrol has stepped up raids on Greyhound buses nationwide, combatting what the agency claims is a “growing threat” of “alien smuggling and drug trafficking organizations to move people, narcotics, and contraband to interior destinations.”

At the Spokane Intermodal Center an armed Border Patrol agent blocks the front exit of the bus while his armed colleague interrogated passengers on the bus.
Courtesy of David Broodbank

The Spokane bus station would hardly seem to be a hotbed of such activity. Next door to an Air Force base and home to Gonzaga University, Spokane is predominately white and politically conservative compared to stereotypes of the Pacific Northwest. Ask about life along the border, and people may assume you are referring to the border with Idaho.

Nonetheless, three or four days a week, Border Patrol agents from the Spokane sector — a unit tasked with guarding 300 miles of “rugged and often remote” frontier between the U.S. and Canada — cruise through downtown Spokane a little after 4 p.m. They’re on their way to meet evening buses from the Spokane Intermodal Center, as the bus depot is called.

Border Patrol agents are drawn to the bus station “because they’re harassing people of color and low-income,” people, said Jennyfer Mesa, who founded a networking group called Latinos en Spokane. She pointed out that Washington is an agriculture state that brings in tens of thousands of seasonal workers each year, many of them from Mexico, for apple-picking and other jobs. Mesa and other volunteers have come to the bus depot to warn riders about the immigration raids, only to be pushed out — sometimes physically — by hostile bus depot employees. 

The Border Patrol agents “have been present at the station for a long time,” Mesa said. “They’re friends with the employees, they’re in the waiting rooms, they’re in the employee rooms, they have access to all the employee areas. It’s full teamwork.”

The bus station is owned by the city of Spokane, which rents the land out to Greyhound and some regional bus companies. None of the buses that stop there are arriving from Canada. In response to public outcry, last year the Spokane City Council passed an ordinance restricting the Border Patrol’s access to the bus depot. But the Border Patrol successfully argued that city officials couldn’t kick the agents out because Spokane is 97 miles — as the crow flies — from an international border. That puts it within the 100-mile interior enforcement zone where Customs and Border Protection, the Border Patrol’s parent agency, claims heightened powers over residents and travelers alike.

Agents have arrested 71 people at the Spokane bus depot this year, more than twice as many as they averaged in prior years. 

Since the city’s attempt to rein it in, the Border Patrol has only increased enforcement actions on buses: Agents have arrested 71 people at the Spokane bus depot this year, more than twice as many as they averaged in prior years. None were “alien” smugglers or drug traffickers, as the Spokane Sector’s press office admitted in an interview. An unknown number of people have been pulled off buses and interrogated in the effort. 

The surge in arrests pints to the indiscriminate nature of immigration enforcement under President Donald Trump. One local immigration attorney, who didn’t want their name printed so as not to affect their working relationship with CBP and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that about a third of their client base comes from the bus depot. They said that whatever orders come down from the federal government, agents on the ground, like those at the bus depot, should use their judgment. 

“What are we going to do? Are we going to use our discretion to target big offenders, or just go after everybody?” the attorney said. “Right now, it seems like we’re going after everybody.”

Despite the ongoing controversy, including several lawsuits accusing agents of racially profiling and harassing Greyhound riders, the Border Patrol continues its bus raids, relying on complicity from bus company personnel and passengers. For riders who can answer “yes” when asked if they are U.S. citizens, the armed federal agents can seem courteous or charming. The passengers in line for a bus to Montana this October didn’t appear concerned about the agents waiting to interview them before they boarded. One rider recalled how a bus full of white passengers started laughing when someone jokingly told an agent that he was “a fucking illegal.” But for nonwhite passengers, and those without citizenship, meeting an agent in Spokane can be traumatic and humiliating — or lead to deportation. 

A Border Patrol agent and Greyhound bus driver at Spokane’s bus and train Intermodal Center in late November.
Courtesy of David Broodbank
On the three occasions that Border Patrol agents boarded his bus to Seattle, Martin Negrete refused to talk to them, but he said it wasn’t easy. A professional organizer for the advocacy group United We Dream, who has legal status in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Negrete knew that agents needed his consent to interview him. He told them that he had a right to remain silent. “I had to literally say it four or five times,” he remembered. He stopped riding the bus after his last trip, when he witnessed Border Patrol agents escort two foreign exchange students from China and one man from El Salvador off his bus. (They were let back on after about half an hour, he recalled.)

“I have lived in a border town before,” Negrete said. “They’re treating Spokane like it’s a border town, which it’s not.” 

In 2017, Border Patrol agents in Spokane stopped Andres Sosa Segura, who had already been arrested and re- leased on bond over his immigration status. He handed the agents a card stating that he had a right to remain silent. The Border Patrol agents ignored it, as well as the fact that he was wearing an ankle monitor — proof that he had bonded out. They took him to federal detention and held him for four hours before finally letting him continue his trip, according to a lawsuit filed by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. (CBP declined to comment on litigation).

In January 2018, Martin Vera and his teenage son were arrested together during a bus transfer in Spokane. “I had DACA. They said it expired. They said Trump already took that away,” his son Sergio told a Seattle news station. Sergio was eventually released, but Vera was sent to federal detention, pending a deportation hearing. He hadn’t so much as received a speeding ticket during his 19 years in the United States, his family said. 

And in August 2018, Juan Santos-Bonilla accompanied his American wife on a drive from South Dakota to Seattle, for a new job she was taking on the West Coast. He was detained in Spokane on the bus ride back home. Santos-Bonilla is a woodworker from Mexico with a small YouTube following for his instructional videos, and he had been in the U.S. for 10 years. Though he was deported last November, his case has helped galvanize a local protest movement against the bus raids.

“Border Patrol’s activities are just a waste of taxpayer resources here in Spokane,” said Jim Dawson, an organizer and co-founder of the Spokane Immigrant Rights Coalition. 

Nearly 300 people packed the Spokane City Council chambers last October, with most there to support an ordinance crafted by then-City Council President Ben Stuckart, another councilman, and local advocacy groups. As it was written, the law would have stopped the Border Patrol and ICE from boarding buses without a warrant or written permission from the city. It passed 6 to 1. But shortly after, Spokane’s mayor, a Trump supporter, announced that he would not enforce the new law because of the station’s proximity to the border.

“They do not have to ask for our permission. And conversely, we cannot impede their work,” Mayor David Condon said in a prepared statement at the time.

This fall, Stuckart ran for mayor against Nadine Woodward, a former television anchor who has defended the agents as “doing an incredible service at the intermodal station when you see the arrests that they’re making with the illegals and especially in the drug trade.” Woodward won with just over 50 percent of the vote; she’ll be sworn in on December 30. (Her office has not returned messages about her policy going forward.) 

Portland comedian Mohanad Elshieky (who is now a digital producer on “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee”) told his Twitter followers that he had been ordered off a Greyhound bus in Spokane after he had told agents that he is a refugee from Libya. Elshieky had his work permit with him, but that didn’t seem to help. In the freezing weather, he said, the agents accused him of faking the paperwork and interrogated him for 20 minutes before allowing him to get back on the bus. Elshieky is now suing for wrongful detention.

The lawsuits from Elshieky and Sosa, both filed with the help of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, argue that Border Patrol agents are engaging in a pattern of racial discrimination at the bus depot. Local advocates say it’s obvious that the Border Patrol subjects people of color to more scrutiny than it does buses full of white folks, but statistics are hard to come by. The Border Patrol’s Spokane sector doesn’t regularly publicize the arrests they make, citing “privacy” concerns. The agency provided a list of the nationalities of people they had arrested at the bus depot this year, but declined to specify how many people from each country were arrested. 

Greyhound isn’t the only company that operates out of the Spokane Intermodal Center, but as the largest bus company in the country, it sets the standard for interactions with immigration enforcement. And around the country, Greyhound has come to play a particular role in today’s immigration politics. Along the Southern border, the Border Patrol has been known to drop recently arrived asylum-seekers en masse at Greyhound stations, and the recent increase in migrants from Central America has been an unexpected source of revenue for the company. At the same time, its passengers have been regularly targeted for random immigration checks. 

In numerous statements to the press, the company has claimed to be unhappy about the Border Patrol searches, saying that “Greyhound does not coordinate with CBP in regard to these checks, nor do we support these actions.”

But the American Civil Liberties Union and other legal experts say that without a warrant, Border Patrol agents need Greyhound’s explicit consent to be on Greyhound property. The agency appears to confirm this. “We work with consent from Greyhound when we board their buses,” Bill Kingsford, the Border Patrol Spokane sector special operations supervisor, told me in an emailed statement.

Greyhound is now under investigation by the Washington State Attorney General’s Office for allowing agents to board without warrants. In a May letter to the company, Attorney General Bob Ferguson demanded that Greyhound issue a statement clearly saying it does not and has never consented to the immigration sweeps. He also wanted
 Greyhound to post stickers on its buses
 saying the same, and to provide drivers with training and laminated cards that give notice of non- consent to searches. Passengers should receive a clear warning at ticket counters that border agents may interfere with travel, he added. (Greyhound said that the company offered to send a letter to the CBP as a “compromise” with the attorney general.) 

On October 1, under pressure from the attorney general’s office, Greyhound sent two corporate attorneys and a local manager to Spokane to meet with community members, many of whom had been kicked out of the bus station when they tried to distribute “know your rights” cards to riders or record agents. One volunteer activist, Karey White, recounted how local Greyhound employees slapped his phone out of his hand while he was filming the Border Patrol. In a video he captured, a ticketing agent who contracts for Greyhound tells him on camera, “If you film a Border Patrol agent, it is against federal law.” She later says that he is not allowed to film Greyhound’s buses. (Neither of these things are true, but filming in the station seems to touch a nerve. When I visited Spokane in October, a private security guard who saw me filming agents demanded to see my bus ticket and tried to place me in handcuffs.)

During the October meeting, Greyhound attorney Jesse Miller said it was the first time he had heard about local employees appearing to conspire with the Border Patrol. He said that there is a poster at the station that warns passengers about the Border Patrol and notifies them of their rights. (In early October, that poster was behind a barred ticket window, in a font too small to read. Greyhound said it recently added two larger posters at the station.)

Border Patrol agents wait at the front of a Greyhound bus.
Courtesy of David Broodbank

“There is kind of a high population of agents here in the Spokane area, and they aren’t leaving or going elsewhere in the United States,” Miller said at the meeting. “Do we think they need dozens of agents here? I mean, I don’t know. Probably not.”

Border Patrol spokesperson Bill Kingsford confirmed that an increase in manpower is the most immediate reason for the uptick in arrests. The Spokane sector opened a new office within city limits at the end of 2018, transferring 30 agents to town. 

In an interview, Kingsford said that the arrests at the bus depot have primarily been visa overstays and “regular people” that came to the United States without authorization. “We haven’t seen an increase of smuggling, drugs, of humans. It’s basically been a lot of the same that we’ve been having,” he said. “We’re doing it as, for lack of a better word, a preventative.”

The Greyhound bus driver finishing her shift in October joked about flirting with the agents, but she denied that drivers were sharing passenger information or otherwise coordinating with the Border Patrol. (She declined to give her name because she was not permitted to speak to the media.) The driver said that she likes the agents because they made her feel safe. At the same time, she said that the agents rarely arrest the people whom they pull off her buses. She also insisted that she had no choice but to allow them on board. 

“My guess is they’re usually looking for someone, that’s my guess. But they never ask me who’s on my bus, they never ask anything like that. In fact, I always tease them — in fact, I think I sexually harass them. But, you know, they’re a great group of guys, they’re just doing their job,” she said. “As an employee, there’s not much I can do. I can’t say, ‘No, you can’t come on my bus.’ ”

Asked why, she said, “You can’t tell the federal government, ‘No.’ ”

The Intercept is an award-winning nonprofit news organization dedicated to holding the powerful accountable through fearless, adversarial journalism. This story was originally published on November 23, 2019. Sign up for The Intercept’s Newsletter.

Amy Martyn is a writer and journalist who specializes in transportation, consumer news and environmental health stories. Originally from Los Angeles, she is currently based in Dallas, TX. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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