Immigration Law

Border Patrol Bus Searches: Passengers Have Right to Refuse to Answer Questions

Adiel Kaplan and Vanessa Swales, NBC News, June 5, 2019

"Mercedes Phelan was confused last April when Border Patrol agents boarded the Greyhound bus she was riding in Pennsylvania and asked her if she was a citizen.

Ten months later, when she says they asked the same thing on an Amtrak train in Syracuse, N.Y., she was mad.

"I was super angry because [they were] obviously profiling," said Phelan, who is black, Puerto Rican and a United States citizen. "They literally skipped over every single white person."

She says she watched agents walk down the aisles, stopping only when they saw a person of color, to ask: "Are you from here? Do you have papers?"

Bus and train travelers across the northern U.S. report being stopped, questioned and detained with increasing frequency since the first year of the Trump administration. That year, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, reversed an Obama-era decision to restrict approval for those operations.

In November 2017, according to emails obtained exclusively by the ACLU of Maine through a public records lawsuit and provided to NBC News, a Border Patrol official in Maine told agents they were ready to begin boarding buses and wished them "Happy hunting!"

... Agents "must not do or say anything that would cause a reasonable person to believe he wasn't free to end the encounter," according to a training presentation obtained by the ACLU of Maine. The presentation contains specific instructions that agents should not block the aisles or doors of vehicles they board.

The training materials also say "a bus passenger has the right to refuse consent to search and refuse to answer questions," but "the officer does not have to advise them of this right." "