PORT CLINTON -- U.S. Border Patrol agents who operate in Northern Ohio have been accused of making racially motivated stops targeting Latinos and using ethnic slurs to describe those they stop, according to court documents.
The allegations come as a new study found that Border Patrol agents in Buffalo and Upstate New York received cash bonuses of up to $2,500, or an extra week of vacation, for busting people they suspect are in the country illegally -- even when it turned out the agents were wrong.
"You're paying someone to go out and make an arrest," said immigration attorney Philip Eichorn, who also teaches at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. "I don't have any doubt that it's happening here (in Ohio)."
The Department of Homeland Security opened the Sandusky Bay station in 2008 to patrol the Lake Erie shoreline area from Cleveland to Toledo.
Since then, Border Patrol agents have established themselves as a major presence on the Ohio Turnpike and Route 2, and can often be spotted driving in western suburbs, like Westlake, Avon and Avon Lake.
But two federal lawsuits, including one filed last fall, say that Border Patrol agents began racially profiling Latinos -- meaning they targeted them solely on the basis of their skin color or appearance -- as soon as they opened.
"Agents...are engaged in a pattern or practice of restraining, interrogating, and arresting persons regarding their immigration status based on their being Hispanic," attorneys wrote, in a 2009 lawsuit.
"These seizures and interrogations have taken place in bus stations, gas stations, retail establishments, during traffic stops, (and) at soccer games."
The federal agents have also enlisted the help of local police departments, according to the lawsuits, which specifically identified police departments in Wakeman, Norwalk, Attica and Plymouth.
Ernestina Leon says she's been pulled over several times by Wakeman police for no good reason while driving through Wakeman.
"One time they stopped me because I followed the car really close, but that's not true," she said. "I think they just see the face and the color" (of her skin).
Border Patrol denied the allegations in court documents, saying the attorneys suing them have not identified any policy or procedure that violated the rights of the plaintiffs.
But court documents quote internal memos and emails where agents routinely use the terms "wets" and "wetbacks" to describe Hispanics.
Some agents said use of such terms is "part of our culture," according to court documents. And the agent in charge admitted he has never "reprimanded any of the agents he supervises for using the term."
A study by a Bowling Green State University expert found that 83 percent of the Border Patrol's apprehensions in 2011 targeted Hispanics. The percentage of Hispanics apprehended in prior years was much higher -- 96.4 in 2009 and 86.5 in 2010.
By comparison, less than a quarter of 1 percent of those stopped by Border Patrol was Canadian, noted the expert, who was hired by plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
And in an unrelated lawsuit alleging wrongful termination, a former Border Patrol agent accuses fellow agents of being racist and targeting minorities. The ex-agent also says he was called 11 different racial slurs.
"Along the northern border of Ohio, there are very heavily populated pockets of Hispanic people and, unfortunately, they're being targeted," said Eichorn, who is not associated with the lawsuits.
"You are not allowed to racially profile. Period. That's the bottom line."
Attorneys for police departments in Wakeman, Norwalk, Attica and Plymouth have all denied wrongdoing, saying they either were legitimately stopping motorists who broke the law or were assisting Border Patrol agents in their duties.
Norwalk, Attica and Plymouth, who were sued in 2009, were eventually dropped from that lawsuit after reaching an agreement to provide documents and interviews to those suing Border Patrol.
That lawsuit, which centered on five Hispanics who claimed local police and Border Patrol asked them for their "papers" after stopping them while driving or walking, was dismissed in October and is currently on appeal in the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The federal trial court judge said he did not have jurisdiction to hear the case.
The second lawsuit, which was filed last September, accused Wakeman police of stopping a car with five Hispanic occupants for no reason and asking them for papers.
The five were traveling from Norwalk to their job at a farm in Oberlin when they were stopped soley "based on their complexion and hair color," the lawsuit alleged. When the driver told the Wakeman officer that her driver's license and other documents were at home, the officer asked them to wait and contacted Border Patrol.
Two agents arrived about a half hour later and asked them where they were from. When they twice replied Norwalk, one of the agents opened a car door, pulled the man out and handcuffed him, the lawsuit said.
The agents eventually took them back to the Sandusky Bay station where they interrogated them for several hours, sometime using abusive language, the lawsuit alleged. "One agent told the individuals in Spanish, 'I did not invite you to my house. You all came without an invitation. So you're (expletive).'"
The five were eventually taken to the Seneca County Jail in Tiffin for immigration detention. Four of them later filed the lawsuit.
House Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH9) says she's offered to bring Hispanics and Border Patrol administrators together. Her office has talked to the special-agent-in-charge about the complaints.
Likewise, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said there's no place for racial slurs, especially among public servants. If the allegations prove true, he said swift action should be taken to stop this type of behavior.