SEATTLE - U.S. Border Patrol agents will no longer serve as interpreters when local law enforcement agencies request language help, according to a new decree issued by the Department of Homeland Security.
The new guidance said agents should refer such requests to private services often used by government agencies.
Seeking language help is a common practice among local law enforcement agencies in Washington state. If a person is pulled over and can only speak Spanish, the U.S. Border Patrol is often called.
However, immigration advocates complain that Border Patrol agents ask people questions about immigration and in some cases arrest people suspected of being in the country illegally.
"The concept of language access should be without people being questioned about their immigration status," said Jorge Baron, executive director of the Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, a legal aid organization.
Immigrants have grown apprehensive about calling local law enforcement agencies if they knew the Border Patrol is going to respond, he said.
The new Border Patrol guidance should help, even though it leaves agents some room for decision-making, he said.
The Border Patrol said last week it is trying to use its resources efficiently.
"The new guidance related to requests for translation services helps further focus CBP efforts on its primary mission to secure our nation's borders." a statement by Customs and Border Protection said.
"CBP remains committed to assisting our law enforcement partners in their enforcement efforts."
The Northwest Immigrant Rights Project sent a letter in May to the Department of Justice and Homeland Security saying the interpreting practice violated the Civil Rights Act.
The letter included dashboard camera video in which a Border Patrol agent is heard using a derogatory term for undocumented immigrants.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush ordered U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, to beef up its presence on the U.S.-Canada border, which is almost twice as long as the U.S.-Mexico border.
In 2007, the northern border had about 1,100 agents. Now it has more than 2,200. In the same period, the number of agents in the Blaine sector, which covers the border west of the Cascades, went from 133 to 331.
Along with providing language services, Border Patrol agents often assist local law agencies that are short on personnel and equipment. In addition, highway checkpoints have been implemented. On the southern U.S. border, the ability to speak Spanish is prevalent among local law enforcement agencies.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Northwest Immigrant Rights Project filed a lawsuit earlier this year seeking to bar Border Patrol agents from doing traffic stops on the Olympic Peninsula, claiming people were being pulled over and questioned over the way they look and without reasonable suspicion.
The lawsuit is pending.
The Border Patrol has denied any discrimination.
Representatives of the National Border Patrol Council did not immediately return a message seeking comment. It previously argued that federal officials are buckling to political pressure from advocacy groups.
In May, union vice president Shawn Moran said traffic stops are a basic tool for agents trying to catch terrorists, undocumented immigrants and drug smugglers.