The U.S. Border Patrol is finally shutting down its Riverside office in March, more than a year after its scheduled closure.
The Border Patrol announced in mid-2012 it would close stations in Riverside and eight other interior locations by the beginning of 2013 so agents could be transferred to offices closer to the border.
The nine Riverside agents will be transferred to the Murrieta station. An agent in the office, Tony Plattel, said there are currently nine agents in Riverside, including two supervisors. The Border Patrol declined to confirm whether that number is correct.
Immigrant-rights activists praised the closure of the Riverside office, which was the site of protests in 2009 over allegations of arrest quotas that led to racial profiling. The Border Patrol denied there were arrest quotas.
Anti-illegal-immigration groups blasted the move, saying it will allow more drug smugglers and other criminals to go free.
The office has been open since 1967.
The delay in the closure was because of continuing disputes over the federal budget, said Plattel, who is the representative in the Riverside office for Local 2554 of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents agents.
On Thursday morning, I asked the Border Patrol why the closure was postponed, and on Friday afternoon I got this written response: “The closure involved a process that has to take multiple realms into consideration such as Congressional involvement and logistics well evaluated prior to execution.”
To be honest, I have no idea what that means, so I asked for clarification. I’m still waiting (the agency told me they need more time for a further response).
The March closure will come after what Lombardo Amaya, president of Local 2554, said was a huge drop in recent years in the number of arrests made by Riverside-based agents, from 285 in 2010 to nine in the first nine months of 2013.
(The Border Patrol said Riverside agents arrested 17 people in fiscal year 2013, which ended in September; the agency has not yet provided me with earlier statistics for Riverside.).
The decrease in arrests came after agents were diverted from areas where many immigrant criminals had been previously arrested to areas where few were caught, Plattel said.
Over the years, agents had arrested hundreds of people on Interstate 40 in Barstow and at the San Bernardino Greyhound station, he said.
But during much of 2012 and 2013, agents instead were told to patrol Interstate 10 near Banning and Cabazon, where far fewer apprehensions were made, Plattel said.
“That Barstow I-40 corridor is wide open,” Plattel said. “There are no checkpoints there.”
Barstow is nearly 200 miles from the Mexican border. But Plattel said many drug smugglers and human smugglers travel along I-40.
I asked the Border Patrol for confirmation that Riverside agents were told to patrol I-10 near Banning rather than Barstow or the San Bernardino Greyhound station – and if so, why – but haven’t received a response yet.
Amaya alleged that the diversion of agents was to deliberately reduce the number of arrests by Riverside agents – to justify the closing of the Riverside station.
Plattel said an agent once asked a supervisor why they were no longer patrolling Barstow. Agents were told Barstow was too far, and not going there would conserve gas and prevent wear and tear on vehicles, he said.
Plattel said the one recent exception to the Barstow policy was in late 2013, when, he said, the Riverside station became a substation of the Indio Border Patrol station. Agents from Indio and Riverside then conducted two weeks of operations in the Barstow area, leading to more than 100 arrests, Plattel said.
The San Bernardino Greyhound station had been a controversial site for Border Patrol surveillance, especially in 2008 and 2009. Immigrant-rights groups had complained that many undocumented immigrants who are not criminals were arrested, despite an Obama administration focus on apprehending criminals.
Plattel and Amaya told me in 2009 that pressure to increase arrests starting in 2007 had led to racial profiling at places like the Greyhound stations. Agents stopped large numbers of Latinos rather than focus on trying to detect criminals, to pump up arrest numbers, they said. The Border Patrol in 2009 denied racial profiling was occurring.
Plattel said agents later were able to focus again on criminals until the agency stopped surveillance at the Greyhound station.
The bus station is a prime spot to apprehend criminals living in the country illegally because many of them use buses instead of cars, Plattel said. They believe “it’s a way to be more under the radar,” he said.
Reactions to the announcement that the Riverside office will finally close have been mixed.
Joe Guzzardi, spokesman for the anti-illegal-immigration Californians for Population Stabilization, said the move was part of a weakening of immigration-law enforcement under the Obama administration.
“We think internal enforcement is being overlooked, underutilized and should be a part of serious immigration-law enforcement…,” he said. “Strong internal enforcement is very important, and it shouldn’t come at the expense of the border.”
But Emilio Amaya, executive director of the San BernardinoCommunityServiceCenter, an immigrant-assistance agency, called the closure “a step in the right direction. They should focus more on the border than the Inland communities.”
Amaya, who is not related to Lombardo Amaya, was one of the immigrant-rights activists who had accused the Border Patrol of racial profiling and of arresting day laborers and other undocumented immigrants who hadn’t committed crimes. Amaya said reports of random stops of immigrants in the Riverside-San Bernardino area have declined in recent years, but he still receives reports of random stops of day laborers occurring in Lake Elsinore and other areas patrolled by Murrieta-based agents. He and other activists are planning a Wednesday demonstration in front of the Murrieta station to protest the alleged arrests. There was a similar protest in March that I covered.
Late Monday afternoon, I asked the San Diego Border Patrol sector, which includes Murrieta, for a response but haven’t yet received one. In March, the Border Patrol declined to respond to protesters’ allegations that agents raid Inland day-labor sites and stop Latino workers and ask for identification.