Immigration agents do not belong on Greyhound buses

Immigration agents do not belong on Greyhound buses
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On its website, Greyhound Lines announces, “There’s a lot to like on our new buses.”  Unfortunately for some passengers, that has included more than amenities like wi-fi and comfortable seats. Immigration agents can sometimes be found on Greyhound buses too, searching for undocumented immigrants. So last week, a coalition of American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapters wrote a letter to the bus company, asking them to stop allowing agents to randomly board buses and flag passengers for citizenship checks. Greyhound said recently that it is “required” to “cooperate with Customs and Border Protection (agents) if they ask to board our buses.”      

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Greyhound is caught in the awkward position of trying to look out for its customers while complying with the law. But, as the ACLU argued, Greyhound can legally deny agents access to its buses. The company should do the right thing and adjust its practices, because its passengers do not deserve to be subjected to racial profiling and violations of their constitutional rights. 

The ACLU letter to Greyhound was prompted by a string of incidents across the country involving Border Patrol agents conducting bus raids. In February, a California man was stopped from boarding a Greyhound bus and detained because, agents told him, “his shoes looked suspicious.”  In January, a video of a Jamaican grandmother being forcibly removed from a bus in Florida was captured on video and went viral. Last year, Border Patrol agents boarded a bus as it arrived in Boston from Vermont.  They would not allow anyone to leave the bus until they had checked the IDs of riders who “had accents or were not white.”

These types of episodes are troubling, because Americans are generally not required to carry around identification or proof of citizenship. Less than half of Americans (42 percent) hold a passport, and driver’s licenses are not always accepted as proof of citizenship, as some states allow undocumented immigrants to obtain them.  

The problem here is that Greyhound seems to be deferring to Border Patrol agents when in fact it is not required to do so. The Department of Justice has given Border Patrol agents authority to conduct immigration checks on people anywhere within 100 miles of a U.S. border. Where things get dicey is when we consider the scope of this 100-mile rule. Two hundred million Americans, or about two-thirds of the population, live within 100 miles of the border. This zone includes the entire states of Florida, New Jersey, and Delaware, as well as cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. 

However, as the ACLU letter notes, the authority of agencies like Customs and Border Protection is subject to limits, specifically Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizures.  As the Supreme Court noted in the Almeida-Sanchez case (1973), “No act of Congress can authorize a violation of the Constitution.”  Similarly, the decision in the US. v. Brignoni-Ponce case (1975) held that Border Patrol agents could not stop people randomly within the 100-mile zone without probable cause.  In short, if Border Patrol agents want to question Greyhound passengers, they need to obtain a warrant to do so.  Absent such a warrant, the company is not obliged to let federal agents access their vehicles, except at the physical border.  

“We have no room for discrimination,” it says on the Greyhound website. “We’re not concerned about your race, your color, what you believe or where you’re from. We just want to get you safely to your destination.” These are commendable corporate ideals, and the company should live up to them. When Greyhound allows Border Patrol agents to apparently board its buses without a warrant, it is opening the door to racial profiling and harassment of Latinos and Spanish-speaking passengers.

Consider that data collected by the ACLU of Michigan showed that 82 percent of people stopped by Customs and Border Protection agents on buses in Michigan were Latino, and a third of those singled out were U.S. citizens.  Or that that between 2006 and 2010, the Border Patrol mistakenly arrested almost 300 people with legal status at the Rochester bus station.     

By requiring Border Patrol agents to have probable cause for boarding their buses, along with the requisite warrant, Greyhound can fully comply with applicable law and protect the civil rights of its passengers.  After all, the company is in the transportation — not deportation — business. 

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes.